For David Trubridge, inspiration is in great abundance. His muse is nature—a source that is known for constantly delivering something fresh and new. But Trubridge’s designs are careful and intentional, curated into a collection that is organic and ethereal in its aesthetic, and thoughtful and sustainable in its craft—although this legendary career began with watercraft.
The iconic lighting designer had initially planned on a career as a boat designer, and boats continued to play a big role in his life as he sailed the world with his young family looking for a new home. They settled in New Zealand in 1985, where he works on new designs that are part light fixture, part sculpture and entirely recognizable as Trubridge originals.
We caught up with David to explore his inspirations, 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.
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 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. Not so long ago 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 but had to be cancelled because of COVID.
William is a multi-world-record-holding freediver, who has probably done more for the sport than anyone in the last 10 years. Maybe that is an inevitable result of his upbringing 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 two children.
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.
Your catalog has grown over the years but not as rapidly as most lighting manufacturers—how do you decide to bring new designs to the market?
I believe in quality not quantity. I can’t bring myself to create a whole lot of new lights for the sake of it. In fact, I have a real problem with this obsession with the new. It degrades what we already have. It is a deliberate consumer construct to get people to buy, where the need to sell is greater than the need to buy. I think we should start savouring and appreciating what we have, rather than expecting designers and producers to constantly titillate us with something new. So much newness can only be inferior, often resorting to gimmickry for the sake of it.
Not all of your lighting designs seem to fit together from an “aesthetic” comparison—is there a common theme in your work?
As a designer, I would be silly to restrict myself to one common aesthetic, as that would only appeal to a limited clientele. We have tried to address our creativity to a variety of aesthetics so that a wider range of people can fit them into different looking spaces. For example, the original black and white Ebb lights were designed for spaces that feature limited color palettes, and where the natural color of wood is out of place.
Many fixtures in your catalog will cast brilliant shadows with the correct space positioning and lamping. Is this effect accounted for in your design process or just a great side effect?
Absolutely! Who needs wallpaper?! You can hang a bare light bulb from the ceiling to create functional light at night, but it is a cold, depressing form of light, which is why you see it in prison cells. Shadow patterns generate a warmth and visual texture that makes the space a pleasant and even enriching one to be in.
I am, and always have been, adamant that we are utterly a part of nature and that informs every step of my design process.David Trubridge
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.
The material used in the David Trubridge lighting range is predominantly bamboo plywood. Is this an effort to be eco-friendly or a necessity to achieve the desired aesthetic?
I have always worked with wood and remain loyal to it, though of course bamboo is not strictly wood; it is a type of grass. It is the perfect fit for both our environmental concerns and for my natural aesthetic.
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, as it is called by Māori. We are also interested in seaweed and algae—but whatever its source the material must be local; I do not want to ship stuff back and forth around the world. Because we have set ourselves quite high standards of sustainability for materials we have a limited range of options which makes it quite hard.
How did the pandemic lockdown change your outlook?
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 as we rush back to “normal.”
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 do you enjoy most about the lighting and furniture industry?
When someone says to me, “I love living with one of your lights. It makes me happy.” And I love lighting most because it offers the greatest freedom in sculptural inventiveness.
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.
Who is your favorite designer?
Nature, because we will never ever get close to being so good.
Your Euroluce exhibit for the Coral Pendant’s 20th anniversary was a poignant reminder of environmental peril—what responsibility does the design community shoulder in helping to draw attention and devise solutions to the ecological concerns we’re facing?
Humans are very ingenious and good at making things. But we are not so good at moral accountability. We hurry to produce “stuff” just because we can, relying on the pervasive advertising industry to manufacture a need and sell it for us. Sadly those days of indulgence are over and now we need to think very hard about whether something is really needed—and if we decide that it is, we have to make sure that producing it does not cause harm to people or planet and does not waste precious resources. Designers must carry this responsibility. Accounting for carbon emissions or resource depletion is one thing and relatively easily done, but then how do you value art…beauty…cultural nourishment, all of which humans do need?!
However, it is not enough even to be sustainable. We can’t just swap all our current energy generation and manufacturing over to sustainable processes, because the “front-end loading” would emit a disastrous amount of carbon. For example, solar panels generate “free” electricity, but their manufacture emits large quantities of carbon just at a critical time when we desperately need to reduce carbon emissions to keep global warming in check.
So we also need to embrace the idea of material “degrowth” and that puts additional pressure on the designer wanting to create new products. How do we make less stuff, and yet increase human (and nature’s) well-being? These are the issues I am grappling with.
David Trubridge designs ship flat-packed with assembly required, to cut down on shipping impacts on their carbon footprint. In keeping with his overarching philosophy, Trubridge created a 20th-anniversary edition of his beloved Coral Pendant and presented an installation of 20 white fixtures at Euroluce in Milan in April 2023; one pendant for each year of Coral’s existence. The white finish calls attention to coral bleaching and the environmental devastation of the world’s reefs. Watch the video below for David’s take on the issue.