New Zealand’s most iconic living lighting designer reflects on the challenges and charms of working from the world’s southernmost archipelago
Over the last decade David Trubridge’s work in lighting and furniture has become virtual shorthand for a particular vision of New Zealand; a breezy Pacific quality that speaks of light and fresh air, using the rhythm and easy beauty of fractals to magnify the tiny details of nature while bringing its awe-inspiring spectacles to human scale.
Since his now-classic Body Raft chaise longue was first picked up for production by Cappellini at the 2001 Milan Furniture Fair, Trubridge has sold and exhibited around the world, lately at New York’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum Design Triennale and for his tenth consecutive year at Milan, becoming in the process the country’s most popular and best-known product designer.
“I see myself as a designer who lives in New Zealand,” he says. “My work doesn’t necessarily reflect any national identity, though through the artistic process I do hope it takes on a local flavour.” Originally a trained boat designer from the United Kingdom, Trubridge and his family left their homeland in 1982 to sail around the world, initially only settling in New Zealand out of expediency and his sons’ desire for a regular school schedule. Identifying with a particular place doesn’t hurt, especially when it has few negative associations globally, he says. “I think people need New Zealand to exist as this kind of idyllic place, somewhere. They don’t actually have to go there.” He cites his Paris stockist, the Moa Room, which specialises in New Zealand design, as one business that has capitalised on international perceptions of the country while introducing a broader take on its design talent.
There is, however, a large stumbling block to New Zealand’s relative isolation from the world’s design and manufacturing community, particularly for the younger vanguard of designers. “There’s an incredible barrier to get through to start making things,” he says. Whereas in Europe, companies will manufacture new designs at their expense and pay royalties, this is not the case at home, and he finds it sad that many decent graduates need to go overseas for work, or simply give up.
Until recently, he ran an incubator for emerging designers within his studio in Hawke’s Bay, passing on contract work to assist them financially. “I still think there’s a need for it, but maybe somewhere more central,” he says. Of the next generation, he has “a huge respect” for Tim Wigmore, Nathan Goldsworthy and Rebecca Asquith. Another younger designer he admires is Jamie McLellan. “He’s doing some amazing things. He has an acute sensitivity to getting things right.”
Another factor setting Trubridge’s studio apart is the technological process it uses to create his airy forms – computer modelling and a CNC router (a machine that creates a 3D hard copy of a design with a cutting tool rather than an ink jet). More common among architects than small-scale designers, they allow the team to create larger structures that are lightweight and use minimal material. His recent Spiral Islands light collection, for example, was made from two concentric spirals of recyclable polycarbonate, allowing the large shapes to float weightlessly overhead.
However, deliberately creating avant garde work is not one of his guiding principles. He also dislikes the tag ‘eco designer’ with which he is often associated; he’s always used high-quality sustainable materials, and designed for longevity. “My work has its basis in archetypal forms, which gives it an ongoing value that’s not relevant to fashion,” he says. “I don’t believe in doing things for a ‘look’. For me, that’s a profligate, irresponsible use of materials.”
This distinctive approach means Trubridge has largely managed to avoid the issue of copyright infringement that has become the bane of the lives (and wallets) of many successful designers – though he has seen pendant lights with decorative wooden patterns similar to his now-ubiquitous Coral light beginning to surface in Europe. “It’s not enough to be a copyright issue, but it should be given acknowledgement where it’s due,” he says. On the other hand, despite the outrage felt by some designers, he wonders if it’s worth the fuss. “Should you just let it go and keep moving forward? With these lights, I found a niche, so they’re harder to copy because they’re obviously mine. They’re also hard to make, so if you can’t copy them cheaply, it’s not worth it.”
Trubridge believes there are distinct advantages to basing his studio outside an urban centre. He places himself closer to the artistic end of the design spectrum and says that, rather than other designers, his influences are artists like Richard Serra, Olafur Eliasson and Anselm Kiefer. “Location has always been one of my most appreciated aspects of New Zealand,” he says. “There’s creative space. The glass walls are much further out. You’re not swamped by information as you would be in densely populated parts of the world. You have to find your creative vision, your heart, your place to stand. You see a lot of young designers in, say, Brick Lane in London, just shuffling existing forms and reorganising them in a witty or ironic way. Within a genuine artistic process I don’t see influence as being important. It’s about developing your own artistic voice to find the vocabulary you use as a designer – by default it will be original.” davidtrubridge.com