May 18, 2017

10 min read
Words & Photos: Richard Brimer / Supplied


David Trubridge went from small scale furniture maker to internationally regarded designer when his ‘Body Raft’ lounger was picked up at the Milan Furniture Fair in 2001. But his physical and professional journey to where he is today is a much bigger story of purpose and possibilities. Graduating in Boat Design in England in 1972, David initially worked as a forester before teaching himself how to make furniture. In 1981 however, adventure called and David, his wife and two sons sold everything and bought a yacht called ‘Hornpipe’. We sat down with David to talk about his journeys through design, through building a sustainable business and through the world itself.

  1. David and light maker Paige.

As a creative person, it’s really important that you follow your urges and are constantly exploring new things"

Hi David, I am eager to know about your journey here and how that big adventure brought you to where you are. You sailed here from 1981 to 1985. Was New Zealand always your long-term destination when you set off, and where did you stop along the way?

’No, it wasn’t’. We actually did set out on an open ended adventure with no real objective, whether to leave or comeback or whatever. It was just go on an adventure and see what happens. And I sort of think you almost need to do that when you leave your home country. It’s like you’re not quite sure, you’re just going. It’s only when you’ve left and you’ve experienced the world and you’ve realized that there are better places than England, that we wanted to settle somewhere else. And New Zealand wasn’t initially on our list of places to go to. We were sort of just trucking through the Caribbean and through the Pacific and heading for Australia where I’ve got an aunt. But we discovered we had an Australian boat and were going to be hammered by tax if we took it back into Australia so at Fiji we diverted. By that time we’d come to quite like small Pacific Islands and New Zealand was far more appealing than Australia. So it was ok that we came here. And again we didn’t intend to stay. When we came here, we came here for a little bit of time, to sort ourselves out, do some work on the boat. We did do more trips from New Zealand, but we ended up staying here eventually.

  1. The Snowflake light at Mt. Ruapehu.
  1. Trained cabinet makers work on specialized lighting.
There seems to be a lot of references to Pacific and Caribbean places in your work. Which of these places do you feel really left something with you that has emerged in your work?

In terms of the work, no one place, but the Pacific culture absolutely, really strongly did. I guess because I’m a sailor I really responded to the Polynesian sailing culture - the canoes, their lifestyle and everything. So that had a very big effect, initially after I arrived in New Zealand and started getting back to work again. It was partly sort of the times we were evolving through, that quite a few artists were doing what has since been mildly criticized as being ‘Pacifika’. We were quite direct in our derivation of where the ideas came from, where the references were made to. Over time I’ve learnt to be more subtle about that, but at the time it was such a strong influence. And people like Warwick Freeman, Alan Preston in jewellery and Humphrey Ikin, who were all working in that same sort of area. But for me it was kind of real because I’d actually been there and I’d sailed it, so it was particularly personal.

You have a sort of varied-but-not background since you studied boat design and then went on to work as a forester, which presumably gave you some further insight into wood. Would you say you've reached your purpose in becoming a furniture/lighting/jewellery designer or are you still working towards something else?

No, I’m still moving. At the moment I’m really enjoying playing around with getting back to my naval architecture and boat building. And I’ve been building plywood paddleboards, windsurf boards. I’ve designed a new windsurfer sail that is based on the Polynesian sail rather than the conventional western sail. I’m going back to that sailing/boat-building part of me that is very strong and very alive. Where that’ll go I don’t know, but I think it’s really important as a creative person that you follow your urges and are constantly exploring new things. Otherwise there’s a danger you can get stuck in a rut.

In your writing you make a point about the concept of ‘new’ in design as opposed to ‘novelty'. How do you set out to create ‘new’?

