Martino Gamper’s “100 chairs in 100 days” (2007), in which the London-based Italian designer disassembled a morass of discarded chairs and remade them into a series of intriguing and endlessly inventive new seats has become a defining moment in a new attitude to the ordinary. In remaking found objects, he offered not only a critique of waste but also a paean to the qualities of the mass-produced.
The chair is at the heart of the design world and has attracted more attention than any other object, perhaps because of its intimate relationship to the body, or perhaps because of its ability to stand alone as a statement, not reliant on its context.
The shelf, however, is something else. Shelves are contingent on the space, the architecture, the wall and, perhaps even more importantly, on what is displayed on them. So in displaying items themselves used for display, Gamper, in his new show, is playing a game with the gallery context, as well as reinforcing his levelling attitude to the products of high design and mass consumption.
Gamper has domesticised the Serpentine’s Sackler space through his gathering together of a fine collection not only of shelves – but also of collections. The shelving units range from some of the 20th century’s definitive designs, by Alvar Aalto, Dieter Rams, Charlotte Perriand and Franco Albini, through some contemporary designs (Michael Marriott’s industrial double bracket is my favourite) to mass-produced items including an Ikea design and a few by Gamper himself. These have been paired with collections of things drawn from Gamper’s designer and artist friends.
The collections themselves are a mixture of the kitsch and the compelling, found objects that throw light on the kind of things that might inspire designers and which suggest that design does not exist in a bubble but in the context of a broad culture of stuff, memories and nostalgia. It also tells us something that is easily forgotten: that everything, even the tattiest pieces of throwaway kitsch, has been designed.
Of course, it helps that some of the shelves are exquisite, works of architecture as much as of design. Seen together they tell us much about the changing ideals of modernism, from the obsession with the modular and infinitely expandable to the persistent aspiration towards a corporate aesthetic. At the centre of it all is a mountainous stack of furniture catalogues which is funny, diverting and a little depressing in its endless banality.
The exhibition is paired with another in the old gallery by the Israeli artist Haim Steinbach, a collection of constructions, found objects and installations that elegantly chimes with Gamper’s show but which also illustrates the fine line between design, art and the stuff we all have sitting on our shelves.
To April 21, serpentinegallery.org