By Brooks Belford
French design magazine L’Express recently hailed him as one of the 15 best designers in the world. New Zealand Institute of Architects last year awarded him their highest distinction. The United Nations gave him the Green Leaf award for artistic excellence. “His work knows no boundaries.” “A design visionary.” “The world’s most ecological designer.” He, of course, is David Trubridge, best known for creating elegant, elemental contemporary furniture and lighting and for raising the profile of New Zealand design to international prominence.
Ten years ago, Trubridge was working out of his home studio in Havelock North and producing maybe one finished design a year. Today, his designs are produced at Cicada, his full-scale manufacturing facility in the Whakatu Industrial Park, and sold in quantity around the world. The turning point came in 2001. Trubridge took a few of his pieces-including the now iconic Body Raft-to the Milan Furniture Fair and caught the attention of Cappellini, an Italian distribution firm.
Returning home with an order for a container load’s worth of product, Trubridge soon found himself launched into high-end retail. This year, Time Magazine’s Luxury Index pictured his Coral Pendant lamp, at US$500, along side Botega Veneta’s silver bangles, US$3,980. Gin company Bombay Sapphire offers his one-off Spiral Light installation for US$25,000.
But none of this-the superlative accolades, the glam sales venues, the eco buzz words-has much to do with who Trubridge is and why he does what he does.
“It isn’t about business,” he says. Some design firms “survey the market, see what people want, and then ship it out. That’s a business model. That’s not what I do. Design that is striped down to the purely functional and utilitarian doesn’t work. It has no meaningful cultural or personal connection. Most of what we consume is like that-like junk food. It’s not nourishing. We crave more and more of it as it satisfies us less and less.”
Trubridge creates to “nourish.” Deeply concerned about the environment, his work is a kind of antidote to mindless consumption and its devastating consequences. Driven not by the market place, but by his own “creative imperative,” Trubridge says his designs are the outcome a personal creative process and inspired by the natural world.
Ben Pearce, a young sculptor and part of the Cicada design team, offers a glimpse of this process in action. “David might come in one day and he’s had a wave of inspiration. It doesn’t faze him that it’s going to be really difficult to do, like the Spiral Islands design that pushes everything to the limit. And you go, ‘Oh we’ll just do it the easy way, just lose that curve, it would be easier.’ But David will be absolutely intent on staying with the drawing. It’s just bloody-mindedness. He doesn’t let anything get in the way. At the end you’ve done it and it’s perfectly balanced. It’s given me a great deal of confidence that I can do this in my own artwork; that I can stay true to what I see in my mind’s eye.”
Truebridge’s elegant, organic forms resonate with what Ben Pearce calls “down-to-earthiness.” Yet the Eco design label so often applied to Trubridge’s work completely misses the mark. “‘Eco design’ doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “It’s a slogan used by advertisers to get people to buy more stuff that they don’t need and feel good about it…feel like their doing something good for the planet, when actually it’s just the opposite.”
Trubridge aims to operate his business, from design and product development through distribution, along sustainable lines. “But it’s not perfect yet. We have to find ways to make these changes and still be able to pay our bills. The creative thinking of designers or artists will be at the forefront of solving these kinds of problems.” he says. “I’ve been thinking about what it is that people are buying when they buy one of the lamps. I mean they’re not just buying a lampshade. Maybe we can identify what that is and use less and less physical stuff to produce it. It comes back to the nourishment idea.”
Another area of interest is multi-cultural collaboration. Trubridge and the Cicada team are currently designing an enormous outdoor installation for a library, part of a new town built from scratch in Saudi Arabia. But Trubridge would like to go further and get involved in projects that in some way address imbalances between developed and developing countries.
The artist, says Trubridge “is a kind of mutant,” someone who expresses a sudden alteration to the normal order and can therefore lead the way to significant change. Trubridge himself is a change agent: creating commercial products that challenge destructive consumerism; evolving more sustainable approaches to design and manufacturing; mentoring young designers; fostering international collaborations.
“I just have this idealism about culture, really, about the role of the value and importance of culture and in my own small, little way I’m trying to contribute to that.” And then he says, once again, “It’s not about business.”