Brodie Neill in conversation: distinctive, dynamic, digital designs

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Neill quickly attracted attention with his visually dynamic designs in a variety of materials. He has worked on a number of collaborations for prestigious international clientele: Jet table, in carbon fibre with a graphite surface, studded with dark Swarovski crystals and the E-turn (eternity bench) produced in Italy by Kundalini in lacquered fibreglass. Recent projects with the Apartment Gallery in London have included the Remix, (photo on left) Pop table in lacquered carbon fibre, the curvaceous and highly reflective, mirror polished aluminium Reverb chair and its sister the Reverb wire chair. His work has already been exhibited alongside the work of pioneering and established designers: Zaha Hadid, Ross Lovegrove and Tom Dixon at Super Design, London.

In this interview, Catherine Sidwell, writer and design historian talks with the internationally acclaimed designer about his early years in Australia, his creative process and collaborative approach. He also offers words of encouragement to new designers. The interview took place at his office in the East End of London (once the heart of the English furniture trade).

As a boy, Neill played sports and went swimming, fishing and diving in the holidays. While others may have stayed outdoors, he was always creative ‘ drawing and making things. At school he realised he could apply that creativity ‘ make things three dimensional, real. By the age of 14 and 15 he was making chairs and tables. He chose to study his degree in his hometown Hobart, Australia where his work was of a high standard from the start.

BN: I honestly thought that the best furniture design school in Australia for me to go to was within walking distance of my home. I knew that Tasmania had this furniture design heritage. A lot of very talented designers went through there. That was the kind of work I wanted to do. I wanted it to be sculptural, hands on – to explore. The others were a bit too technical, a bit too industrial design. I knew within six weeks of starting, that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

CS: Did you work with a range of materials’

BN: I wanted to take this fluid, volume, form-orientated design – which has always been there – explore that and represent the ideas in lots of different materials. I hope today that is still relevant in my work. You can jump into the metal, the plastic, the wood, and still maintain a kind of familiar DNA of form language.

CS: What took you to the US to study a Masters degree at the Rhode Island School of Design’

BN: It was a much larger institution. I wanted to learn digital design, to create shapes and renderings to demonstrate ideas. The only way I could do it in Tasmania was to take an animation class, to create very fluid shapes. Actually it was a blessing in disguise, because it is the one thing that has given me a difference throughout these years and continues to do so.

CS: Six years ago you moved to the UK, what do you think of London’

BN: When I was based in the US and working more and more in Italy, I was standing in New York,
facing Europe. When I arrived in London, my eyes just lit up. I couldn’t believe everything that inspires me in design. I took it all in, the fashion, the hairstyles, the cars, the architecture, the advertising, whatever’s around you.

Remix is one of Neill’s limited edition designs. While contemplating the sourcing of materials for another project, Neill was inspired to create Remix, on seeing a building site skip, filled with off-cuts of materials. For each one the colours and materials are swapped around. He identifies each of them like a proud parent.

BN: That one lives in Sydney, that one in New York. People love them so much. There’s an edition of 10, the seventh is being made at the moment. This piece has become quite unique, there is a lot of research behind them. Everything is an idea explored to see how far it can go.

CS: Do ideas come to you at the computer’

BN: The idea would start as a curiosity ‘ as with the E-turn, a ‘what-if’ moment. What if I tried to do this, in there and then make it a chair’ Would it be possible’ Would it do that’ How could you do that’ Then the challenge is how does that form become real’ A real object that people can interact with, walk around, touch and feel, sit on, can experience, like in the space at Covent Garden (SuperDesign, 2008), have that contrast of something super slick against something rough and worn, but also something fluid and organic against rigid architecture.

CS: How do your ideas evolve’

BN: Ideas can come at any stage. I was walking down the street thinking of an idea of a design,
within 3 or 4 blocks I had the whole thing solved. What I don’t like to do is jump on the computer too early because you can lose riding that emotional, creative spontaneity. Sometimes it’s just easier to relax and think about it, then leave it until the next chance to record it. I write them all down, I’ve got books and books back to the 1990s.

CS: When you meet with makers and manufacturers, are you still thinking of how to create your designs’

BN: Definitely. I think you really need to understand the physical properties of what you are working with. I take a design to somebody – a good example is the Reverb chair – and say, well let’s talk, see what’s possible. Things are changeable ‘ within reason – I’m not some designer who is completely neurotic and stuck in their ways ‘ driven by this creative ego ‘ it is all about feedback. At the end of the day it creates a better product.

CS: Your design for the @ chair was included in Time magazine’s Design 100 (2008) ‘ could you tell us more about this piece’

BN: I love it. It’s kind of ironic that one of the most successful designs I have doesn’t exist yet. It’s a special design to me. It’s the simplicity of it. I am certainly not someone who believes that a chair should have 4 legs. There are some pretty experimental chairs out there, with Verner Panton, Ron Arad and Marc Newson, but a single spiral seamless element that spins around and is front leg, back leg, seat, backrest, the whole thing ‘ there’s no such thing. Hopefully 2011 will see it happen.

CS: Do you have ideas about future directions for your work’

BN: I’m happy to stay in this area now. I’m still quite young and emerging. I am interested in creating objects that are of desire whether or not it is a limited edition or mass produced object but it’s got to have a little bit of a story, also quality.

CS: Would you have any words of encouragement for young designers today’

BN: You are going to hear the word ‘no’ a lot – a lot! You have just got to keep going. Believe in yourself and always believe in your own ideas. They will stand you out from the rest. Don’t stop creating, sketching, thinking and problem solving. When you are out there trying to sell yourself, don’t give up easily.

I heard ‘no’ so much. You get to a point that those no’s start turning into maybes and then those maybes turn into yes’s, and then you get to the fortunate position that you don’t have to go out and approach anybody and they start approaching you. That’s kind of where I am now, but that takes a long, long time.

Look out for Brodie Neill’s new lighting and seating projects to be launched this year.

Brodie Neill