Profile: David Trubridge

We’ve clearly been having a bit of a love affair with wood lately.

Over the last month or two, we’ve profiled the men we consider the rockstars of contemporary wood work today: Matthias Pliessnig, with his daring, swooping forms; Donald Fortescue, with his soulful, powerful sculptures and sculptural benches; and now, David Trubridge, who creates lighting and furniture with edgy organic forms often built for movement…or to catch the breeze.

These men use reasonably similar techniques (bent wood) and use nature and process as their inspiration.  They know each other and respect each other’s work: in fact, David’s done several stints (at Donald’s invitation) as a visiting professor at CCA, and you get a sense of a playful back and forth between these two guys that keeps their edges honed (all in a good way).

And yet they couldn’t be more different in the way they work. As you’ll see.

The Hawkes Bay region of New Zealand, is a bit better known for its handcrafted wines than its handcrafted furniture, but Hastings, New Zealand based David Trubridge may change all that. David’s a philosopher/maverick/designer/master craftsperson/artist whose furniture and lighting regularly show up in tony design magazines and style temples like Design Within Reach. (Proof, by the way, that you don’t have to live in an urban design hub to get known.) But really, what’s more intriguing is how he got there, how he works, and how his convictions about living in sync with the environment imbue his designs with a certain distinctive power. (And we’d venture to say that these convictions play a huge role in his success.)

Take us back to the beginning, which in your case, is England, not New Zealand. Right. As a kid, I used to collect matchsticks and odd bits of wood on the south coast of England. It was an early start at making and recycling. (!) When I was in school, I was interested in art and spent all my time doing landscapes in the Constable/Turner style. But I ended up doing a degree in naval architecture, though I discovered that it was more engineering than anything.

After I graduated, (this was the 70’s) I bought an old building and rebuilt it, and in the course of it had to buy machines to make windows and doors and those things. So I started making. Then came design. And it all started from there, my life as a studio craftsman. I’m pretty much self-taught but still managed to get some commissions. (The man is all modesty. His commissioners have included the Victoria and Albert Museum.)

Anyway, I got married and had a family, and we bought a boat. We sailed it around Britain for a couple of years. We even tried sailing it in the Irish sea, which was bloody hard work, not to mention dangerous. But we loved the sailing. Eventually, we realized that we either have a house or we sail.

So we got rid of the house.

Nice. So we set out on an open-ended adventure. We had to earn money as we went (for 5 years – gives you a sense of the entrepreneurialism and hustle of the guy, and, dare we say, cojones) and I made furniture for expats who had houses in places like BVI, Tortola, Moorea. I got to do some pretty exciting projects for people–and top up our kitty too. And then we got to New Zealand.

Was that nirvana to you guys? Love at first sight? Not really. We didn’t like NZ that much when we first got there: it was actually more English than the England we’d left. But we’ve changed, and NZ has changed. We’ve now been here since 1985.

What’s influencing you now? Aw, so much. The political/philosophical influence of how we live, the environment, of course. But in terms of where the ideas come from, there’s no one place. Of course, nature. But I think it’s about finding your place, the sense of family and history, your heart. As an artist, you have to find that place and speak from it. If you follow fashion, you’ll always be a follower. It’s more important to ignore the stuff that’s happening out there than to embrace it too much. (For more, visit David’s blog, which is both smart, and eruditely pragmatic – no mean feat.)

But the practice of finding your place – how do you do it? Reading magazines and blogs is about keeping informed, and I do all that. But it’s not really part of the creative process. You have to go away. I spend time in the mountains and desert. And I don’t go there to look for forms. I go there to empty myself, and to let that stuff percolate through. You have to get through the clutter to let the stuff come from lower down. I work hard to create that sense of space around me.

And how do you keep that going through the making? The creative process is what we engage in at work and it has to run through the art and the craft and the design. You use all those three as parts of the process. If you don’t do the artistic part, or the craft part, you have no vocabulary to speak with. Designers miss that a lot.

Constant renewal and expression…how do you keep it going, particularly in a business that’s so hungry for novelty? You’ve been doing that for a while now. It’s pretty straightforward. You have to prove that you can do not just one design well, find different expressions for your ideas. And it’s consistency, persistence. Showing up. People tend to forget that.

