words Justin McGuirk
Seventy-five chairs into his grand project to design 100 in 100 days, Gamper talked to icon about the constraints of his creative process and the idea of the post-industrial chair.
Why did you start this project?
It interested me that most of the time when you design something for a company you look at what the company has been doing historically and what the manufacturing is like. They give you a brief that’s fairly tight, constraining, and I wanted to open the constraints.
So is this a pure form of chair?
Well, one could say pure. But it’s more that I’m not trying to design the perfect chair. They’re just different chairs, and it seems to me when you design something primarily for a company or for production you try to design bestsellers, the ultimate chair. I think that is constraining somehow, so I wanted to be open again and see. I kept having so many ideas … looking at other chairs, and I thought it would be nice to do this, nice to do that. Obviously the “100” thing is based on the idea of mass production. Because I’ve been making one-offs for years, just for myself, and then people said, “Well, you do manufacturing as well.” And it made me think to do 100 is a kind of mass production. That’s something that interests me: can you do mass production but also make each chair different – mass-produced individuality?
What does the chair mean to you? What does it represent?
I think that a chair is something like a book: it talks about a specific time, a specific era. In that respect there is pressure to define what is this given time, “now”. A chair is about culture, and that’s interesting. I think also of the chair as an archetype with four legs, and a backrest, and maybe some armrests: it’s quite challenging – structurally – because it shouldn’t seem too clumsy, too heavy.
Some designers spend months or years designing a chair: how does limiting yourself to one day affect the undertaking?
Obviously, my chairs will never reach the culmination that some chairs do. At the same time, to me it’s about the essence, how a chair could be defined differently. Sometimes when you try to do the perfect chair you move too close to it and don’t really see the chair as an object. You only see details and materials.
Can you explain your process?
I start from scratch, but also I use found bits. Over the last few years I have probably collected 200 chairs, some given to me by friends or people who know that I’m working on this project.
How do you begin?
I look at the whole repertoire of chairs that I’ve found and I start taking things apart. I try to understand how they work, be it in a structural way or formally. So there is somehow a relationship to what already exists.
Would you say it’s a form of collage?
Yeah. Recently I’ve been thinking about music; the way that artists take other artists’ music and reinterpret it, and put many types of music together … that doesn’t really happen much in design. Design has always been about pure form. You’re not allowed to do anything else, otherwise it’s not perceived as inventive or creative. It’s very much about reinventing the wheel, over and over.
How functional does the result have to be? Is it more of a symbolic object, a kind of artwork?
For me a chair has to work properly. I sit down, test each one and try to get as close as I can to functional and comfortable furniture. The word “comfortable” is very tricky because comfort means something different to each of us. We have some kind of common ergonomics but each of us has a different interpretation of what comfort means, depending on what we do. I don’t think there is one comfy chair. There are different functions: a dining chair is very different to a lounge chair.
So the intention is to use them and sell them?
Yeah, eventually. For me, they’re very much a product, not a mass product but a kind of individually-customised product. The idea is to organise a public event where first of all I use the chairs for concerts or theatre, for different venues basically. They would then be auctioned, in a way that people can then find their own chair.
Is the process or the idea of the chair more important than the result?
It is very much about the process and learning about how one chair can be different to another one. It’s also important that I use found chairs, there is a social and cultural dimension to them. Found chairs have a rich layer of information – how people use them, how they’ve aged – which I find interesting. It’s almost anthropological.
There is an element of social history in the objects that you’re using. To what extent does taste come into what you do?
It is also very difficult when you start taking on different social cultural tastes and mixing them. What is the result? Are you mixing different things that wouldn’t necessarily come together in society? Because we’re not using a clear, defined industrial production methodology or one material – be it plastic or wood. We’re mixing things, so that they kind of become awkward.
Like the kind of chair you might find in a minicab office mixed with a garden chair, or something like that?
