These days, English-born designer David Trubridge lives in a house of his own design in Hawkes Bay on the east coast of the north island of New Zealand, between Wellington and Auckland. The area, known for its good wine and matching lifestyle, is now home to this free spirited designer who travelled far and wide before finding a firm footing in the Shaky Isles.
With no formal training, bar a degree in Naval Architecture, Trubridge taught himself furniture making while working as a part-time forester on a private estate in rural Northumberland. Since then, his commissions have proved numerous, most notably from the Victoria and Albert Museum and St Mary's Cathedral Edinburgh. Trubridge remains a frequent traveller, exhibiting in Milan, New York and Australia, to critical acclaim, and lecturing on furniture and sustainable design.
DT: I was working in London, I had my own company making hardwood furniture: dining room sets, cupboards, all sorts of things. We [he and his wife, Linda] felt there was a world out there we weren’t really seeing it. And while we were both young, we wanted to have a bit of an adventure so we sold everything and bought a yacht. And we ended up in New Zealand.
It took five years because we stopped off in the Caribbean, worked there and enjoyed that lifestyle. We didn’t set out anywhere as such, but, of course, when you leave England, it’s not easy to go back. It was 1981 when we left, the beginning of Thatcher, and we couldn’t stand that, we had to get out.
We had five wonderful years in the tropics, then arrived in New Zealand and didn’t like it at all. It was like coming back to England long before we’d left, it was kind of the old, out-posted Englishness that had survived. And it took quite a long time to come to terms with it. Now I like it here.
MJ: Did you ever intend to return to England?
DT: [We didn’t say] we’re not ‘not coming back’, we’re just going, so it makes it easier and it wasn’t final. We tried to just keep going. We did actually, at one point, intend to go to Australia but having spent five years living in this little island in the tropics we didn’t really feel like going to a big continent, so we turned left and headed to New Zealand.
So were you still ‘not’ not coming back?
It took about two years to get over the wanting to leave again but we’d just got used to New Zealand, and we liked it. We were in the Bay of Islands, north of Auckland. It took a long time to settle in. You’ve got to prove yourself. What you’ve done in the past doesn’t count for anything. Just as I was starting to get work in 1988, the market crash happened. And then we came down to Hawkes Bay, we sold the boat and bought some land. The boys were teenagers and they needed to go to school properly.
The first year in Hawkes Bay, I was artist in residence at the Tech here, the Eastern Institute of Technology, and I spent that time not making any furniture, just going back, beyond the start of the design process to understand where ideas come from. It was a way of developing or sorting my own ideas.
It was a crucial time for me because it extended that design process into the art process and made me have much more integrity and originality.
Where does your creativity come from? As a child, were you like that?
I was. I used to go along the promenade at Bournemouth and use matchsticks and make model boats out of them. We didn’t buy games, we made them ourselves.
So, in terms of school and Art College, you were driving yourself?
In school it was. I had a five minutes careers advisory discussion and they asked what my father [did] – “Oh yeah, he’s a teacher” – they didn’t have a clue. I mean, I thought, there’s no way I could be a teacher…
How does a designer evolve?
Through learning how to make things first. It was more styling than design. Gradually I learnt more about design process and [became] more of my own voice in that way.
It brought me to life, my voice. What I did that year really completed the whole design process, right from the source.
If you’re a designer designing a table, you say: ‘Well, how am I going to design it?’ [You use words like] square or round or curved, but what are you doing? You’re shuffling around existing forms of vocabulary that are part of someone else’s. No aspect of that is original. You need to find the source. And for me, the source is landscape; it’s rocks and everything you see out the wild. If you find a way of developing what you feel and see there into a vocabulary, into your own thoughts, then you now have something to design with which is yours and original. If you don’t go through that process, your work will be like everybody else’s. If you do go through that process, it will be original and speak with your voice.
Is it important for you to live close to, or be in, a natural environment?
Yes, because that’s my source. I mean, your source might be double-decker buses or… it doesn’t matter, it’s understanding where your heart lies and seeing it and finding a way to articulate it and form a vocabulary out of it. That’s a crucial part that’s not really taught enough. We get a lot of designers all just doing the same thing, just almost for the sake of it.
With design, there’s a need for a commercial reality. You know, a lot of designers can’t pay their bills.
I’ve spent more of my life making than designing probably… but there’s always things that you make by choice. You do that, because that’s work. But I’m always aware of the steps, of footsteps, of moving forward, of working, of progressing in some way.
Who inspires you?
There are different sources of inspiration. I get much more excited by artists and sculptors, sculptors mostly. People like Richard Serra, Richard Deacon, Sir Anthony Caro, and go back even a bit further with Henry Moore.
What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learnt?
Learning that art process. You can go to the landscape and say, ‘I love this landscape, there’s these beautiful mountains and rocks and trees and whatever’, and it gives you an incredible buzz. But how do you then make the connection between what you’re getting there and some form of vocabulary that you use in your design? That part is hard.
Over your life, is there anything you’ve made you couldn’t part with?
There was a bed I made for our son. For our first son when he was born. But that’s more to do with the reason it was made, rather than the piece itself.
And where to now?
I want to write a book. And it’s going to really be a mixture of the physical journey and the journey of an artist. But in terms of business, I like doing the more creative things, more one-off designs, some bigger commissions for clients, I enjoy doing that. But production is what keeps us going, that is our direct income.
What are your views on business ethics, David?
I could talk a long time on that one. I’m not a businessman and I don’t have a lot of interest in business as such, in terms of making money, which is what it becomes. For me, ethics relates to the social stages of my lifestyle. They’re pretty dramatic. The fact is, we’re feeding off just about all the resources at the expense of the bulk of the population of the world, leaving them living in pretty poor conditions. And there’s climate change on top of that… that’s caused by us.
Ethically, we’re in very bad shape at the moment and a lot is caused by business and greed and consumer orgies. Unfortunately, design has been largely implicated in that, because designers constantly come up with new products, just for something to sell, or because we need new products and they need to sell the stuff. So, all that, to me, is unethical.
I have problems with the whole issue of global warming and with the fact we don’t change our lifestyles. Finding a way to do that is the biggest challenge. We depend on so much stuff, and I’m not entirely comfortable with that. I’d like to find a way to sell something [that] is more culturally nourishing and less consuming of our energy.
Ethics? We tend to shove them under the carpet most of the time and just get on with our consuming. It’s terrible living and showing no care and consideration for others; you don’t have any interest other than self-interest, although whatever you do affects other people.
Built to last
Trubridge believes that the severe crisis of global warming and worldwide social inequality are the results of over-consumption. Design has been implicit in this, but design can also create new and better ways of living if it is radically rethought. In fact, the crisis is so bad that he believes that any design that does not respond to it is both irresponsible and irrelevant.
He prefers not to create new stuff for the sake of novelty, unless it can contribute towards improving the situation.
For example, at a recent exhibition in Milan, Trubridge used bamboo rather than wood because it is a bi-product of the food industry, fast growing, and easily replaceable.
“All manufacturing is in New Zealand as we take full responsibility for the effects of this activity – we do not pass on the problems to another cheaper country,” says Trubridge.
“Where we use plastic, the material can easily be separated out and recycled under the cradle-to-cradle ethic. Nearly 70 per cent of the electricity we use is renewable hydro-electric, [and] many designs are flat pack for easy and low energy freighting. This is just a start and we are trying to improve all the time.”