On a recent visit to the Open Design Festival in the Mother City, House and Leisure‘s Danielle Le Chat got the chance to meet with top New Zealand furniture designer David Trubridge to chat about his work, his views on designs and trends and the responsibility to design sustainably.
What has been your experience of SA design so far?
Exhibiting at 100% Design and visiting Decorex in Joburg last week was great, because I do trade shows all over the world and they’re all the same, but this one had a flavour that was different, that was distinctly African. It’s hard to put your finger on it and say what it is exactly that makes it different but it was refreshing that people here don’t feel they have to follow international trends. They’re doing their own thing and that’s great. Pierre Le Roux’s dramatic chairs and tables in the style of African carvings and attenuated figures I really like, because it’s as if he’s saying ‘this is my culture, this is my country’.
Where do you get your inspiration?
A designer has to be absolutely open, like a sponge sucking in everything and the more you suck in, the more rich your resources are to draw from. Stimulus is really important – I watch films (not movies – big difference!), I read books, I travel and go to exhibitions and art shows and galleries, like the MOMA or the Guggenheim. It’s all really important stuff that keeps you fired up. When it comes to what I really draw from, it’s the desert, the mountains, Antarctica, the oceans, the wilderness; that’s where the strength comes from for me.
What materials do you use, and why?
Before using bamboo plywood, I used to do all my lights in hoop pine plywood from Australia, but they stopped making the thin varieties, they used up all their resources and no one would make it. So we hunted around for some basswood in China which was cheaper and very similar, but then we discovered that the trees were being cut from virgin forests and not being replaced, so I said ‘no way’. Eventually we found the bamboo, which is quite a bit more expensive but it’s important for me that we get the right material. It’s a secondary resource from the plantations used for growing food and it grows really fast so it’s very quickly replenished, which is the good side. The bad side is it requires a lot more machining and gluing to turn the bamboo stalks into plywood. There’s no perfect option, but you have to balance the criteria. So we do Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of our products, an expensive science that’s not the panacea you’d think it would be, but it does provide an insight into the materials you use.
Is there a reason why you sell your lamps as kit sets?
We proved through LCA that if we’re sending the boxes by sea freight, the impact on the planet is the exact same making them in New Zealand and sea freighting them to Europe as it is making it in Europe, because we use 100% renewable electricity and they use coal-fired power. By using the small kit, we’ve made the journey really efficient because we can fill up a container, which is difficult sometimes so we do air freight too, but rarely. We’re desperately trying to consolidate our freights so that we can avoid air freighting. The biggest factor against climate change though was someone getting into their car and driving to the shop to buy the lamp and then driving home again. We also sell the kit sets because people get the satisfaction of making the lamps themselves and then value them more, keeping the lamps for longer, which is also sustainable.
Would you say you’re influenced in any way by trends?
Absolutely not. I don’t want to be ephemeral and lock into what someone says is the new form, knowing deliberately that they’ll change it next year. I prefer instead to create classical designs that people will still be using in ten, twenty years. I always tell young designers to ignore everyone else, to listen to their hearts and spirit, speak from there and they’ll be original.
Anything new you’re working on?
I’m actually having great fun playing with building weird and wonderful boats right now. I recently built a West Pacific-style boat called a thofothofo, and there’s no other boat like it anywhere in the world. That led me to discover the effects of sea level rise on these areas from our carbon emissions and how we’re destroying these communities, so I’ve put forward a proposal for next year’s World Expo in Milan for an installation about this issue. I’m also making kit set versions of these canoes in their skeletal state. When I started making the coral lamps it was just a bit of play with no intention of making furniture, but it evolved into my whole business, and I think these boats are like that – starting out as a bit of play. It’s important to explore things even when you don’t know where they’re going to go.
How important is it for you that your designs bring about some kind of change?
Unfortunately we’re at this stage now where unless we change we’re going to be in serious trouble with the effects we’re having on the environment. Every designer is responsible for the things they produce and the effect they have on the planet. A part of me wants to live in a zero energy house and get away from it all, but that doesn’t solve anything. We have to work within the system to make changes and hope we can change it fast enough. I really believe we need to avoid reducing this into a practical engineering issue – if we trace the history of human culture, we’ve always made art; it’s fundamental to our existence. We have to keep on doing what we’re doing, but we just have make adjustments now. So yes, change, but keep the nourishment going. That’s why I still do what I do.