Trent Jansen on road signs, 3D printing and bespoke design

Trent Jansen

Trent Jansen designs chairs, stools and accessories for bikes, among other things. He designs when he thinks there’s a need to design. He has won numerous awards including the Bombay Sapphire Design Discovery Award in 2008. He is a conceptual designer who has a strong commitment to ethical production.

Jansen speaks with D*Hub about his recent project with fellow designer, Henry Wilson, as well as other works in progress.

One of your most recent projects was your collaboration with designer, Henry Wilson. What happened with the Rocks Trent&Henry store? Will we see it reappear?

Never say never. It started off as a something Henry had read about and we discussed when we were having dinner, we’re good friends outside of this. He mentioned that The Rocks were running this pop-up project where artists and designers could take on space for inexpensive rent and we both thought that sounded like great idea. We had seen initiatives similar to it overseas where councils who could not lease out spaces, gave them to creative people at a reduced rate. We thought it was a nice way of populating a suburb like The Rocks. So we applied and our application was successful. We spent the first six months at 47 George Street in The Rocks, in a building which was the site of the first bank in Australia. A cousin of Westpac, I think. And so we had that for six months, it was great, we got to curate the work shown, and we tried to support a bunch of our colleagues. It was only Australian design and only things we thought were interesting. We’re both conceptual designers so most of the designs had some poetic things to say, some were just beautiful.


Trent&Henry at The Rocks


Inside Trent&Henry

We didn’t have that site permanently and we were coaxed out of that site and into another one. We wanted to make the gallery a permanent thing, so we thought ‘okay’. We moved to 13 Cambridge Street, to a beautiful space, a pedestrian street that had a really interesting history: people used to dry their clothes there and it was called ‘the drying green’. So we thought that would be a great name for the new gallery. We set about to refurbish it, and we came up against all kinds of trouble. After lots of time and money were spent negotiating with the Harbour Foreshore Authority we decided it was time to pull the pin. In retrospect, I feel good about it. It was a lovely thing to do, it was a very romantic idea, but it’s very time consuming running a gallery. We’re both really busy and time was definitely a difficulty. We had to see the silver lining in this. It’s always possible that it may emerge again in some form in the future, at this stage we’re happy to leave it behind.

Do you think these sorts of Government or council initiatives, like Renew Newcastle, and City of Sydney’s Oxford Street project do actually lead to positive outcomes and opportunities for designers and artists?

Yes absolutely in some instances, it depends so much on who is running them. We had issues from beginning. It was always quantity not quality for them [Sydney Harbour Foreshore]. They wanted us to be open all the time. So we had to put people there as we couldn’t be there all the time. They always wanted more in the space and yet we had a particular vision for the place. We always felt like we were pushing the envelope, creating trouble, trying to fit in with their framework. The Rocks has such a strong mandate, about what they are to the city. And all of those constraints were enforced on us as participants. There was no room for experiments, they’d done all the market research and they new what they wanted there. But if you’re inviting creative people in you need to allow them to be creative, you can’t fence them in. From what I under about Newcastle, people are given much more freedom. The Rocks because of its heritage, means you can’t do anything with building and they bureaucracy is so regimented and orchestrated. There are so many restrictions. The area itself is so beautiful and there is a real authenticity about it, there’s also all that stuff there that is so dramatised and put on. When the markets are on, they have people singing ‘Ye olde’ shanty tunes. It’s such an overly dramatic interpretation of the past that it turns into a bit of a theme park. I think it’s a real shame. We wanted to inject an authentic Australian business there that had a true relationship to the area, and its industrial past. There used to be lighting factories there, we wanted to be part of that history.   

You are working on a series of road sign pieces made from Northern Territory Intervention signs. Do you think of you think design can be politically engaging in a significant way? Is that your intention?

I haven’t made them yet there are being cut. I’m not expert on the intervention, but I’ve seen through insights of my partner who has worked in Alice Springs for years in Indigenous communities, I’ve seen the effect that it has. The bottom line is that it is very fundamentally a movement against a person’s basic human rights. It tells people how to spend their own money. It is sometimes wanted and embraced but not always.

I don’t know how much of a statement it will make. I think it’s interesting to use that sign because it’s something that happened. It maybe forgotten especially now that those signs may be gone soon as the communities are allowed to take them down.

For me I think it is a flawed policy and a mistake and future generations should be reminded of this. If I can make an object that can be a reminder, than that’s a good thing. Also, it’s an idea that the signs are more beneficial as furniture than as there initial use. There use is horrible. It tells people ‘no drinking, no pshuyfghvorn etc’ and implies people are drunk perverts, it’s horrible. I know it’s something I’m against fundamentally. But it’s such a complex issue, I’m not well enough informed to take one particular stance.

You’re obviously interested in reusing existing materials to create new products. Do you think this is something that will be seen in mass production of designs?

