We chat to London-based designer Brodie Neill about modern inspiration, state-of-the-art technology and The Conran Shop’s great masters of design.
Designer Brodie Neill grew up in Australia, where his furniture design course at the University of Tasmania had a traditional, hands-on approach. In 2002 he moved to New York, where postgraduate studies at the Rhode Island Institute introduced him to hi-tech 21st-century design tools including 3-D computer software. Neill intrinsically understands the value of contemporary design and state-of-the-art technology and its place in the modern home.
Born in Australia, studied in New York, based in London – how much do your surroundings influence your work?
My travels have brought many different experiences and influences that help shape my work today. Combined they are more a progression than a transformation.
I learnt the foundations of furniture making in Australia as a teenager and through university. Being surrounded by nature and the pristine wilderness of my native Tasmania provided me with an endless stream of inspiration, something I still draw upon today. The early work I produced was very much hands-on, designing and redesigning as I went along and experimenting with organic form. I honestly could not think of a better way to learn than with the materials in your hands.
My time in the United States, which involved completing a Masters degree at The Rhode Island School of Design, was focused on digital design as an extension of the imagination. All of a sudden I had taped into a virtual world where I could visualise the impossible, before breaking it down into components to make it possible. This is when I began to merge digital possibilities with the handmade discipline; the coming together of my two worlds.
In London this approach was accelerated and taken to the extreme. One of the first pieces I designed was the E-turn, which launched at the Milan Furniture Fair in 2007. A bench seat in the form of an overlapping Möbius strip, it pushed the boundaries of what was possible at the time. It received a lot of attention and thankfully launched me onto the international stage. This same approach has matured through various collaborations with gallery editions and European manufacturers, and is currently best exemplified by the Made in Ratio collections.
What comes first – the materials or the design idea?
Both can stimulate an idea but in the case of materials the ideas tend to simmer away until the moment is right. Take the Cowrie Rocker for example; inspiration came from the pioneering period of the 1950-60s where designers such as Eames, Saarinen and Jacobsen developed organic shapes in moulded plywood furniture. With the aid of advanced technologies such as 3-D scanning and CAD (computer-aided design) I was able to explode handmade aero-ply models into a full-scale ergonomic rocking chaise. The design emerged simultaneously alongside material development.
In the case of Supernova, the form was critical due to its dual function as a desk in its vertical orientation and a low coffee table in the horizontal orientation. Once this structure was identified it took on a biomorphic form allowing for material to build up where necessary and strip away where not. The smooth seamless form along with the need for overall strength leant itself towards cast aluminium. The poured metal, which is 100% recycled, flows throughout the star-like form resulting in sculptural simplicity with a refined rigidity.
Your designs are very sculptural – what inspires your shapes?
Forms found in nature are often the inspiration of many of my designs. I then merge them with ideas from science and mathematics to achieve the perfect balance and harmony.
The Supernova is inspired by its namesake, a spontaneous moment of energy as a star is born. The Cowrie Rocker and Chair take on the concaved folds found in a cowrie shell. The Matrix coat stand is inspired by the perfect proportions found in nature, best represented in the array of a flowers petals or divisions formed in seashells. The Clover Light for Kundalini also depicts a folded cloverleaf in the form of a sculptural suspension light.
You’re known for embracing digital design and new technologies. What are some of the digital tools and techniques used to produce your work?
I like to embrace all the tools and techniques that are at my fingertips, both old and new. It’s important to acknowledge the past whilst embracing the future. In many cases I adopted more tried-and-tested techniques alongside state-of-the-art processes to breathe new life into more familiar materials. Take the Cowrie Rocker for example; it takes the moulded plywood chair approach to a whole new level. The Rocker’s development involved several CAD programs in the creation of the form, ergonomics and tooling. I also used 3-D scanning to upscale the handmade models into digital 3-D.
The Supernova Desk relied on surface modelling software more at home in the animation industry, as well as 3-D printing, digital engineering and CAD/CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) tooling. The Matrix coat stand achieved perfect proportion thanks to parametric design software to help divide its network with a gradually expanding ratio of diamonds.
Throughout the design process, no matter how vivid, it’s important to keep in mind the process in which it is to be made, either by hand or machine. It is important to understand the physical processes before pushing the boundaries digitally.
What are the aesthetic common threads between your designs and your customers?
The most obvious thread would be an appreciation of form. In some cases this is quite experimental and progressive and in others it is refined and understated. But form is only the starting point, as it needs to take shape through a balance of material, providing a quality in craftsmanship and resulting in a functional object that is timeless.
What designers from The Conran Shop do you consider to be great masters and what would be your dream buy?
The first design that comes to mind is the Noguchi Coffee Table by Isamu Noguchi. Over the years it’s become a mainstay for The Conran Shop so that’s why it so typically reminds me of the store. I admire the design for its simplicity in form and material, with three organically shaped components almost effortlessly arranged into a functional centerpiece. It’s a masterpiece.