Interview: Martino Gamper

ALEXANDROS STAVRAKAS

Martino Gamper studied sculpture and product-design at the University of Applied Art and the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna. In 1998 he came to London, where, after completing his studies, he started his own practice. He now develops and produces a wide range of objects, from limited editions to semi-industrial products and site-specific installations. He has exhibited at various spaces: V&A, Design Museum, Sotheby’s, Nilufar Gallery, Oxo Tower, Kulturhuset / Stockholm, National Gallery / Oslo and elsewhere. Bedeutung met him at his studio in East London.

Martino Gamper photographed in his studio in East London. Photo by Lucy Levene

Alexandros Stavrakas: Martino, could you tell us about the ‘One Hundred Chairs in One Hundred Days Project’.

Martino Gamper: As the name states, I had one hundred days to design one hundred chairs, working uninterruptedly. I have trained as cabinet maker, so it was a nice way for me to go back into furniture. I am interested in the creative process but the actual skill of working on a project and seeing it at the end is something very fascinating. Having only one day to create something may be rewarding at the end of the day, but it is a very unique way of working: there is a limit to how long you can think about the concept and how long you have to dedicate to the actual process. Thinking and making are two distinct parts of your brain: this is the strain of the project. On the other hand, not having enough time to develop an idea is interesting: sometimes, when you have an idea and you work on it more and more, it barely gets any better and you had better used it at the beginning. This was more or less the kind of work that this project necessitated. Looking at them after, all these chairs have a unique character.

A.S.: Where did you find all this material for 100 chairs?

M.G.: Most of them I found on the street. About a fifth of it was donated to me by friends who didn’t have a studio to store it in. Four or five chairs I bought myself from a car boot sale. But the idea was to spend no more than £1, because, before you know, you buy chairs for £50, for £100 and you can’t stop because everywhere you see nice chairs.

A.S.: What do you mean that each chair has a unique character?

M.G.: There is the idea: I always thought that there is a use as well as a character. So, for example, some are more stable than others, like people. They remind me of people, people that you might see every day, people that you meet randomly, friends. When I was doing this project, I said to my assistant ‘You know this friend of mine—I think this chair looks exactly like him!’ And talking about friends, this is something that has always driven my ideas: the idea of sharing, of talking about things, of exchange with other people. Hence the Trattoria, which was a place where people would come along in this place that was impossible to define—it was also used as a gallery space for shows every now and then. So, we would get together, people from different creative and artistic backgrounds, graphic designers, musicians, photographers—we would all invest energy and thought in this and, most importantly, it was a primal exchange system, in which every person would contribute what he or she did best or could offer and, therefore, we would experience all these things, such as being our own clients. Of course, it was a lot of work, but we enjoyed it. I cannot say whether it was driven by financial need, but it’s certainly something that, in different ways, happens a lot in the creative industry: exchange. For me, I would say, it was initially a research project. And you see how it all ties together: if I had designed a chair for a big company, I probably wouldn’t have found myself interested in this project. More than anything, because I would have entered this world of client relations, of everything being about the customer, the commission, the commercial aspect. I find this prospect problematic: that many people will put themselves in positions where they are semi-content but not really happy, where it’s more about the compromises they have to make than about the work they have to do. And, instead, here we were, a bunch of people, from different fields and, also, with rotating roles, communicating and seriously interacting with each other.

A.S.: You talked about this project, into which you and your friends crashed into each other’s territory. How did this work? Most people usually prefer the segregation of what they do best.

M.G.: I prefer to think in more collaborative terms. More to the point, I feel very strongly against this separation of design, art and real life. First off, I don’t think , like many do, that there is anything sacred about design or art, that they are elevated above real life. Nor do I, obviously, think that design is just something fancy that is sold in shops as part of a ‘lifestyle’. Design is about beauty and function: you find something, you buy it, you bring it home—furniture, clothes, even, in a sense having dinner—and that provides you with a nice experience. It’s not just vanity. In fact, it’s even more. To expand slightly on this thought, design goes beyond function or look, form—it is something that also has social implications. That is to say, think of a corner and how it makes you interact in a certain way to your environment and the people around you. Or, think of an interesting object of furniture, a chair, and how it can make you think, inspire you, provide you with a complete different experience than if it was ordinarily designed.

A.S.: Do you prioritise beauty over function in your work?

