Creating furniture: with Martino Gamper, star of the Serpentine's new design show

Martino Gamper, star of the Serpentine's new design show, delights in creating furniture with use and beauty.
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Martino Gamper: Design is a State of Mind, runs until April 21 at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in West Carriage Drive, Kensington Gardens, W2. Visit for more details.

With a major exhibition opening at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, Kensington, Martino Gamper is clearly influential — but the key to his creations is that they do their job, and with grace.

One-off chairs by the London-based Italian designer, 42, can sell for £1,000-plus. However, Design is a State of Mind, of which he is guest curator — only the second design exhibition staged at the gallery — is about shelving. With work by stars from the Forties to the present day, from architect Giò Ponti to Ikea, these shelves are meant to be looked at, to enhance what they display.

Gamper's contributions include his Robot Chair, a humanoid assembly of drawers on tubular steel legs, from 100 Chairs in 100 Days, the 2007 exhibition that made his name. But while Robot Chair is light-hearted, functionality is vital for Gamper. From metallic leather coasters to new wooden salt and pepper grinders on sale in his fledgling online shop; from mass-produced chairs for Magis, to the 2009 double arch in the V&A made from 120 stacked Ercol chairs, everything is thoughtful.


Above: Robot Chair, 2008, Martino Gamper. The light-hearted work is on show at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery exhibition. (Right) "Spitz" saslt and pepper mills by Martino Gamper, £76 each

Born in the South Tyrol, Gamper, who says he was a hyperactive, dyslexic child who "always loved fixing things", trained from the age of 14 with the local carpenter but didn't want to become a cabinet-maker, so he studied sculpture and applied arts in Vienna. In 1998 he came to London and studied design at the Royal College of Art, eventually becoming a tutor himself. Few designers have this balance of professional and theoretical training. It shows in Gamper's delight in combining beauty with use, a continuation of William Morris's "form follows function". He says: "I like it when the things I make are part of a bigger story. If I design a table, people can have dinners on it."

Gamper lives and works with his New Zealand-born wife, sculptor Francis Upritchard, in Hackney. Married in 2009, they share the ex-council flat that Upritchard gutted and decorated on a shoestring before Gamper moved in.

She made the kitchen out of various cupboards, some found, laminated with different coloured Formica, adding brass lug handles. The result is pretty and practical. The rest of the flat was decorated just as inventively with found objects, patchwork, and skip salvage.


The pretty and practical kitchen created by Gamper and his wife, the sculptor Francis Upritchard, at home in Hackney. Image by 2014 Tom Mannion/The New York Times Syndicate

Gamper's many additions include the kitchen table made from off-cuts, and the couple's bedhead reworked from Giò Ponti pieces. Style and comfort don't have to cost the earth.

However, the couple's studio, in a Victorian industrial unit nearby, is like their second home, so much time do they spend there. The space is divided into three, the first section being a huge living room, top-lit down one side by roof lights. Beneath it is the kitchen, made from a long run of teak, under which sit deep, industrial-looking drawers containing chopping boards, utensils, and even stock for sale. Nearby, a bank of wall boxes encases oven, fridge and dishwasher.

The library shelves look like casually stacked wooden boxes. The room also serves as a dramatic banqueting hall. "We spend a lot of time here," says Gamper, who likes to cook, "and sometimes come at the weekend to have dinner with friends." The very long geometric teak table, lit by pendant lights made by Upritchard, easily seats 20. Gamper, an unstoppable design dynamo, designed it all, moving from one project to the next.

The work-in-progress bathroom is sheathed in fresh chipboard with a new slate floor, while the "sink" is an upturned polypropylene stool he designed for Arnold Circus.


Eclectic items of furniture include brightly coloured stools by Gamper, who made his name with the 2007 exhibition, 100 Chairs in 100 days.  Image by 2014 Tom Mannion/The New York Times Syndicate

Off this room are two studio spaces reached through a huge door. Gamper's is full of carpentry tools and workbenches, with chairs hung on pegs on the walls, some finished, some in bits. On the floor is a prototype double chair with two joined seats, one pink and one yellow. It's a cross between a bench and a 19th-century "conversation chair" with the fun of a dolly mixture thrown in.

"I don't believe it when people say they can't afford to buy quality," he says. "We have to embrace quality, an appreciation for things that are wellcrafted and sustainable. Materials have to be renewed and craftspeople have to be paid. Ten years ago, my 80-yearold aunt told me about a cupboard in her house. After the war, they'd saved up to commission the local cabinetmaker to make it, because, she said, 'we wanted something that was ours'. They were poor farmers in the mountains, and it cost more than a cow.

"Well-made furniture lasts, so even if you spend £1,000 on eight chairs, they will last your lifetime, and you can pass them on to your children."

THE DETAILS  Martino Gamper: Design is a State of Mind, runs until April 21 at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in West Carriage Drive, Kensington Gardens, W2. Visit for more details.

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