’Martino Gamper: Design is a State of Mind’ at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London

’Martino Gamper: Design is a State of Mind’ at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London

The best ideas can be summed up pretty easily. And the idea behind Design is a State of Mind, a new show curated by Martino Gamper at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is ’interesting things collected by interesting people on interesting shelves’.

’I didn’t want to do an historical show,’ says Martino, walking me around the exhibition. ’And I didn’t want a "what design is now" kind of show. But I did want to use design to display design.’

Simple enough. And given that the Serpentine gave Gamper an open brief and three months to get the show ready, you can see why he resisted unnecessary complication. Except it isn’t really simple of course. To work well, and the show works very well indeed, Gamper had to get all the elements, all these stories, working together.

He started with the shelves. Now that Gamper is a central and influential figure in the British design scene, it is easy to forget that he is actually Italian. But an immersion in Italian design, especially in the work of designers like Gio Ponti, who continued to work with craftsmen while their peers embraced industrialisation, is clear in his selection. Many of the shelves are rare one-offs, secured from private lenders with a lot of help from Milan’s Nilufar Gallery (given the time restrictions, this made more sense than trying to deal with institutions, Gamper says).

There are shelves from Franco Albini, Ettore Sottsass, Ponti, Andrea Branzi, BBPR, where the R stands for Ernesto Rogers (cousin of Richard), Michele De Lucchi and Vico Magistretti, as well as Charlotte Perriand, Alvar Aalto for Artek, Vitsoe, Ercol, a number of Gamper’s own shelves and a bit of Ikea thrown in. 

The collections come from friends, friends of friends, tutors and students who Gamper knew were inveterate hoarders of inspirational objects. Most of them are also designer makers. In the simplest terms, Gamper wants to show how the collections, the materials and the mechanics influence that making.

Some of these collections suggest a collector and a maker immediately; a stash of rocks, some black, some white, smoothed and shaped by time and nature, has been borrowed from Michael Anastassiades, as you might have guessed. So too the pop-bright plastic fantastic of Bethan Laura Wood’s haul.

Some collections are tightly focused, personal/professional obsessions; Maki Suzuki’s bricks; Jurgen Bay’s bestiary; Max Lamb and Gemma Holt’s collection of Bernard Leach (and acolytes pottery); the heavy-duty hoes and other gardening equipment collected by the artist Richard Wentworth; and the wooden spoons collected by the photographer Jason Evans (disappointingly Konstantin Gric couldn’t locate his box full of prized coat hangers in time for the show).

Some of the displays are more eclectic, such as Ron Arad’s knuckle duster to carved cat collection for instance. Perhaps the most remarkable collection though has a space all to itself: Enzo Mari’s found object paper weights.

Design is a State of Mind is only the second dedicated design show at the Serpentine, following on from Konstantin Grcic’s Design Real, which opened in 2009. And the two shows are an instructive contrast; Grcic’s qualified techno-optimism set against Gamper’s idea of design as bricolage, a messy assembly of what was and what is, of objects that appeal for reasons we don’t entirely understand. Gamper is against taste systems but for taste, in the fullest sense. After all, a shelf, however beautiful, is only half a story, if that. It is the bits and bobs, the magpie hauls, that make sense of it. 

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