So we’ve talked about your influences…what are you interested in now? The area I’m most thinking about more and more is understanding the processes built into nature. We’re starting to find ways of replicating those processes through algorithms on the computer.

I’m also liking the unconventional and the unexpected. The traditional design process requires a certainty of final results. But nature doesn’t work like that. It all evolves from a code: but where that tree’s planted depends on how it responds to local parameters. An oak tree sitting on a mountain versus a field will be different from each other. And what you see at the end is an evolving thing.

And what I’m really enjoying is designing with parametric modeling, which draws on the idea of design mutations. You create a model of what you’re designing with a series of functions. But then you can bring in random things and make aesthetic or structural choices based on those items. Products can respond to markets and circumstances better. (Imagine, it’s not all about cookie cutter processes. What a concept.)

How does all this natural irregularity fit with a production process, though? Well, that’s less easy. Production systems are relatively fixed at this point, and rapid prototyping is too expensive for production, it’s really only for molds. So we need to figure out what to do with that. I do have some ideas there.

So how much time do you spend making vs. designing vs. running things? I don’t really do any making. But our team does all of our own manufacturing. (Check out this Behind the Scenes Video for an in-depth glimpse into their work and process.) I accept that we’re limiting our growth but we’re maintaining control over what we do. But I also don’t see myself as a product designer. My real driving force is the artistic imperative. I want to tell stores, say something, more than creating an object. I don’t just want to produce stuff. (Amen.)

So where does craft fit into all of this? The issue of craft is really important to me. Being a small outfit, we can retain that element. And it does inform design: I can’t design on the computer without that craft experience behind me. You can only design with materials you know how to use. Craft knowledge is a completely different knowledge than design knowledge. Craft knowledge is embedded in your muscles: you only acquire it by doing it again and again and again. If I’m drawing on a computer, my body knows what it feels like to bend it. It’s that ingrained knowledge that’s important: you need to understand the material.

To me art and craft and design are verbs. You can’t separate them. When you DO separate them, and you ghettoise things, and you get things that are useless, art that’s purely conceptual and self-referential. There’s a lot of design that’s shuffling stuff around. They bring in irony and wit as a way of gaining attention. I really believe in the process of those things coming together.

How do you spend your day? I spend most of the day in the design studio and the communications stuff, which always takes time. I have a fantastic team. We always have a number of projects on the go. I see myself as keeping my eye on the bigger picture, bringing in new ideas. As they become more resolved, I have less to do with them.

But what do you like the most? 30 years ago, it was the making. I was blissfully happy doing that. Now, honestly, it drives me up the wall, have no patience doing it myself. I get vicarious pleasure working with people who are doing the making. Now I like more of the visioning, the philosophy of it. I’ve been trying to write a book…and yoga. My wife got me into that.

Where do you get your joy? Windsurfing, walking in the mountains, listening to music.  (Like what?) Mix of contemporary jazz and world music: there’s actually some interesting contemporary jazz coming out of Norway these days. And there’s an Australian group called The Necks. There’s just one track, lots of improvisation, it just really explores. There’s no hurry. to it: you just sit back and come and go with it, enjoy the subtle changes. It’s similar to the process. Bach did that 350 years ago with his fugues.

Who would play you in the movie of your life? Oh, I have no idea.

And what’s on your book pile? Right now, I’m reading The Master and his Emissary, written by a neuropsychologist about right brain and left brain who applies that to culture. He talks about how cultures have gone through periods of being more right or left brain dominated and how destructive it is to be going too far either way. (Check out David’s review of it.)

Best gift you’ve received? My two boys. One’s in NZ, the other one lives in the Bahamas, a world record-holding free diver.

And what five things define you?

My laptop. I hate to admit it, but when you think about it, it allows us to have his conversation. I can keep in touch, watch films, create, listen to music. It allows me to do so many things. But…

My walking boots, because they represent the pleasure I have when I’m wearing them.

A good pencil. I love my pencil, I’m always doodling and drawing. I’m always writing things down in a notebook.

And about that notebook….I’m fussy. It has to have blank sheets, not lined. I need the empty space to let it all go.


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