A nightclub has opened in London Design Festival’s newest district, but you won’t want to stay for long. Martino Gamper’s site-specific installation in Coal Drops Yard questions the permanence of design and the transience of the festival itself, says Katie Treggiden
There’s a queue — that’s a good sign, right? You can hear the bass and can just make out the lights strobing inside. The bouncer looks like a jobsworth: arms folded, scowl on his face. You check your shoes — trainers, but smart trainers; you should be okay. You’ve put in a good day at the new King’s Cross Design District, explored all Coal Drops Yard has to offer, and now you’re ready to let your hair down. You spot someone you know at the front of the queue and cut in. The music is banging. You take in the club’s frontage. The bouncer lets in the couple ahead of you. It reminds you of the wooden shingles they use in the Alps, but it seems to be made of mismatched offcuts. You’re next. Maybe they’re upcycled. The bouncer stamps something illegible on the back of your hand and you step through the door into… nothing.
Disco Carbonara, Martino Gamper’s take on a ‘Potemkin village’
Disco Carbonara —if the name weren’t enough to give it away — is nothing more than a façade. It’s London-based Italian furniture designer Martino Gamper’s take on a ‘Potemkin village’, created especially for Coal Drops Yard. “I wanted to explore the temporary nature of design festivals,” he says. “The inspiration came from the 1984 Summer Olympics, which were held in Los Angeles. They used film sets and scaffolding to create a temporary effect, rather than building structures just to tear them down afterwards. A lot of these design events are similar, things are here for two weeks then taken down again. It seemed wasteful to build something, so I thought: why not embrace that idea and create a fake façade?”
The 1984 Summer Olympics in LA are generally regarded as the most financially successful Olympic Games in modern times and host cities have used them as a benchmark ever since, but they were far from the first attempt to use temporary structures to create the illusion of something more permanent. The term ‘Potemkin village’ comes from a mobile village Grigory Potemkin is reported to have built on the banks of the Dnieper River in the 18th century to impress his lover, Catherine the Great. The Crimea region — of which he was governor — had been decimated by war, and he had been given the task of rebuilding it. To give the impression of progress, Potemkin had his men dress as peasants to populate his fake village as Catherine II passed in a barge, and then take it apart and reassemble it further upstream so she would pass it again and think it was yet another successfully restored settlement. The tale may be more myth than history, but the approach has inspired everything from Olympic villages and film sets to training grounds for driverless cars and urban warfare.
Composite veneer offcuts
“The brief was to make something big, visible and fun,” says Gamper. “This area used to be known for its nightclubs and I liked the idea of playing with the anticipation of something before you realise it’s fake. It is clad with my take on traditional Alpine cladding — a sort of vertical parquet floor made from composite veneer offcuts, which are real wood as fake wood. They come from a tree but have been subverted and changed into something else. The offcuts have a texture to them and they’re quite colourful — and it was important to me not to create a lot of waste.” Gamper has a reputation for reusing and repurposing objects. His 100 Chairs in 100 Days in its 100 Ways project saw him create new seats from discarded chairs found on the streets of London. His revival of the Victorian tradition of stacking chairs into giant archways saw 120 Ercol chairs form two 10-foot high arches in the garden of the Victoria and Albert Museum. More recently he designed a bench made of recycled plastic for Fiskars Village in Helsinki. “I have always liked to fix things.” he says. “Trying to mend something is adding to it in a way. We live in such a fast world and don’t seem to have time to fix things or seek new value in old objects.” In the midst of Milan Design Week in 2014, the heart of all things new and shiny, he set up shop as In A State of Repair in the windows of department store La Rinascente and asked members of the public to bring in broken objects, highlighting the skills that go into mending, not just conceiving and making. “With a bit more care and creativity, we don’t have to constantly reinvent the world,’ he explains. While Disco Carbonara’s entire frontage is made from waste composite veneer from the third-generation Italian Alpi factory, the panels at the back are sustainably sourced and can be reused. “There are plenty of materials that can be reused and given another cycle,” he says. “By using waste wood, you get more creative licence, because the material is already un-precious. The expectations that come with precious materials can be quite limiting, whereas if you use an offcut or waste product, you have to push harder, but the return is a lot more interesting.”
Selecting composite veneer tiles
Pushing harder is a recurring theme in Gamper’s diverse output, a selection of which — from products and furniture to video art pieces — will be showcased in the UK for the first time at the nearby Samsung KX. Gamper is also the designer behind the Arnold Circus Stool, created as part of the regeneration of the UK’s first social housing project in 2006; Screenshot, a conceptual photography project in collaboration with artist Brigitte Niedermair and Italian textile house Dedar, which synthesised 500 years of the colour blue in figurative art; and No Ordinary Love which saw Gamper and peers such as Max Lamb, Bethan Laura Wood and Silo Studio populate SEEDS Gallery with a collection of bronze candlesticks priced according to their weight. All of these raise more questions than they answer, a habit Gamper acquired from Ron Arad during his time at the Royal College of Art.
“Ron taught us to really question every-thing,” says Gamper. “He was always controversial. He would ask very valid questions, and at the same time encourage us to find our own way, to be individuals and not just follow in the footsteps of others or tick boxes. For 12 years he created the most diverse selection of designers that I can think of. We are all out there, doing our own things, finding new ways, new methods, new techniques… and thinking outside the box.”
Established in 1837, the RCA’s mission is to take innovation to industry and engage with real-world issues, and if Arad’s emphasis during his tenure as Professor of Design Products (1998–2009) was on the former, Gamper, who taught there from 2003 until 2017, put his focus on the latter. “I tried to bring students out of college to do as many live projects as possible — we went to India and Africa, we opened restaurants and shops, we visited factories. It was important that the students understood that it’s not just about what you design, it’s about where it lives in the world.” But Gamper admits it’s a constantly changing world. He came of age in the wake of post-modernism,
when designers and architects such as Ettore Sottsass, Andrea Branzi and Alessandro Mendini broke free from the shackles of modernism. “Sotsass, especially, killed the idea that ‘form follows function’ and started to develop a new language, borrowing elements from the Greeks and the Romans,” explains Gamper. “He was trying to create a new style, a new aesthetic, new surfaces — and he was having fun. People post-rationalise it into this deadly serious, intellectual movement now, but they just wanted to do something new.”
Now, after the minimalist reaction against post-modernism, Gamper thinks it is again time for something new. “Material has become important; narrative has become important; the environment and sustainability have become important. Before now, design groups have always said ‘This is the future, forget about the rest’. But now things are happening in parallel. Maybe we can create something new from all of those ingredients rather than separating them into smaller things. Maybe things can be a little more mixed, a little more inclusive.”
Creating individual panels
As you step through the doors of Disco Carbonara, instead of feeling disappointed about the lack of a nightclub, perhaps imagine instead that you’ve stepped into a parallel universe — one where mending is taken as seriously as making, where waste is a precious resource, where you have the freedom to question everything, where everything happens in parallel and everybody is welcome. Whether your name is on the list or not — step inside.
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2019 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.