I guess it depends what you call mass production. There’s no real number that makes something ‘mass’produced. Freitag from Switzerland do it on a mass scale I guess. They use old tarps from trucks, as well as seat belts and airbags and reuse them on a huge scale. I’ve visited their factory. It’s gigantic. And everywhere I go I see someone with one of the bags they’ve made out of those objects. It’s a difficult thing to organise. They have an amazing system. The bring in big loads of truck tarps, they wash them, lay them all out, photography them, cut them all up and then get sewn into bags.

My process is not quite so sophisticated. But certainly, it could turn into that if the demand were there. There’s certainly enough road signs. There’s proof that it is possible. It’s complicated and certainly not cheap. But people want unique things and things that have a story. Either you hardly anything for something that has no story, that’s mass produced and made from virgin material and is run of the mill and narrative lacking. Or you pay more and become engaged in quite a complex process. It’s only possible when consumers embrace it.

You’ve just launched a new piece called the Nuptial Pendants. These are a follow up to the award winning Kissing Pendants. What is it about this narrative that interests you?

It’s sort of semibiographical. It’s a part of this larger range of things I call objects that remind us of ourselves. The Pregnant Chair and The Briggs Family Tea Set. It’s all about injecting objects with some kind of personal character. So that people that aspire to own them can relate to. That particular narrative is just a reflection of my relationship with my partner. For a period I was looking for universally understood relationships- so one was the ‘motherhood’ one, the ‘loving’ relationship happens in all forms, and is another fundamentally understood relationship. I figured the more people can understand them, the more they can relate to them, than the biggest goal of the object not being disposed of would be achieved. They become part of someone’s life or family.


The Pregnant Chair

Have you used 3D printing? Do you see this as a game changer for designers?

I’m interested in it. I used the processed to prototype the Kissing Pendants. But it was very expensive at the time I think I spent all my prize money on that. It was stupid but something you had to do. I’m not such a process or material person. For me what I’m saying is important. For me if the process adds something than it’s interesting but I haven’t seen that 3d printing can say that so far. I’m fascinated by the technology and I think it’s an interesting technique. But it’s also scary that making stuff is becoming so accessible. While I whinge about how slowly stuff moves in the manufacturing process, it is also a sort of a built in check point. An idea needs to be really great before time and effort goes in to actually making it. The more accessible the more stuff gets made that doesn’t need to be made. In many ways that check point is kind of a nice thing. It means there is some control over what is made.

What are you influenced by most?

Every project starts of with a lot of reading and I really hate reading. I really struggle, I never read for fun. I read for research for work. So I suppose in lots of ways it’s literature. Things that inspire me are stories. The tea service, that story was rich enough or compelling enough. I need to feel like, that the project is saying something unique. For that it was challenging. There used to be a common understanding, and some people still believe that Truganini was the last remaining Aboriginal inTasmania. And to tell that story of the Briggs family that was a story I really wanted to tell. Having something that is important to say, some story to tell, that’s what I’m influenced by most.

Has your approach to design changed much since you left art school?

Yes. I don’t think it did for a while. I think as I’ve always been a conceptual designer, it’s been about extrapolating a metaphor into an object and that can be done in a superficial way or deep way. And it can be done for the sake of it or it can be done for a real outcome. I think I’ve gotten to know what those outcomes are. I think I’ve got better at going deeper. I really like some of the earlier things I did but I think the biggest I thing I’ve done is when I went quite deep and say with the tea set, I feel for that reason for me that my most successful project. I think the Broached Commissions project is really exciting. Yesterday I got an email from someone who was descendant of the family and they said they were really excited that the family was being represented in this way. And for me, a lot of that time when I was making that work, I felt like I was treading on controversial grounds. I could really misrepresent those people if I wasn’t thorough. And that sort of feedback is better than any design critic. That the kind of outcome that’s what I hope these things might fulfil.

Now I kind of feel with upcoming projects like private commissions I’m working on, that I’ve adopted an intuitive approach. All along one concept line now I’m using lots of different stimuluses not just a single topic. For me I really like the outcome of this so I think it’s something I should try more. I think I need to trust myself more.

What do you think of the momentum of discussion around ‘Design Thinking’?

It’s basically systems design. I believe in it I suppose. I think I have more experience with it when teaching than in my own practise. I guess to be honest, I don’t know if I’m all that passionate about the kinds of projects exist in that area. The projects I’m working on are bespoke things, and there’s some design thinking around those. It’s an issue I come across with teaching with students in their final year projects that fit into the design thinking area. But I think designers need to be careful. Some designers think ‘you’re a master of the universe’. I say to students, designers can do equal bad as good and that’s been proven time and time again. I say to them, if you want to be a designer working on broader social problems, you need to ensure you work with a team who has knowledge in those areas. That’s why we offer mentors in the area they are working in. While designers may have the tools to think very broadly and creatively come up with solutions, in the end they must serve the purpose in a practical way. I feel designer don’t have tools to solve those problems by themselves. We have to be careful not to encourage designers to be gung-ho in thinking that they know everything there is to know. They need to be incredibly informed and collaborate with people who know what they’re doing.