Features

Design as consequence

July 29, 2009

David Trubridge proves that designers do not have to wear horse-hair to be responsible.

An Antarctic chill sweeps across Hobart the night I first meet David Trubridge. I have slugged off a commuter flight straight to the launch of Design Island 09.
Trubridge limbers in from a five-hour mountain hike, fit as a goat and beaming. Although he has just returned from another successful trip to the design world’s centre of gravity in the north of Italy, there is no doubt in which of the two spots Trubridge feels most at home. He relishes the wilderness and feels at ease with nature at its rawest. His keynote speech the next day begins with images of an azure sea and a stark stretch of bleached sand – the boundary of land and sea representing not only the fragile balance of nature, but also the edge condition of life in New Zealand. It is a condition Trubridge has chosen, following a childhood in Britain, travels across the Pacific, work in the US, Japan, Tahiti and Antarctica.
He arrived in New Zealand in 1985 where he set up a design business that today produces a range of poetic, immaculately crafted design objects. Perhaps his best known design is Body Raft, which was picked up by Cappellini at the Salone Satellite in the 2001. A perfect example of Trubridge’s melding of sensual materiality and technical virtuosity, Body Raft sets a course for a paradigm shift in design ethics, that of a meaningful conservation of resources.
Sustainability is not, however, a word Trubridge likes to use, compromised as it is by marketing spin and manufacturing hubris. Materials are ethically relative, with no universal ‘good’ material. Bamboo consumes carbon in growth which is good, but requires glues and is hard to recycle, which is not good. Aluminium smelts at high temperatures making it high in embodied energy, yet is well-suited to repeated recycling. Plastic relies on the petrochemical production, yet is cheap and accessible to even the poorest.
Ultimately, Trubridge believes, there is another element that must be calculated aside from the standard indices of material economy, and that is the contribution a design makes to cultural understanding. If a truly seismic shift is required in our thinking about how we live our lives, it requires more than carbon spreadsheets; it requires design that engages cultural meaning.
Trubridge most recently brought this holistic idea to life through a magical installation at Superstudio Piu in Zona Tortona as part of Milan Design Week. Entitled The Three Baskets of Knowledge, the installation reinvented a Maori myth, where God gives mankind three baskets of knowledge, related to the body, the mind and the spirit. This trilogy was here translated into three hanging illuminated lights, made from bamboo, aluminium and PETG. Hung together in a darkened room, their effect was sensual yet solemn.
In many ways Trubridge’s project seemed to take over where William Morris left off in the late 19th century. The godfather of the arts and crafts movement railed against the dehumanising world of the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, Trubridge’s investment in design as cultural value makes an appeal to move beyond meeting market demand, towards a design that is essentially a humanist activity. Unlike Morris, however, Trubridge embraces the machine technology of today, through his use of sophisticated CNC routing and computer design, in part reflecting his early technical training as a naval architect.
The result is a design practice that rejects sustainability as ‘design muesli’ – dry boring health food. Trubridge believes that responsible designers need not wear horsehair shirts. They can delight, tell a story, take you on a journey, aspire to the beautiful and create desire, yet also employ parsimonious production and, in the case of The Three Baskets of Knowledge, easy assembly and modest freight. It is refreshing to see, amidst the great abundance of riches at Milan, an installation that is so evocative and with such a potent message, delivered through thrift and material ingenuity.

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