Why Beauty Matters

"Quality lasts too long for the comfort of consumerism,” this summarizes designer David Trubridge’s view of the design industry’s attitude to sustainability.

By Lars van Tol

A beautiful, high-quality design is not inherently replaceable nor easily forgotten. He is a skeptic, a firebrand, an entrepreneur, a passionate creator, and an avid explorer. In his travels, he developed an abiding respect and appreciation for Pacific design and culture.

David has a wide horizon of experience. He trained in naval architecture in the U.K., worked as a forester, taught himself how to make furniture, sailed around the world with his young family before settling in New Zealand, where he keeps one foot in the water and designs award-winning lighting and furniture. His design philosophy fits perfectly with New Zealand’s environmental reputation, and the beauty of its natural scenery is a major influence on the structures he creates.

Trubridge’s long passion for the environment found new depth in 2004, when he won an Antarctic Arts Fellowship. When he emerged from this remote and ecologically fragile navel of the planet, his evolution as a creator of beautiful things left him with more than a mere five senses. His rebirth was a motivation to make the relationship between people and nature resonate with the harmony that comes from living among beautiful things.

His work had already come to public attention when the Italian design house Capellini bought the design rights to his creation, Body Raft. Next, his company DTL won recognition for a kit-set product line based on the Coral Light in 2004. This design established the company’s standard of minimal footprint, and now proudly holds the Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) and Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) industry standards.

Trubridge’s designs have featured in countless influential international publications, where he has been noted as the instigator of the ‘raw sophistication’ trend in design in furniture and lighting. In 2008, French magazine Express recognized him as one of the world’s top fifteen designers. The Pompidou Centre in Paris acquired his installation ‘Icarus’ in 2012 for its permanent collection. After a successful TED talk in 2013, he began the Beauty Matters Project, an exploration of the relationship between people and things.

Why does beauty matter? David found the roots of his answer to the age-old question in the Māori term ‘ātaahua’, a rich term referring to the two-way relationship between a maker and a carefully-crafted object. It also refers to the relationship between that object and the people who use and value it. In both situations, the object and person are elevated by their proximity. Conversely: ugly and thoughtlessly-made objects diminish the user, creator, and material used. With this in mind, he writes on his blog: “I have a real problem with this obsession with the new. It degrades what we already have […] we should start savouring and appreciating what we have a little more…”

This fixation on timeless design stems from David’s observation about the variety, ingenuity, and beauty of boat design around the world. The form of a boat is strongly related to function, leaving no room for whimsy. The nautical world can be a violent and dangerous place, and those who build for it need experience and understanding of that world. With his insights and history, it is unsurprising that David began experimenting with the construction of different boats – not just as a hobby, but as a way of building knowledge and stretching his design ability.

The most striking product of his time exploring traditional boatbuilding is the thofothofo – a remarkable type of outrigger canoe built and used solely in the Aua and Wuvulu islands of Papua New Guinea. David considers Polynesians among the world’s finest seafarers – his belief is backed by their invention of the crab claw sail, the world’s most efficient sail – and studied their designs as a way of understanding whether beauty itself was their aim, or a happy byproduct.

David is as intensely concerned with sustainability as he is with design. His products are made from renewable, responsibly sourced lumber, and shipped as flat-packed kitsets for assembly by the customer to further reduce their ecological footprint. His sense of responsibility is at least partly due to rising seas, which endanger the Polynesian and Melanesian islands that inspired him, many of which are no more than 3 meters above sea level.

David used the skeletal frame of a thofothofo in a powerful installation called Above Eye Level, specifically to address the dangers of rising sea levels. The work is meant to evoke a forgotten, defunct hull washed up on a future shore, a once working and vital tool reduced to an epitaph for an extinct culture. This is not the product of mere appropriation by a disinterested spectator – it is a dutiful homage from an inspired believer.

Natural inspiration figures heavily in his lighting designs. Many of the forms are extensions of natural patterns, such as the bodies of diatoms, coral structures, snowflakes, and ripples in water. This approach leads to executions as striking as they are sustainable – airy shells of wood patterns that cast exquisite shadows and add dimension to otherwise plain environments. A light designed by David Trubridge doesn’t last a season. It lasts an epoch.