Martino Gamper makes funny shaped furniture. Amalgams of odd angles, strange protuberances, unlikely surfaces and idiosyncratic features, his pieces perch uncertainly, as if waiting politely for an introduction to life on earth. At the first outing of his exhibition "100 Chairs in 100 Days," held in October 2007, Gamper arranged a collection of seats over two floors of large mid-Victorian house in London's South Kensington. Each one a three-dimensional collage, pieced together swiftly and spontaneously from a cache of second-hand chairs that encompassed celebrated designs to anonymous constructions, they offer potential sitters a series of unfamiliar experiences. The private view was a sort of matchmaking party. Guests tentatively paired themselves with chairs, staying put if the fit was good, moving on if the balance and comfort were not promising. As the evening wore on it became obvious that, however awkward the chairs might appear, they are the agents of easy sociability.
Working across art and design venues, Gamper's practice raises questions of discipline. For Gamper himself it is simply a matter of seizing interesting opportunities and pursuing fruitful paths, but for others it can appear to be shirking designerly responsibility or cashing in on the private-wealth driven limited-editions boom (a phenomenon that might now be on the ebb). Perhaps Gamper's unconcern is a product of his Tyrolean roots. Raised in Merano, a town on the very northern border of Italy, he grew reading street signs in both Italian and German, but speaking South Tyrolean at home. Meanwhile his mother talked to her parents in Ladino and his neighbours conversed in numerous other extremely local dialects. Gamper's sense of identity is strong, but unique. He understands structures and hierarchies, but does not bow to them.
Unsurprisingly then, Gamper's story is singular and characterised by spontaneity. After a teenagehood apprenticed to Merano-based furniture maker Peter Karbacher, he bought a round-the-world ticket and spent a couple of years jobbing his way across the globe, often paying his way with joinery. Returning home, he applied to art schools and was offered a place on the sculpture course at the Fine Arts Academy in Vienna under the professorship of Michelangelo Pistoletto. Gamper's portfolio at that time was a large bag made from an inner tube (a design copied from other world travelers) filled with bits and bobs, but, in spite of seducing the art faculty with his cavalier style, he did not settle. Within months he defected to product design under the leadership of Memphis-founder and fellow South Tyrolian Matteo Thun and by 1994, before finishing his degree, he was employed in Thun's studio in Milan working on products, furniture and interiors.
Gamper moved to London in 1997 to study at the Royal College of Art and has lived in the city ever since. At the College he forged connections across departments, most importantly meeting members of the nascent graphic design collective Åbäke, now his regular collaborators, in the letterpress studio, all of them attracted by the physicality of wooden type and the craft involved in its setting. Gamper has a thorough understanding of design history embedded in the process of making. He knows that to craft a joint in this way or that is not simply a practical choice, but one laden with meaning. Remaking the furniture of Gio Ponti as a performance at Design Basel in 2007, his gestures were playful, but their ramifications were felt.
Addressing a more mainstream understanding of the discipline, Gamper aspires to making an industrially produced chair. Cliché though it is, it remains the definitive design problem, and, individual though he is, Gamper is not immune from this kind of injunction.
Until now, he has been working mainly in contexts created by his curiosity or generated by his extreme sociability, but of course, with his current success, those circumstances are likely to expand and become less familiar. Right now Gamper seems to be poised on a cusp: tracing his ad hoc course up to this point has been fascinating, watching his trajectory over the next few years promises to be even more so.