While the idea of pairing the ‘digital’ with the ‘organic’ may seem incongruous, in the hands of East London-based designer Brodie Neill it represents the perfect marriage. Tasmanian-born Neill, who has been shortlisted for the Rigg Design Prize – Australia’s highest accolade for object and furniture design – and whose aluminium @ chair featured in Time Magazine’s Design 100, uses a digital process to recreate the perfect symmetry found in nature, and uses nature’s naturally occurring sinuous forms as the starting point for his digital designs. Dotted in amongst miniature prototypes of his designs on shelves in the top-floor office of his atelier are pebbles, a sea urchin, and a dandelion head encased in resin.
Neill, 36, started making furniture as a teenager, though admits that “the first stuff was pretty crude, it was made in the shed. I started off with smaller objects – mirror frames and boxes – then graduated into chairs and tables. But I was always redesigning, the imagination was working just as hard as the hands.” His first degree was at the University of Hobart in Tasmania, his two year Masters – for which he received a fellowship – at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. “That’s when I was exposed to a lot of other design disciplines – architecture and fashion, animation, and digital design, which I had started to get interested in in Tasmania. I started using it as an extension of the imagination, of the hand, to be able to really design in a very fluid manner. My knowledge of material and of function and form, which had been built through substance and experimentation with material, was able to be extended through the almost limitlessness of digital design.”
On graduation Neill moved to New York and designed packaging for L'Oréal. “But I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and the first thing was to chase the elusive Milanese contracts – to realise my own designs into mass production through the great Italian design manufacturers.” He took a number of designs to the Salon Satellite at the Milan Furniture Fair, and kick-started his international career. Since then he has designed limited edition pieces in collaboration with galleries (some are currently being exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne); has been commissioned by both Alexander McQueen and Swarovski to make one-off pieces, and in 2013 launched his own line of furniture, Made in Ratio, with a showroom on the ground floor of his atelier. Here Neill talks to Esensual Living about his fascinating world.
Brodie on Made in Ratio:
I really needed something tangible of my own. And people were coming to me saying that they’d really love something, but they couldn’t afford a limited edition. So it’s a diffusion line, it’s having an accessible collection while still maintaining a high level of quality of form, design, originality and innovation – and also the storytelling of the process. The same elements of the limited edition pieces exist in Made in Ratio. The name refers to perfect proportion, the coming together of form and function, quality and craftsmanship, new and old; traditional craftsmanship with state-of-the-art digital process.
On the design process:
I wanted to give the Made in Ratio collection a certain warmth, a certain familiarity. So these are familiar furniture materials in new forms – some taking influence from the very pioneering design of the '50s and '60s – brought to meet the new possibilities made possible with digital design. So with this piece, for example [Neill indicates the Cowrie chair, inspired by the concave lines of sea shells] the chair was made out of paper first. We then 3-D scanned it, sized it up, then you put in the ergonomics and measure yourself, the average person, go through all the data that you have, and then you call the factory. And the factory doesn’t say, “Oh Brodie, you’re absolutely mad, that’s not possible, you can’t do that in wood,” because you send them the photo and say: “I’ve done it.” And the development starts from there.
Wood is the basis of all materials, and that’s what I started with. In Tasmania there are twelve native species used in boat building, in the building of houses and also by a very niche industry of fine furniture makers, by whom I was trained and with whom I studied at the University of Hobart. And if you were to mock up this table [he indicates the aluminium and glass Supernova] you would do it in wood. But there are different tools and different technologies available to us today, and I work with a range of materials from metal to plastics to wood. This bench for instance [he indicates the Pleat] is corian, basically plastic with ceramic granules in it, which is usually used for flat surfaces.
Our production is mostly done in Europe. The Supernova legs are made in Southampton, out of 100% recycled aluminium, and they’re made in the boatyards where they make marine parts, speakers for Bose, all types of things. The Cowrie chairs are made in Belgium, there are only a few factories in the world that can bend plywood like this. With the limited edition pieces the collaboration is a big part of the story, so we work with specific masters in various materials. Mostly in Italy, though the glass is made in the Czech Republic, in the Bohemian forests.
We’re constantly thinking about how to ensure our packaging has as little environmental footprint as possible. Who wants to buy something made of recycled aluminium, such as the Supernova table, and then have it arrive swathed in bubble wrap? Soon, all our packaging will be made out of recycled materials, and as minimal as possible.
On his design mood:
With Made in Ratio I’m trying to work with material in a very minimal way, in terms of minimal interaction, maximum outcome. I’m trying to see what the material wants to be. With my limited editions, it’s very organic, very digital, a kind of bio-morphic sculpture.
London is the crossroads of design and contemporary society. I’ve been here for over ten years now. When I was living in America and travelling to Italy I always used to stop in London and was always blown away by the things that were going on here, the vibrancy of the young creative scene, the diversity of the work out there. Anything in the world that happens, culturally, will pass through London at some point.
On London design:
We’ve got a high level of design galleries in London – David Gill, Carpenter’s Workshop, Phos Art + Design, Gallery FUMI – but a lot still show the mid-century classics. You look at the amount of almost antiques that make up the majority of the stands at PAD, when there are all these great designers that are working in London and really pushing boundaries – how great would it be to fill that space out with contemporary design?
On decorating for Christmas:
We decorate very minimally! Although, I wouldn’t call myself a minimalist, because I think of minimalists as being really minimal. And we do have a tree - it’s wooden. But when I think of a space I think about the objects in it, so I’m like “Don’t put the tree too close to the bench! You’ll ruin the view!”