Martino Gamper loves to cook. At the Italian designer’s laid-back Hackney, London, studio, the croissants are served with his homemade orange marmalade. Above the long dining table hang loose conical lampshades fashioned from Turkish flatbreads, wrapped around a bulb while they’re still fresh, the fastening bands removed once they’ve dried. The shades are prototypes from an event this spring in which Gamper transformed the fourth floor of London’s Aram Gallery into a monthlong installation called Total Trattoria, complete with a temporary kitchen for its dinner-party launch event. Everything about the environment, from the food to the furniture, coasters, and mouth-blown water jugs, was Gamper’s own design.
“I love that with cooking, once there’s heat, it’s spontaneous and instant,” says the 36-year-old. His own career has been a bit of a slow burn. At his Royal College of Art degree show in 2000, Gamper showed furniture based on corners, including a tufted sofa made from three hollow leather tubes, and a stack of irregular box shelves called Totem. The critics enjoyed the offbeat, intellectual narrative (corners, Gamper suggested, were neglected but intriguing spaces), and several private commissions followed. But despite this early promise, his name never appeared attached to any big manufacturer.
Gamper explains: “The idea of multiplication didn’t really appeal. I never got a kick out of seeing 50 of the same chair. I’m more interested in the individual.” You only have to look at his award-winning “100 Chairs in 100 Days” installation held last October in London—a collection of seats made from spliced-together elements of found or donated pieces (an Arad with a Jacobsen, for example), each one telling a different story about where it came from and who might use it now—to see that’s true. But Gamper admits that the lack of U.K. manufacturing opportunities had an impact on his career trajectory as well: “I had to be my own client,” he says. Eight years on, his approach is paying off. I’m sitting in his studio looking at a glossy catalog from the upmarket Nilufar furniture gallery on Milan’s Via della Spiga, and there he is. The original Totem shelf and friends, plus more recent work, are all here, beautifully photographed, now collectors’ items.
The turning point came early last year when Nilufar’s owner, Nina Yashar, embarked on a mission to find work by talented emerging designers. Ron Arad, who’d been Gamper’s mentor first as a product-design professor at the University of Applied Art in Vienna and then at the RCA, suggested him. A week later Yashar was in London to meet him, and by the time of the 2007 Milan Furniture Fair, two months later, Gamper’s designs were in her showroom. Having always worked in modest materials (Totem is made from “MDF, wood-imitation laminate, and screws”), Gamper now finds he’s a gallery artist with the attendant high price tag. “It’s difficult,” he says. “You can either try to make something in an expensive material or be quite honest and make something that looks expensive because there’s quality work behind it.”
Gamper, a Merano native who trained as a cabinetmaker before embarking on his design education in Vienna, had been experimenting with on-the-spot chair manufacture for years when he was invited to create a performance for Design Miami/Basel in June 2007. Not wanting to repeat himself, he recalled that Yashar had mentioned a warehouse full of damaged Gio Ponti furniture fittings in teal-and-white laminate, from the revamped Hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento, Italy. His idea: to chop them up and make new furniture live at Basel. “Nina wasn’t very happy,” says Gamper. “She thought if she was seen giving away pieces of Gio Ponti furniture to be vandalized, the other dealers might kill her.” In the end, though, the event, “If Gio Only Knew,” was a triumph. The performance, which is on YouTube, shows Gamper deftly working with a table saw and no sketches or models (“I hardly ever draw,” he says). It’s as if he’s making up each piece on the spot, his complex angles breathing new life into the retro color scheme. In fact, he says, “though a lot of my work is ad hoc, I do have a library of images in my head.”
Gamper’s take on recycling recently caught the eye of Michael Jefferson, senior specialist at Wright auction house in Chicago, who commissioned the designer to create an installation there in May. “I like that he’s referencing design history—Gerrit Rietveld’s crate furniture from the ’20s and ’30s, Donald Judd from the ’80s—and that he’s readdressing furniture and materials to new uses,” Jefferson says. At Wright, Gamper’s idea was to choreograph the sale itself, making furniture from the auction house’s sturdy but wasteful packing crates to replace what Jefferson calls the “boring folding chairs.”
And so, after a quiet start, it seems Gamper is everywhere: two shows plus a shoe-shop interior in Milan this year; scooping the London Design Museum’s new annual furniture award with “100 Chairs” (beating Arad and other luminaries in the process); picking up a Designer of the Future award this month at Design Miami/Basel in Switzerland; back to Italy soon for another installation…surely he must be exhausted? “I want to slow down,” he nods, tall and warmly humorous in the flesh. He may be tired, but from now on one thing’s for certain: Nobody puts Martino Gamper in the corner.
BACKSIDE (Sept 3, 2007) Gamper used parts from two identical chairs to create this banana-seat hybrid.
OMBACK (Aug 31, 2006) A chair made from the seats of two Rodney Kinsman Omkstak chairs, which Gamper found in a Dumpster outside the Royal College of Art in London
LAP-DOG (Jul 27, 2006) This chair allows sitters to face in two directions.
PLANK ROCKER (Jun 3, 2006) In this version, a curved shell provides a rocking-chair base; when flipped, the base becomes a chair in its own right.
ARNOLD CIRCUS (Aug 10, 2006) Gamper conceived the green stool in 2006 for The Friends of Arnold Circus, a regeneration project in Shoreditch, East London. The comfy backrest comes courtesy of yet another Thonet.
ACHILLE’S BICICLETTA (Sept 21, 2006) In homage to Castiglioni’s Stella (1957), Gamper fused the backrest of a Thonet bentwood No. 14 to a garden-variety bicycle seat.
MONO-JACKOBSEN 1 (Mar 12, 2005) A plastic monoblock chair, reinforced and given extra support from the shell of an Arne Jacobsen 3103 chair
Fiona Rattray is a freelance writer based in London. Formerly deputy editor of Blueprint and style editor of The Observer, she has also contributed to The Independent, The Telegraph, and Elle Decor.
Portrait by David Cowlard