I think it’s kind of retaining your integrity, your authenticity of what you believe in. It comes back to the creative process you’re working through. I think the problem today is that the education system and the whole design world has become very compartmentalised into separate ghettos. So designers say, 'well I don’t do art or craft making stuff – I just do the design’, and so I would say ‘well, where do you get your designs from? How do you generate your ideas?’ You do that as an art process. A design process is creating structure and form and pattern and whatever else you are doing, but you’ve got to initially work as an artist to develop a feeling, a response to something, a personal vocabulary with which to speak of yourself, of your time and of your place. Which has to be unique if you are going through that process, because there is only one of you in this one place and your response to that would be quite different to anybody else’s. Only then have you got something to design with and you can start to build a pattern, form or structure out of that vocabulary you have developed — and that again, will be unique. The problem is contemporary designers aren’t taught this - they’re taught to be designers, so they just do the design part and because they haven’t generated those ideas, their originality, their voice or vocabulary, their personality, they just do the shuffle. Take what they see around them and shuffle it away in a new and novel, gimmicky way. Which is like a one-line joke – you look at it and you laugh, but you walk on, it doesn’t last. There’s no authenticity, there’s no value to it. It’s just a way of attracting attention in a vastly oversubscribed world of too many designers trying to chase too few consumers. You can’t blame them for being like that in that sort of world, but it just takes all the authenticity out of design. It just becomes a shouting match. It’s kind of a left brain way of thinking — of putting things together. Rather than initially working through your right brain as a creative person and then developing that through the left brain into a structure.

It’s a process is the short answer. It’s going through the whole creative process and not the compartmentalised design or art process. And craft is part of that, so again, you can’t design what you can’t make. If you don’t have an understanding of the materials, you can’t design things. You have to know how the material can be formed and joined and folded and manipulated, and the computer won’t tell you that.

  1. The David Trubridge Workshop.
  1. David oversees the making of a Nananu.
  1. Kitset lights on display in the showroom.
Your business seems to have grown with the concept of sustainability as a key tenet of it. What problems has this given you to solve along the way?

The problem is there is no one hundred percent sustainable solution. So you have to make compromises and you have to choose the least non-sustainable one. And there is no simple answer, because what are the criteria you are using to make your judgement on? Do you use carbon or resource depletion, or pollution or manufacturing standards of factories or whatever they are – they all conflict. You can get one of those which is really good and it’ll make another one really bad. So it’s a whole series of compromises and choosing the least-worst of all those things, but it means there are some things in there that you don’t want. So then you have to be really honest about what you’re doing. You say, ‘we’re doing this because of this, we don’t like it because it produces that, but that’s the best compromise we can find at the moment given all the available options’. So it’s a mixture of balancing those things and then being honest about it and not trying to pick one and saying that’s really all it’s about, and we’ve done this and we’re now 100% carbon zero so all the other pollution and resource depletion doesn’t matter anymore because we’ve done that — and that’s a lie.

Finally, what artists, designers and pieces are inspirational to you and your work?

You know, to be honest, it’s some guy on an island in the Pacific who is weaving bits of coconut leaf into a hat. That’s what I mean by authenticity. The problem is in the world today we have too many designers chasing too few consumers. In the 30 years when I was starting, in the first part of my career or life, I was hand making furniture and I made maybe a hundred pieces in 25 years, or something like that. I made a living out of 100 pieces of stuff, of objects which went into the world which were hand made, so they’ll last, they are good quality just because of the way they were made. A designer today works through commissions for a very small percentage of the final price of the object, so they have to be responsible for thousands and thousands – twenty, thirty thousand pieces to get that same living out of it. And that’s a problem, that we’ve got this exponential increase of ‘stuff’ floating around, and it’s only going to get worse if we carry on with this model. Whereas if you go back to the model of someone in a local area selling stuff in a craft fair that's not particularly brilliantly well-designed, but you’ve met the person, you like them, you like what they do, you can see the tree they cut down and all the materials they use which are from that area. It has some authenticity and it’s sustainable that practice, because you’re not producing vast quantities of stuff, you’re not having to get all these advertising people, these creative agencies to put a spin around your product to make it more appealing than the next one on the list that is being offered in this vast scramble to sell more stuff.

  1. Coral lights grace an airport.