WRITER: Kasia Maciejowska
Martino Gamper went from being a carpenter’s apprentice to developing his own distinct voice in contemporary design. Today, with several awards under his belt, he is collaborating with Prada on a special project that breaks the mould in retail design.
It was as a fourteen-year-old apprentice to a cabinetmaker in Italy that Martino Gamper began his career. Some years later, he decided to leave the comfort of home and move to Austria to become an “art carpenter,” as he puts it.
The now-established designer shrugs sweetly as he thinks back to that time, “Until I studied sculpture and design, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be creative.” The studies he’s referring to were at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Sculpture and Design was not one course but two and Gamper had enthusiastically enrolled in both. When the school suggested he pick one, he chose design because of its faster pace. As he explains, “I had a lot of energy and I wanted to get on and make things”.
His studio, an old workshop building in Hackney that Gamper bought with some friends, exemplifies this dynamism. The space is personal yet industrial, intimate yet spacious, relaxed yet efficient. Pegboard lines the walls in a modular hanging system that serves as bookshelves, chair racks and a backdrop for publications not just by Gamper, but by his artist wife and their close friends too. (His wife is the Kiwi artist Francis Upritchard and her studio adjoins his.)
Gamper’s approach to design combines modernist logic with postmodern narrative and expression. He once explained that “there is no perfect design and there is no über-design. Objects speak to us personally.” So, while some objects are more functional than others, the attachment we have to objects is quite individual.
This sense of objects having their own charismatic identities originates from Gampers’s award-winning 2008 project, which garnered a lot of attention. ‘100 Chairs In 100 Days’ fulfilled the promise of its title by using repurposed materials to make odd, ‘almost schizophrenic’, sculptural chairs. It was a methodological exercise, a statement about the making process as opposed to striving for that perfect product. The message meant to counterpoint slick design’s image of perfection. He seemed to be saying that you can make objects quickly, creatively, ecologically and cheaply; they can have character, it can be fun. This spirit is in direct reference to the early work of Ron Arad (his tutor at the Royal College of Art, where he received his Masters), who had pioneered adaptive re-use in British design in the late 1980s, along with Tom Dixon and others. Just as they did, Gamper often uses discarded materials – although he also turns to new wood, ceramics and plastics when he feels the needs to.
While his style has recurring traits (bright colours, multiple textures, incongruous combinations, impeccable carpentry), adaptability and openness are the essential enablers behind his notably imaginative design solutions. In part, his flexible thinking is inherited from his forefathers in Italian design but it also typifies London’s contemporary aesthetics more recently. Some suggest Michelangelo Pistoletto as an influence, who taught Gamper sculpture during his brief phase in Vienna. Pistoletto was one of the driving forces behind the Arte Povera and Actionism movements and he contributed – along with Arad – to the designer’s feel for materials with character and objects with social purpose. Although their work was incredibly different, both Pistoletto and Arad were committed rebels whose avant-gardism was driven by political awareness. Their academic dogma was about expressing the individual voice, which according to Gamper, still informs his conceptual process today.
Having based himself in London, Gamper seems amused by the fact that he often works in northern Italy, not far from where he grew up. This Italian connection plays a part in his collaboration with Prada, which was instigated by Miuccia herself. A friend of Gamper’s Italian gallerist, she was familiar with his work since she has collected some of it personally.
Previously, Prada’s window dressing had all been done in-house but after its sister brand Miu Miu commissioned some vases fromGamper, he was invited to upgrade Prada’s displays. The initial brief was simply to use wood to communicate a casual kind of luxury, which was the right match for Gamper’s sensibilities, since he has worked with carpentry for thirty years. “It was really a combination of my concept with their aesthetics,” he tells me, “my style is playful whereas theirs is more conservative”.
Gamper wanted to convert the shop window’s most defining characteristic – its flatness – into precisely its opposite: a corner. “I was playing with perspective drawings that reminded me of my college project about corners,” he explains. At the Royal College of Art, he drew inspiration from the simple, yet spatially wasted and overlooked corner as a motif for furniture designs.
Left and right: Corners is an evolutionary window design concept by Martino Gamper in collaboration with Prada, which pays homage to the humble corner. The design draws its inspiration from perspective, fragments and contrasts between natural materials.
For Prada, he used the linear grain of ebony to create an illusion of depth, and to introduce movement. The natural stripe of the grain leads the eye back in to a vortex-like corner, drawing the gaze of passers-by through the window and into Prada’s world. The result is surreal in its design concept, since it keeps changing, like a three-dimensional collage.
He has also installed videos at the back, showing serene mountain landscapes merging into one another. Combined with the ebony lines speeding behind the mannequins, this gives the sense of motion – overall, it imitates the fractious experience of being in a digital realm. Gamper has created a strange sense of the virtual world colliding with the real. This is what he does so well: he uses his awareness of traditional craftsmanship to communicate how the world feels in the now.
Although Gamper has his private clients, he doesn’t regularly work with luxury brands and so he says that he learned a lot from this high-profile commission. “I built up a lot of respect for people who work in fashion”, he tells me with humility, “the pressure and speed they work under is insane”. I ask him if he ever thought, when he was younger, that he would be here today. He grins, revealing a chipped front tooth. “I never would have imagined I’d become anything close to this”.