M.G.: I think there should definitely be a function in a piece. Having said that, my delight in art is design. Duchamp once said that if you look at a chair and you can’t sit on it, it’s art; if you can, it’s design. I think this is the most catchy way to define these two worlds. But, as I said before, I place importance in actually experiencing objects, so I opt for function as well, something that allows you, even minimally, to engage, to interact and not just look. I remember having an exhibition of my works at a museum and they wanted to place my chairs on a plinth and I opposed that; I wanted them arranged normally on the floor. So, they agreed and then a guy comes in and starts putting tape around them. I tried explaining to him that I don’t care if somebody falls over. Just put a sign there: ‘Use At Your Own Risk’, which is actually funny, because we are talking about chairs. This obsession with ‘health and safety’ creates a detachment from the world. You can look, but not touch. But it’s not only safety concerns. There is, generally, a tendency to put things on plinths and stands. And this totemic culture that elevates things above the so-called real world cultivates in people the feeling that they have to understand things, not just look, feel and enjoy them. Eventually, it can be a very frustrating thing. I remember this story from an art project in a 19th century fortress close to Northern Italy, where I’m from: it was a completely empty space in which there were video and sound installations around and I had provided the furniture. When people first came, they were so intimidated that they wouldn’t sit down on the chairs, fearing they were not meant to be there to be sat on.

A.S.: What is the appeal of the re-used materials? Does this disassembly and re-arrangement of components to produce something new carry any particular significance for you, for your work?

M.G.: When companies come to me and propose that I design a chair for them, I start pondering; I go to factories, I look around a bit, I think about objects I’ve done in the past and try to imagine doing something in mass production. But what excites me is that pre-made, pre-existing things give me the possibility to work faster and also be more playful with the material. In the world of prime planning, you have to buy the initial materials, then design them etc. But here I start with things that already have a very strong shape and this makes it so much more interesting to work with them and come up with ways to make something out of them. I find this a rather emancipating process. For me, it’s more inspiring to have a half-empty fridge than a full one. I particularly like the idea that some of the things I use, somehow have a story in them, the fabrics have patters from seating. And my work begins with thinking how I can translate this into something new.

A.S.: But, you know, there is the other side to this story. This resuscitation that you attempt can, actually, be seen as very melancholic. Mutilated parts glued together may have taken up a new shape, but they are clearly odd, displaced, even monstrous, not in an aesthetic sense but in a symbolic way.

M.G.: I never thought about it this way – they’re freaks!

A.S.: They are. Cut limbs, put together!

M.G.: That’s a very good observation, I never thought of them in this way.

A.S.: It’s interesting how, in the process of working with these materials, things you wouldn’t imagine going together suddenly fit incredibly well, as if they were designed for each other from the start; something you can’t know until you’re already there.

M.G.: Of course. What I also realised is that there isn’t one kind of chair; there are many, all with different ergonomics. So, let’s say, rather, that there isn’t one shape that signifies a chair: it can have almost any shape, to fit different functions, different people. Something that looks very uncomfortable can turn out to be quite the opposite.

A.S.: Is there any politics in your work? Do you work with used materials out of some environmental conviction, such as recycling?

M.G.: Some people claim that I am a ‘green’ designer and the expect me to voice opinions on environmental matters and express my green visions. But it’s not like that. Of course, I am interested in how our world is changing and how we also have to change. But I think of recycling in different ways than most people: for me it starts well before the household; it starts somewhere in the shops. When you’ve already done your shopping and you get home and you have you neat rubbish bins, you are maybe doing something good, but this is not where recycling should start. Material efficiency shouldn’t begin at your kitchen bin.

A.S.: What are you doing at the moment?

M.G.: I have just finished a project for Conran’s birthday. He is bringing out a book with all the things that have inspired him in all his life and one of the things is furniture. I did a chair that he really liked and then he invited me to work on it; this is what I’m working on at the moment. I went to the factory to choose bits to work with and I find this a fascinating part of the creation process: the components are there and it is your role to bring them together. It’s a bit like music, the combination of pre-existing individual sounds.

A.S.: Is creating something new very important in your work?

M.G.: It’s important but not in a conventional way. It’s not so much about finding a new process, because the process quickly turns out to be used in a very conventional way. I try to do the opposite: I have the material, not the most amazing material as such, but there are very interesting bits in it and then I try to make the process interesting.

A.S.: Is there some project that you have in mind for the future?

M.G.: I would really like to design a chair that goes into industrial production. I think this would not only be a tremendous challenge, but something that would also be a departure for me. I don’t know when the right time for something like that will be; maybe now, maybe later. In any case, these things take long, this would be at least a two-year project. I enjoy projects that involve a long process; it’s hard work but, eventually, when it’s done, you look at it and think of the long process that produced it and that’s a very satisfying feeling.

  • About

    Alexandros Stavrakas was born in Athens, Greece. He studied politics, philosophy and economy, followed by graduate studies in philosophy at the LSE and anthropology at UCL. He has written articles, translated, lectured and worked as contributing editor. He is the Editor of Bedeutung Magazine.


    His interview with Martino Gamper appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 2/ Human & Divine, available here for purchase.