Mercurial seems too mild a word to describe David Trubridge who has changed the face of design in New Zealand.
January 23rd, 2018
Throughout an innovative, productive, and continually evolving professional life, internationally celebrated New Zealand designer David Trubridge is and has been many things –sculptor, builder, craftsman, artist, furniture and lighting designer, sailor, environmentalist, manufacturer, CAD-wrangler, businessman, promoter, speaker and philosopher.
At the same time, he has pursued strongly felt ethical concerns and followed the dictates of his heart through this rich succession of experiences and achievements. It’s easy to imagine a man with an uncommon drive, talent, spirit and awareness, all impressively integrated into a creative whole…and we find the impression is not far from the truth.
With a quiet manner and a focused energy, he speaks at a pace that indicates there is no time to waste, about the passage of his life and its various phases. By nature, he is one for moving on to learn new things, rather than resting in one place. That nature also has a keen analytical bent, a penchant for questioning, which means he is always thinking, not only reflecting on his own experiences, but also analysing the big picture problems of the planet, politics and human nature, and the processes of design and creativity.
He recalls that even when he was making “fairly humble workday furniture” he was always “thinking about the philosophy beyond it, about the role of craft, always taking it further.”
It is this analytical side that led him when he was preparing the material for his book, David Trubridge So Far, to discover a neat structural idea that provided him with a new way of understanding his life. He found the different phases of his life corresponded with the natural elements – earth, air, fire and water – and these then became the chapters in his book. Given that nature has always been his inspiration and muse, he felt the device could not be more fitting.
Born in the UK and spending his teenage years on the Isle of Wight, Trubridge grew up with a passion for boats, which led him to a degree in Naval Architecture from Newcastle University. By the time he graduated in 1972, however, he had other ideas. “I was captivated by the amazing stone sculptures [being made in situ in quarries] around Europe at that time, and I had this dream that I wanted to be a sculptor, to carve wood and stone,” he says. Along with others of his generation who were armed with the Whole Earth Catalogue and John Seymour’s book, Self-sufficiency, he was looking for an alternative, creative and sustainable lifestyle.
Together with his fine arts graduate wife, Linda, he bought a stone cottage in ruins in a high and remote part of Northumberland where he set up a workshop with a friend. He restored the house and went about learning the craft of woodwork.
“I always wanted to go my own way, do my own thing,” he says. “I had no design training,” nor was there craft training available, although there were a lot of people involved in the crafts who shared their knowledge. “We were learning everything for ourselves, it was very exciting. The workshop for me was an incredibly powerful place, full of potential. I got a tingle in my fingers when I went there, thinking, I could make anything!”
Mostly he made furniture, but as his work appeared in craft shows it attracted attention. The Victoria and Albert Museum commissioned a jewellery box. He made altar chairs for St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. At the same time, he had a part-time job as a forester through which he learnt about living trees and the craft of forestry. He also learned to work with stone, how to build with stone, and did a lot of dry-stone walling. This was a highly productive learning phase, craft-based and closely connected to the natural environment. “We had this wonderful grounding,” he says, “but I really needed to get back to the sea and just float, so we did.”
“Fortunately Linda was similarly adventurous and, with our two little boys, we sold everything, bought a yacht (‘Hornpipe’) and went sailing.” The family left in 1982 on an open-ended journey that lasted five years, sailing through the Caribbean and the Pacific, stopping for a while in the Virgin Islands and Tahiti.
During these years they had a very close family life, mostly home-schooling the children, and as David says, “It was wonderful at the time – you don’t get those years back, you know.”
While David worked when he could through this period and both he and Linda loved the life, they needed space to do creative work and they arrived in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand in late 1985. David’s furniture at the time was influenced by his experiences in the Pacific. He made a series of chairs, for instance, fastened with string lashings like outrigger canoes, one of which is displayed at the New Zealand embassy in Tokyo.
Major change was afoot again in 1990 as ‘Hornpipe’ was sold and the family moved to Havelock North, Hawkes Bay, where the boys went to high school and where David designed a house for them. As the house contained a “new plaster system and block system” people came to visit it, liked it and became clients.
As a result, “For most of the nineties my income actually came from architecture,” says David. This was fortunate as the economic outlook wasn’t great and David, struggling with being back in civilisation, “living in suburbia”, was now making more experimental artwork than craft – figurative tables from split-timbers and tabletops using woodblock prints with patterns carved by different timber-working tools.
While the fire phase wasn’t characterised in the furniture as such, David says “fire is the spark of life, and it’s also the artistic spark”, and it was during this time that he focussed on art. He spent 1991 as Artist-in-Residence at Hawkes Bay Polytechnic in the craft design course and came to the realisation that his own personal art process lay in developing his connection with the landscape.
