David Trubridge

David Trubridge in his studio.

It all comes back to nature for David Trubridge, whose legendary design career began with boats. Yes, the iconic lighting designer had initially planned on a career as a boatwright. And boats continued to play a large roll in his life as he sailed the world with his young family looking for a new home, settling in New Zealand, where he continues to live and work on new lighting designs that are part light fixture, part sculpture and entirely recognizable as Trubridge designs.

His latest designs are the Ebb collection, available first exclusively through YLighting. The Ebb collection showcases Trubridge’s use of natural material, bending thin slats of birch into organic shapes, and how his designs play on how light is cast through a room in spectacular ways. We caught up with the legendary designer to talk about where he finds inspiration, his design process, family and more.

How did you get into design?
Unlike most young designers of today, I did not get into it through tertiary training. I trained as a boat designer but didn’t follow up on it. Instead I saw myself as an artist or sculptor and renovated an old stone building in northern England to make a home and studio. But having built all the doors and windows it was a natural, and easier, step to continue teaching myself woodwork and make furniture. Only after I had mastered the craft by constructing traditional furniture, did I venture out into developing my own designs. So as they say in Europe, I am an autodidact.

What advice would you give to designers that are just starting careers in the industry?
Don’t blindly follow trends. Don’t be constantly swayed by what you see out there in the mad jungle. Know what is going on, but then put that aside and concentrate on being yourself because you are unique: you do not need to resort to gimmicks and clever stuff to be original. Good design will always last in the end, long after the ephemeral trend of the moment is forgotten.

You were born, raised and educated in England but chose to leave and start a new life in New Zealand – why?
Actually we just decided to go on an open-ended adventure on a sailing yacht with our two small children. The Thatcher/Reagan era was not a good one in England and we were glad to leave. And having left we found we did not want to go back. Ultimately we ended up in New Zealand which offered a better home in a delightfully remote and ignored part of the world. Creatively here the glass ceiling is far higher than in Europe, where the weight of history and social expectation is more restrictive.

You have a very creative family, please share a little about them….
Linda my wife is an artist, a yoga teacher and now also a writer. She has recently published a book called Passages about our journeys as a family and the effects they have had on all of us over the years.

Sam is a performance artist who threads an untrodden path between theatre and sculpture. Last night we went to see a dance performance of his in Wellington called Ecology in Fifths, which is about the environmental history of settler New Zealand. It was scheduled for New York about now but that will have to wait.

William is a multi world record holding freediver, who has probably done more for the sport than anyone in the last ten years. Maybe that is an inevitable result of his life as a child diving on coral reefs in the Caribbean and Pacific. He lives partly in the Bahamas and partly in Okinawa with his Japanese wife and daughter.

Sola Pendant from David Trubridge
Sola Pendant from David Trubridge

So, what makes for good lighting—is there more to it than simply illuminating a space?
Of course there is! A single bare light bulb illuminates a space — would anyone be happy with that? I actually see “good lighting” not as illumination at all — that is a given — it is all about what you can make of a space, how you can create a feeling, how you can bring in emotion. Good lighting can transform a dull depressing void, albeit functionally lit, into a warmly glowing and spiritually uplifting haven. I am encouraged to see that currently there is a shift happening away from the ‘churn’ of large volumes of cheap, rapidly replaced household ’stuff’ to far less goods but all of quality design and construction, which will last much longer, physically and aesthetically. Ultimately this gives far better value which is what people are looking for today. We want to be nourished and we want to be healthy — we don’t want to be responsible for profligate waste of precious, non-renewable resources for a quick buck.

What is your design process? Does it start in the studio, or does inspiration strike you in unexpected ways? Where do you often find inspiration?
No I don’t think it ever starts in the studio, that is where it gets developed. It starts in some crevice of my awareness when I am in a positive place that is feeding me. This incipient part of the process cannot be controlled or willed — that is part of the imposing I mention above. You have to know how it may spring at you so that you are there ready to receive it when it does. For me this is usually when I am alone, relaxed and at peace in the beauty of nature, but it does not need to be so for everyone.

And then how does something go from an idea to a design to an actual product?
That is the hard work where real skill is required. When you first have an idea it appears to you to be perfect and ready to go — you are tempted to feel proud of yourself. But with experience you will know that your imagination is far too clever and glosses over all the hidden problems and pitfalls of the initial idea. These come out when you start to develop it on paper, screen and physical trials. Then your real skill is tested in how you can resolve all the conflicting requirements of the design (structure, cost, material, aesthetics, etc) while at the same time retaining the initial spark that made you think the idea had so much potential. This is where students and young designers often stumble because it requires extensive practical knowledge of materials and processes. Too often their idea becomes impossibly compromised.

Tell us about the new Ebb Collection that will be available exclusively through YLighting.
Ebb was originally a set of four designs from about 2010, featuring spiralling patterns of black and white, intended for settings where natural wood was inappropriate or where there was a requirement that the bulb be hidden behind the diffusing polycarbonate. But recently we decided to remove as much plastic as possible from our range in order to improve our environmental record, so Ebb was discontinued. Over the last year we have developed a new set of Ebb designs, this time using only very thin Finnish birch plywood. It is so thin that it acts as a diffuser, allowing light through the two crossed veneer layers. The lights are all shipped very efficiently as kitset. Because the ply is translucent it cannot be painted so these are available in natural only. They look best hung in groups.

You have been a champion of environmentally conscious design long before it came into vogue, and your designs often have organic shapes and elements. What role does your relationship to nature play in your designs?
It is integral — the two are inseparable. I am, and always have been, adamant that we are utterly a part of nature and that informs every step of my design process. I am not happy with the rather egotistical or colonial aspect of design culture, the process of imposing an external will. I see design more as an enabling process, working communally with land, people and materials. In this way everything is interlinked, as it is in nature, and so it becomes so much more sensitive and resilient.

You have made a bold move to remove/reduce plastic use in your product line. Quite a risk, why is that so important to you?
You could say that there was a greater risk in our retaining plastic, as it would have made our claims to value sustainability hollow and hypocritical. I don’t think you can ever rest on your laurels and stop moving: you always need to be improving because nothing we do is perfect. So we aim to constantly chip away at the more harmful aspects of our operation and improve bit by bit.

Are you researching and/or evaluating any new materials for use in future lighting designs?
Yes, we are always experimenting and looking for new materials. For some time we have been working with a New Zealand Crown research institute on various forms of biopolymer, or plastic made from replenishable organic material, mixed with local materials such as flax or harakeke. Because we have set ourselves quite high standards of sustainability for materials we have a limited range of options which makes it quite hard.

What has the current situation re: pandemic and lock down taught you?

It has taught me that you can’t fight nature. Humanity had evolved to the point where we were in danger of taking nature for granted in the belief that we had transcended it — that we could control our survival. I think it has been a very good lesson in subduing our hubris, but I am not yet convinced that we have learned that lesson — that we won’t return to our old ways of nature destruction once the lock-down is eased.

It has also taught me the importance of living within our means, especially as a business owner.

Actually, maybe I should say it has reinforced the belief I already had in responsible business management. That means not going out on a limb of reckless debt, chasing of relentless growth. It is more important that the business is sound and that we can look after the people who are a major part of it.

What’s next?
We have a number of ideas in the pipeline percolating through, but you will have to wait to see them. At this difficult time most of our work is in developing brand awareness, in promoting our story and values.

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