Published in Plaid Magazine Online, May 2011
Photos provided by David Trubridge
Plaid caught up with furniture and lighting designer, David Trubridge, just before he left for Milan Design Week. He enlightened us with his ideas about art, nature, creativity, and innovation.
You acquired a degree in Naval Architecture in England, and then bought a yacht and travelled around the world with your family before arriving in New Zealand. When did you decide you were going to create furniture? How is your work influenced by your travels?
After my degree I decided I didn’t want to work in a shipyard. It was the early 1970s, when a meaningful lifestyle was more important to many than a career. I bought an old ruin in the country, intending to develop it into a home and studio where I could create wood and stone sculptures. In the process of renovation, which I did with a group of friends, I had to make doors and windows. Afterwards, I found these woodworking skills, and the tools I had bought, more useful than art, putting them to use making furniture. First I learned the craft, then later the design process. So I sort of fell into it! Ten years later, with a new family, we left on our sailing trip to see the world. Of course this had an enormous influence on my design thinking as it freed me from the narrow conventional thinking of where I had come from. Being a sailor myself, I was particularly taken with the Polynesian culture. I loved its spontaneous use of crude timbers and string lashings, and applied this simple vocabulary to my furniture after we arrived in New Zealand.
Most of your designs are accompanied by short explanations that personalize the pieces by describing their inspiration or what makes them unique. Why do you choose to include these excerpts and not let your work stand alone?
These notes have actually only just been added to the website in a major revamp. I think that people now are looking for more than just ‘stuff’ to consume. They also want such things as stories, something more personal that they can relate to, something that gives the work more value (and I don’t just mean that in the dollar sense). I like to think that the personal contact may encourage them to keep the pieces for longer and hopefully even feel a little nourished by them, rather than treat them like so much of the appalling care-less, throw-away culture we are burdened with.
You create such a wide variety of designs aside from furniture and lighting, such as sculptures and projects that combine form and function. What is the inspiration for your ideas? How does the creative process differ between the different types of designs?
The main source of inspiration for me has to be nature. But I don’t mean that literally: I don’t wander in the forests spotting chair designs! What fascinates me is the structure of things in nature, how they grow, and how the pattern we see on the outside is only a manifestation of that growth and structure. We still have so much to learn from nature. I actually believe strongly that there is only one creative process that all creative people engage in whatever their discipline. And it only really works if, every time, they work through the art part (generative), the design part (ordering, composing) and the craft part (making). So for me the process does not really differ at all, whether I am designing a piece of jewellery, a lightshade, a sculpture or even a house, nor would it if I were a chef, a music composer or a writer. Only the balance of time spent on each of those parts might vary. I strongly believe that the attempt to force art, design and craft into separate ghettos has led to a serious constraint on our creativity and integrity.
Your designs are environmentally friendly and follow the EMS (Environmental Management System). What are some of the ways that you follow this system when designing?
Firstly, we have a publicized set of core values (which will be on our website). These act as a form of design brief and we constantly refer back to them during the course of the design development to make sure we are upholding them. We have also had a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) carried out on a key product, which has given us indications about the merits and problems associated with our materials and process. LCA is not a panacea, nor is it an easy tool to use, but it has certainly helped us improve some of our environmental ‘hotspots’.
How do you stay innovative and push the boundaries of thinking, for example, with sustainability practices?
To be honest I find it hard not to be innovative! That is just the way I am: I am always wanting to push on and try out new ideas, forever addressing the question “what if . . . ?” But I am no longer a one-man-band and developing a new design for production in a company is a long, slow and costly exercise. So my problem is having to be more disciplined and focused about this. As a company we probably spend far more on R&D than most, and we are lucky that we have the production side to generate the capital for this.
What is your favourite piece and why?
Body Raft 2000. This was the design that Cappellini picked up, and in doing so completely changed the course of my career from working on my own to running the current business. But I still think it is my most resolved and one of my most innovative designs. It is actually much harder to be innovative in furniture than it is in lighting where there are less structural and functional demands.
Aside from being an extraordinary designer, you are also a great writer and public speaker. How do you relate your designs to your writing? Why is writing important to you?
It is because the most important thing for me is communication. Someone in Sao Paulo wrote in her design blog about what my Coral light meant to her. It was a beautiful evocation of soul-to soul connection, which meant more to me than all the profits we have ever made! (You can see it on our website in about/feedback). As I said before, I believe there is only really one creative process, so writing is hardly any different to me than designing. I go through the same initial wide, free-ranging scoping and reaching for an illusive concept, then the refining and shaping, and finally the crafting of the building blocks, the words. The sense of satisfaction on completion of seeing all those pieces fitting so precisely in the right place is identical whether I have been handling words or blocks of wood. The writing also expresses some of the ideas in its own way, hopefully a little more poetically and metaphorically.
Where has some of your work been exhibited around the world?
We have had some great shows in Paris, thanks to MOA, our agents there. These include the Pompidou Centre twice, Via Design Centre and an amazing series of window installations with Stella McCartney at Printemps. The Body Raft was used on the catwalk in a fashion show in Milan as the sole prop and our lights were used in the recent Italian Big Brother (I am not sure if that is something to shout about?!). Philippe Starck used some Body Rafts in a resort in the Seychelles and we have done a whole lot of outdoor furniture for other resorts in Fiji, Maldives and Mauritius. There are even Coral lights in the Swedish Stock Exchange. Every year we do an installation for the Milan Design Week, and our agents do trade shows for us in Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Singapore, Dubai and Australia. There are designs of mine in public collections such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, The Power House in Sydney, the Minneapolis Design Museum and Te Papa Tongarewa (national museum) in Wellington NZ.
What does art mean to you? As an artist, what is it like to be able to transform your thoughts and ideas into something tactile and beautiful?
I think the answers to that one are already there above. Art means communicating to me. I define art as the power to exert change – if in some way you are just that little bit different after contact with art, then it is working. And when I receive feedback like that from the Sao Paulo blogger, then it is all so worthwhile. I will defend the need for all art to the utmost because artists are the genetic mutants who are constantly pushing the limits. Like all mutations, most artwork will wither and be forgotten, but we must have all of it, the good and the atrocious, in order to have the really important artworks that change us. Without the constant questioning of art we will stagnate into stasis. Art is the friction which gives the spark of life.
Where can your work be found in Toronto and the surrounding area?
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions?
Next week I am off to Milan for our annual showing there at Milan Design Week. We will be in the Innovation-Imagination event opposite Superstudio in Via Tortona. In May we will be in New York during their design event around ICFF, exhibiting in ‘Wanted’ in Chelsea. I will also be on a panel discussion there about Culture and Design along with Paula Antonelli of MOMA and Giulio Cappellini (both TBC). In June we will be in Dwell on Design in Los Angeles. Later in the year we are planning a possible exhibition with Wexler Gallery in Philadelphia and also with them at Art Miami.
What is next for you?
We are about to move to new premises, which we are very excited about. It will be custom built for us, as green as possible and have a much larger design studio, a showroom and a much more efficient workshop. We have a number of projects that we are working on that have the potential to be whole new leaps forward but you will have to wait for them! I can say that one involves considerably extending our computing abilities into parametric and algorithmic modeling, and I would like to relate new production processes and materials to these design processes. We already have one new material developed specially for us by a research lab in New Zealand, using local flax and a plant-derived plastic. And as always I will be looking for new opportunities to explore the earth’s wildernesses and to get back to basics.