“Nature has always been where my heart lies. I always loved to walk and go hiking in the bush or in the mountains,” he says, so he concentrated on building up his vision, on finding his own way of expressing that connection with nature through patterns and structure. “That’s what I call the art process, it’s where you get your ideas from,” he says, “where you find your point of inspiration, where your heart lies – for me it’s the landscape.” The furniture he made subsequently was often colourful and organic.
His award-winning ‘Hornpipe Bench’, for example, was exhibited in the UK and at Hannover Ligna and was included in the 1996 International Design Yearbook. Through the 1990s also, Trubridge began to take on speaking engagements, and as with everything he does, he says, he got better at it as he went along. “Everything’s learnt along the way. It comes with its time.”
“When I need time to think, I usually go off into the bush,” says Trubridge. He did this at the end of the 1990s, and came back with the idea to go “poking around boatyards in Auckland, looking at processes and structures. This got me thinking in a whole different way,” he says, and out of that thinking came the airy bentwood ‘Body Raft’, the second version of which he took to the 2001 Milan Furniture Fair where Cappellini stepped in, and the local craftsman and designer/maker quickly became an internationally recognised designer, manufacturer.
“I was a one-man band making furniture, on my own, for nearly thirty years before [that],” he says, grateful for (because the role of designer/maker is physically hard) and invigorated by the transformation of his career.
Trubridge attributes this success variously to: his consistent appearance in Milan and at other furniture fairs every year since 2001 with new products and ideas; his adoption of computers in 3D design manufacturing, skills that came as an extension of his naval architecture training; enhanced communication through the internet; lighting sold as a flat-pack to keep export costs down; incremental growth – the company now turns over several million dollars a year, and Trubridge has never taken out a bank loan; and the design team behind him, which now numbers around 20, many of whom have been with him from the beginning.
That the organic and curvaceous designs he creates in natural materials have broad appeal is a given. There is some suggestion that his distinctive aesthetic is at the vanguard of a new form of raw sophistication. His commitment to creating products in a way that is as environmentally sustainable as possible adds additional weight.
That they continually win awards and are covered in countless pages in the international design press is further testament to this. Trubridge sees the work from this later stage of his life as finding a balance.
“Up to that point I’d done very sculptural pieces, the figurative pieces, and quite practical pieces, and this is somewhere in between. Balance, for me, is a keyword in everything.”
While the elemental framework used in his book So Far marks the different phases of Trubridge’s life, what isn’t included in the book is its spiritual underpinning, where he says balance is also key. David explains that his wife, Linda, does a lot of yoga, that in yogic philosophy the energy points on the spine called chakra are related to the elements, and that “the characteristics of the chakra were uncannily like the experiences I was undergoing at different stage of my life.”
From the earth chakra at the base of the spine, up through the Water and Fire chakra to the Air chakra, which is the heart, the lungs, the breath, he sees his life story mirrored. “And then the final one is the Ether, which is the throat,” he says.
“All the way through the structures have been getting less and less material, and in the throat, we’ve gone past the objects, it’s just ideas, pure ideas. It’s into books, lectures, thinking, talking and writing.”So this is where the future lies for David, in ideas, philosophy and communication. His thoughts on the creative process, which tackle the endlessly-debated art/craft/design issue, are worth much further depth.
In brief, however, the idea is taken in part from Professor Iain McGilchrist’s writing about the way the two hemispheres of the brain work: the intuitive, outward-looking, empathetic and artistic right brain, and the inward focused, disconnected, designing left brain. The two sides operate together as if tossing an idea between them. Right brain looks at the big picture, left brain analyses the small detail, and tosses it back to right brain to re-calculate its position given the new information.
“This three-part process, right/left/right,” says Trubridge, “is the same as the creative process: art/design/craft. So art is your intuitive, connective process, led by what you think. Design is focused, out of context, analytical, build a structure, get it right, and craft is the intuited, embodied process that we build up in the body making things.”
While he has great respect for the haptic knowledge gained from a bodily understanding of materials, he is equally insistent on the need for the art process as the progenitor of design. Otherwise, “where do you get your ideas from?” He returns to the value of balance in all things.
Trubridge is fired up about many other issues as well and wants to address anything relevant to art and design. “Environmentalism’s a big one in design.” He currently writes for a local magazine about more sustainable political issues, farming, how we’re looking after the land for the future,” an ethos that was embedded in earlier days, and which now has greater urgency.
This is particularly so because, while the land and nature have always been important for him, it’s even more important, “and fundamentally more important because it’s threatened, and we’ve lost our contact with it.”
David Trubridge was featured as an Indesign Luminary in issue #56 of Indesign magazine.
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