Design through a Punkish Lens ; Martino Gamper Curates Serpentine Show, Mixing Rare Works with Ikea

By Rawsthorn, Alice | International New York Times, March 6, 2014 | Go to article overview

Design through a Punkish Lens ; Martino Gamper Curates Serpentine Show, Mixing Rare Works with Ikea


Rawsthorn, Alice, International New York Times


With "Design Is a State of Mind," an exhibition he has curated for the Serpentine, Martino Gamper hopes to encourage people to reassess the objects in their own lives.

Lining the walls of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London are lots of shelving units. Some are wooden, some metallic and others are made of glass or plastic. Among them are rare pieces by Franco Albini, Gio Ponti and other eminent 20th-century designers, and an inexpensive, flat-packed shelving system from Ikea.

Placed on the shelves are bizarre assortments of objects, including bricks, wooden spoons, knives and books, as well as a selection of stones, each of which is so improbably perfect in shape that it looks unnatural. There is also a collection of ink bottles, bits of machinery, rocks, crystals and chunks of concrete, wood and marble that the veteran Italian designer Enzo Mari uses as paperweights.

Each collection was assembled by a friend or collaborator of the London-based designer Martino Gamper, who has included them in "Design Is a State of Mind," an exhibition he has curated for the Serpentine. They all have deep emotional resonance for their owners and Mr. Gamper hopes that seeing them in the show, which opened Wednesday, will encourage people to reassess the objects in their own lives and the design culture that produced them.

"Design Is a State of Mind" is only the second exhibition to be devoted to design at the Serpentine, whose program is focused on art, and follows five years after the first -- "Design Real" -- which was curated by the German industrial designer Konstantin Grcic. Like other contemporary art institutions, including the Barbican Gallery in London and the New Museum and Artists Space in New York, the Serpentine has plans for more shows dedicated to design.

Mr. Gamper's exhibition is a thoughtful and spirited start for the new program, as was Mr. Grcic's, but there the similarities end. Mr. Grcic conforms to the popular stereotype of a designer as a technocratic rationalist, who experiments with advanced technologies to develop functionally innovative products on an industrial scale. Mr. Gamper, on the other hand, favors an idiosyncratic approach to design, which is intuitive, artisanal and improvisational. Ignoring the traditional boundaries between design, art and craft, he makes some of his furniture, ceramics and glassware himself, mostly from found materials and objects, and develops other works in collaboration with artisans and specialists.

The differences between the two designers are reflected in their exhibitions. In "Design Real," Mr. Grcic -- who is to open a retrospective of his work March 22 at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany -- explored industrial design's influence on contemporary culture. Mr. Gamper, meanwhile, analyzes the human response to design and the diverse ways in which designers -- and the rest of us -- have reinterpreted it. By doing so, he depicts design as a fluid, expressive medium that can be endlessly redefined.

His own practice exemplifies this elasticity. Born in 1971 in the South Tyrol in Italy, Mr. Gamper was an apprentice to a local cabinetmaker before studying sculpture and later design in Vienna. After graduating he worked as an industrial designer in Milan, but tired of the constraints of commercial practice. …

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