So that suddenly these things fight against each other, somehow. That is a challenge. The thing I’ve also experienced is that different people find a different chair interesting: there isn’t one of my chairs that everyone is like “wow, that’s the amazing one!” The industry tries to create one model of what a chair is like, and I think in many ways it works: there are really successful models. The Arne Jacobsen [Number] Seven sold millions and people love it. But there is a need out there for people to find their own chair, that is very much themselves, with individual character.
Are you strict about the time you take?
I really try to finish in a day. I might touch up a few things, because something has to dry, or some surface finish to complete, but the chair itself I try to keep to one day.
Do you ever get to the end of the day and decide to throw away what you’ve done?
Yeah, sometimes I take them out.
Is this project more of a technical or a philosophical undertaking?
A bit of both, but I would also add it’s an emotional, spontaneous one. For me it’s about using all the impressions that I get from seeing chairs everyday, and people using them – be it through visual things, or through reading maybe, or talking to people … it’s about spontaneously releasing a lot of things.
To what extent are your decisions aesthetic?
As a designer there is very much a formal aspect to everything you do, so there is always an aesthetic consideration; but I’m trying also to challenge my personality, my own aesthetics.
It comes back to that question of taste – that brown suede overlaid on the garden furniture, there’s a kind of humour involved, a “would you dare own this?” quality to it.
Yes, there is a kind of irony to it but also a kind of very straightforward thinking involved.The garden chair is the cheapest chair you can get
– £2 or £3 – and there are different models of garden chairs, some of them very comfortable. One of the problems, though, is that if you sit in a plastic garden chair in winter you feel cold. So I thought, “What would happen if you changed the surface, adding suede leather?”
This is a case where the aesthetic connotations are in a sense a by-product of practical considerations.
Yes. I was interested in combining the leather and the plastic. We all get judged on our taste, and sometimes it can happen too quickly that we get pushed into a corner. Some designers make a career out of that, they’re very successful and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not for me. I’m challenging my taste, and some of it might be on the edge of being very ugly, but that’s always been one of my concerns: where does ugliness begin and where does beauty start? It’s interesting when you see something, and you might think “that’s so ugly”, and then three years later you might be wearing it.
Have you learnt anything about yourself through this process?
Yes, that a day is very short! I learned for myself that when you haven’t got a lot of time to think you have to rely on your inner instincts. You build up a certain kind of confidence that helps you take positions. It’s made me quite relaxed in a way, in other projects as well. There’s no point in forcing something: you take one decision, and it might not be right but you can change it. That’s something I say to my students [at the Royal College of Art]. They think it’s really important to find the ultimate idea, the “thing”, and they really put themselves under a lot of stress to try and meet this goal; but somehow the process gets lost in that, and if one day they’re not reaching that particular thing, they get stressed, they lose their confidence. One chair might be ugly, but you can always do another one!
Have you come to the conclusion that there are very few ideas of what a chair is? Or is there an infinite number of ideas?
I think you could probably say that there are ten archetypes of chair.
Like what they say about films – there are only seven plots?
Ron Arad would say there are only five ways of making things: either you take something away, or you add something, or you cast something, or you form something – i.e. press it – and the fifth one now is growing something. And within each way there is an infinite variety.
There’s nothing precious about these chairs, is there? I mean, some are quite delicate but they’re just sitting around here being used: people will spend £4,000 on a Le Corbusier chair, but you know, you can’t touch it!
I mean there is a danger that these chairs could become collectibles. I don’t know if that’s negative … I have been approached by people who work in this arena and, yes, because they’re one-offs they’re rare.
Plus they have the aura of the hand. I find that interesting, this idea of the one-off in the collector’s book. This is a road a lot of designers go down, they can let loose and make some money.
I think there’s a new market opening between the two things (art and design), and those are collectables: there’s art, design and collectables.
A selection of Gamper’s chairs is on show in Confronting the Chair: Martino Gamper at the Design Museum, London,
until 25 February