Interview by Pavlos Amperiadis
Global Design News is thrilled to engage in a conversation with the distinguished David Trubridge, celebrated as New Zealand’s best known furniture and lighting designer. His masterpieces, meticulously crafted by his company in Whakatu NZ, have captivated audiences worldwide, making a significant impact in global markets. In 2023, he has won two Prize Designs for Modern Furniture + Lighting awards with Toru and Kina Ottoman lighting designs.
David Trubridge is an artist, designer, and the owner of his own lighting manufacturing company. He is also a proficient writer and speaker, focusing on topics he is passionate about, primarily design philosophy, sustainability, and the environment. This commitment is deeply rooted in his extensive travels to remote corners of the planet. Over the years, he has delivered numerous presentations at conferences, design shows, architects’ offices, and universities worldwide.
David Trubridge graduated as a Naval Architect from Newcastle University Britain, but since then he has worked as a furniture designer/maker. He settled in New Zealand after a five year yacht voyage with his family. His design process combines innate craft knowledge, sculptural abstraction and computer design technology, as it draws on his life’s rich experiences.
Trubridge has shared his insights on the grand stage of Mexico City’s renowned opera house, addressing an audience of 3000 architects. Additionally, he has given two TEDx talks and presented at design trade show seminars in cities like London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Auckland, Dongguan, and Warsaw, among others. Invitations to speak at Chile’s Puerto de Ideas and teaching design at esteemed institutions such as the Vitra Summer School in Boisbuchet (France) and Anderson Ranch in Colorado highlight his global influence.
Over recent years his designs have featured in countless international publications, including influential Italian magazines and even the Financial Times, as an instigator of the trend of ‘raw sophistication’ and as an exemplar of environmentally responsible design. In 2008 the French magazine Express listed him as one of the top 15 designers in the world. His Body Raft has been voted as iconic in New Zealand and in the best 50 designs of the twentieth century overseas, and his Coral light has been named as one of the top ten lights of the last 100 years by a Singapore magazine. Two lights, Nikau and Snowflake, won Red Dot awards in 2015.
In 2007 he was given NZ’s highest design award, the John Britten Award, by the Designer’s Institute of NZ. In 2010 his Spiral Island set was included in the Design Triennale in New York and also won a Good Design Award. Furthermore, in 2012, the prestigious Pompidou Centre in Paris acquired his ‘Icarus’ installation, cementing its place in the permanent collection.
He is invited to speak regularly on sustainable design at conferences and symposia around the world. In 2013 Craig Potton Press published his autobiography ‘So Far’ which is also a design manifesto. In 2019 he was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday honours list as an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit(ONZM) for services to design.
There will be a move away from blanket white light filling spaces to more subtle and emotional treatments that nourish rather than drain us
GDN: David, can you share a bit about your background and how you first got into furniture and lighting design? I saw some wonderful old photographs on your website.
David: As a kid, I loved to make things: I collected used matchsticks off the beachfront promenade where I lived on the Isle of Wight in southern England and built houses and boats out of them. And note that even then I was recycling!
At school I spent most of my spare time painting landscapes in the art school or making model boats in the workshop. I followed the lure of the sea to university to study naval architecture at Newcastle university in the north of England. But the course disappointed me with its major emphasis on engineering and my creativity was sidelined. So, when I graduated I moved to the country in Northumberland to carve wooden and stone sculptures.
That led me to buying an old stone ruin high up in the northern Pennines and renovating it into a rural home and studio. And having spent time making doors and windows I found it easier to earn a living out of making furniture. So, I taught myself the craft and later the design processes of furniture making. The best teacher is the wood itself if you listen. While I was starting, I supplemented my income with a part-time job as a forester, so I was also learning about wood as a living tree. I sometimes felled and milled my own timber. All this fed into my intuitive, autodidact designing and making.
Since then, I have built the business up over many years as it went through a number of different stages. I opened my workshop in England in about 1974 when I was making all sorts of things myself. It evolved into an artisan business where I was the sole designer/maker. In the 1980s I left England with my family (wife Linda and two small children) on a yacht for an adventure and five years later we ended up in New Zealand. I supported us on the way by making furniture for ex-pats in the Caribbean and Tahiti. Encountering the art and culture of the Pacific Island peoples made a lasting impact on my work.
The company David Trubridge Ltd was formed in 1995. I continued making furniture until the early 2000s. I moved out of my ‘garden shed’ into larger rented premises in 2001 after I had had a big success at my first showing at Salone del Mobile in Milan. I needed to employ more people with more space and that is when the business started to grow beyond just me.
Furniture is one area where we can and should be making locally with local materials and local craft skills
GDN: What sources of inspiration do you draw upon when creating your designs? Are there any designers or artists who have particularly influenced your work?
David: The obvious answer is nature. But that is too easy because, if we really admit it, everything comes from nature. However, it is the process that is important for me: going back to the source, not piggy-backing on the efforts of others.
I like to know what is going on in the world and see what other people are creating, and then forget it, because I don’t want what I have seen to influence me.
I am inspired by the example of other designers such as Ron Arad, Ross Lovegrove or the Campana brothers, but am not sure that their work has directly influenced me. I am more interested in the work of artists such as Richard Serra, Anselm Kiefer, Andy Goldsworthy or contemporary Aboriginal painters such as Dorothy Napangardi. Obviously, my work is nothing like Serra or Kiefer but the Aboriginal painters have definitely deeply influenced me. There is something about their ability to channel the patterns and textures of nature so intuitively, drawing on the incredibly long history of their culture, that I can only dream about.
I think that the most important thing is to be true to yourself, don’t try and follow what you see as influencer models
GDN: Congratulations on winning the Prize for Modern Furniture + Lighting 2023. How does it feel to receive such recognition for your work? Could you describe the winning designs and the inspiration behind?
I am very proud and honored to have this recognition—thank you.
KINA OTTOMAN: In 2005 I entered my Kina light to the IFDA awards in Japan where it won a prize. Kina is our local Māori word for sea urchin whose shell this design is based on. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the awards they asked me to come up with a new design which could be manufactured by the local industry in Hokkaido. I had always wanted Kina to be an ottoman but couldn’t resolve the weakness of the thin bent plywood. Now I had an idea and took it to Conde House in Asahikawa. It was a very demanding piece of CNC machining and craftsmanship which stretched their abilities. But they succeeded and produced this beautiful result.
TORU: is a pendant light that can be hung either vertically or horizontally. It is a continuation of our Diatom series which draws attention to the importance of diatoms and plankton in the oceans. They are responsible for more than half of the oxygen we breathe, so the health of the sea is vital to us. Toru is made from sustainably managed bamboo plywood and is sold as a kitset to reduce freighting costs.
As a craftsman making furniture, I couldn’t bear to waste precious wood and spent far too long trying to squeeze everything out of one plank
GDN: Can you walk us through your typical creative process when starting a new design project? How do you balance functionality and beauty in your designs?
David: Over the years I have developed an efficient design process that works really well for me. Everything starts in the mind: I can ‘see’ things in 3D and here I visualise ideas. Then I spend time with a pencil in my workbook developing the idea and working out details. I always have one or two ideas on the go which I play with in idle moments.
Only then do I open up the computer and create the first CAD model. Also, at this time I need to get my hands on some material to see if it behaves as I would like it to. Finally, we make the first prototype. We are very lucky to have our design studio right next to the manufacturing. So, we can send drawings down the line to our CNC machine and have cut samples back within an hour or two.
But this is not a linear process, it does not end here. This is just the start of a spiral process where we go round and round through these steps again and again. Hopefully, with each circuit, we end up nearer the goal at the centre. But you will only hit the centre of perfection with one or two designs in your lifetime. All the rest will not get that far, finally circling round and round, getting no closer. They are forced into some form of compromise between the competing, and too often irreconcilable, demands of aesthetics, structure, material, and cost.
So, it is not just functionality and beauty! Every designer will have their own priorities. I see that we operate on a continuum that moves from pure functionality, such as a carburettor (no one cares what that looks like!), to pure art, such as a conceptual work that has transcended physical form. I sit a little closer to the art end so I will give more weight to beauty than to functionality if forced to choose. Structure is essential, we don’t want it to fall apart or fail. But cost, again, depends on the designer and type of product. Kina Ottoman is a high cost, strongly aesthetic design.
GDN: Given the growing emphasis on sustainability, how do you integrate eco-friendly practices into your designs and production processes?
David: I have always considered the environment since I was that child collecting used matchsticks. As a craftsman making furniture, I couldn’t bear to waste precious wood and spent far too long trying to squeeze everything out of one plank. Similar environmental concerns have been ingrained into my company since its inception.
We do everything we can to be ‘green’, such as recycling virtually all our waste, often at our own expense; eliminating virtually all the plastic from our operation; installing solar panels on our roof and driving an electric van. Our biggest detrimental impact used to be freighting until we converted every product to kitset, massively reducing the volume we were shipping.
We are a certified B-Corp company which offers valuable third-party accreditation of what we are doing, not just environmentally but also in the way we treat people. For many years to exhibited in Europe and America every year but we are now moving away from incredibly wasteful big trade shows. They were great meeting places and were very important in the development of the company but can no longer be justified in today’s world, especially with all the long-distance flying involved for us.
The obvious answer is nature. It is the process that is important for me: going back to the source, not piggy-backing on the efforts of others
GDN: How do you see the field of furniture and lighting design evolving in the coming years?
David: I think there will be massive changes. The global model is dead, though its destructive habits will unfortunately cling on as long as they can. For bulky objects like furniture the future can only be local. We can’t go on shipping vast quantities of material back and forth across the planet just because it is cheaper that way. It is only cheaper today because the full cost of that process is not being paid, rather it is being passed down to future generations. Furniture is one area where we can and should be making locally with local materials and local craft skills. The materials will vary from one place to the next and so too will the necessary knowledge to work them. I find it ironic that I am coming full circle within my lifetime, from my artisanal beginnings in rural England to this today on the other side of the planet!
Lighting is harder because it is more technical—there is not an easy low-tech alternative. The urgent task today is to remove all the red list chemicals in the plastics used for cabling and fittings. That is starting, but the new products are still expensive. And if possible, we need to find an alternative to petroleum-based plastics.
We are also learning how important lighting is to our health and well-being. So, there will be a move away from blanket white light filling spaces to more subtle and emotional treatments that nourish rather than drain us.
I see that we operate on a continuum that moves from pure functionality to pure art, such as a conceptual work that has transcended physical form
GDN: What advice would you give to aspiring designers who are just starting their careers?
David: I think that the most important thing is to be true to yourself, don’t try and follow what you see as influencer models. You, at heart, are unique in all your special idiosyncrasies. Don’t be ashamed of them and try to hide them. They are the source of your unique creativity. And don’t expect the world to be the same for much longer; we are in for big changes, and we urgently need your inspiration to help us adapt.