Discernible by design

Designer Clark Bardsley says there is a talented and underutilised community of New Zealand designers wanting to help companies that aren’t prepared to settle for the lowest common denominator. He talked to Michael Smith about designing furniture for small spaces and creating desirable products from MDF offcuts.

Left: Clark Bardsley and his whimsical ‘Arm’ chair in steam-bent American oak – “designed to fit over any everyday seat”. Photo: © Clark Bardsley Design. Right: Tangle stools at Work Club, Sydney (a membership-based workspace): bent steel legs and oiled New Zealand pine. Photo: © Clark Bardsley Design Left: Clark Bardsley and his whimsical ‘Arm’ chair in steam-bent American oak – “designed to fit over any everyday seat”. Right: Tangle stools at Work Club, Sydney (a membership-based workspace): bent steel legs and oiled New Zealand pine. Photos: © Clark Bardsley Design

Working out of his design studio in central Auckland, Clark Bardsley describes himself as an industrial designer “with particular expertise in furniture, urban design, commercial spaces and domestic products”.

Educated at Victoria University, his first exposure to the realities of mass production and consumption came via an internship with Auckland-based bathroomware brand Methven. “The company was changing – engaging innovatively with design. It had pioneered Satinjet – a brilliant technology – but had yet to package it for the high end.”

Methven needed to recruit industrial designers and had formed a relationship with the university – sponsoring a project and then awarding internships for the best work, which is where Bardsley came in.

Experimental grounding

“Three of us were brought in to produce an experimental and sculptural product – Pipette, an outdoor shower. Just after that, an industrial designer – the late Kent Sneddon – was recruited [from Fisher & Paykel Appliances] as head of design and was given a position on the board. So we were truly design led in everything we did in the two years I worked for Kent.

“Talented design engineers were also brought in and worked closely with us to ensure the new products would work. We created Methven’s first high-end proprietary architectural shower and tapware products, and they are still selling well over 10 years later.”

Tangle released

Bardsley’s first product release under his own name was the distinctive Tangle Stool – a solid pine seat with legs that turn back on themselves using a “specially developed wrinkle bending process”.

“Tangle was developed independently and then I sold the design to ‘essenze’ [part of the PLN Group]. They manufacture and market it without my involvement, paying me royalties for units sold (*see below). Having said that, I am involved with any product changes or improvements, and help with any special commissions.”

Gap in the market

Bardsley has recently been intrigued by the prospects of designing furniture for small spaces – given the inexorable and inevitable urban intensification under way in New Zealand’s major cities. He initially designed three functional, low-tech pieces (‘Ditto’) – a table that incorporates a second layer to provide storage; a bureau that efficiently combines all the features of a home office; and stackable lounge chairs which “are designed to still be comfortable when sitting on a stack of two or three”.

Ditto set: practical furniture for a small-space environment (birch ply with transparent laminate; solid maple). Photo: © Clark Bardsley Design Ditto set: practical furniture for a small-space environment (birch ply with transparent laminate; solid maple). Photos: © Clark Bardsley Design

“Most furniture for small spaces is impractical and gimmicky. IKEA is probably the best at it, but even then it’s fashion driven. There’s a huge opportunity going begging for the sensible organisation of small spaces. Young people are expecting to live in them and retiring people desire them. Who can help? Designers.

“But are the people who manufacture and sell furniture commissioning this work? Not that I can see. Let’s not leave small spaces to architects – it’s the industrial designer’s job to express the human experience of these spaces.”

Accentuating form

When working with wood, Bardsley doesn’t favour any particular species. He agrees that American ash is attractive and workable, but – more importantly – available and affordable. And he is not averse to using native species like totara, rimu and kauri, if they could be grown and harvested sustainably.

“Working for myself, I try to use a different timber each time. The patterns, textures and colours in a wood grain are the best tools we have to accentuate form, like contours in a landscape. Form should respond to the specific material.”

Bardsley says furniture retailers and buyers ask for certain species because they are “familiar, reputable and fit in with what they already have”. He, however, is quite prepared to incorporate material like radiata pine into his creations, despite its humble reputation. “Most of our radiata logs are exported to China to become single-use boxing for casting concrete. I asked myself, ‘Can design create new value for this material?’”

Valuable offcuts

Bardsley is also interested in creating desirable products from CNC-machine-cut MDF waste. In partnership with architect Andrew Mitchener (of Mitchener Architecture and Design), he developed simple processes to convert the waste into something new. “And we came up with designs that intercept the computer-driven cutting process before the material can become waste.

Herring screen uses rescued MDF laminate from cabinetry cutting jobs. Created for Resource: Rise Again – a project by Christchurch-based social enterprise Rekindle. Split: wall tiles and hanging panels made from MDF waste fibres, enhanced with water-based colour stains. Photos: © Clark Bardsley Design

Top: Split – wall tiles and hanging panels made from MDF waste fibres, enhanced with water-based colour stains. Above: Herring screen uses rescued MDF laminate from cabinetry cutting jobs. Created for Resource: Rise Again – a project by Christchurch-based social enterprise Rekindle. Photos: © Clark Bardsley Design

“It is possible to create designs made with waste that add enough net value to make them attractive to business owners – ideally the ones producing the waste. All waste must eventually be seen as a commodity, not a burden – in the same way a metal worker sweeps up all his brass swarf to be melted down and used again.”

His range of MDF products includes a screen made from the narrow offcuts left over from cabinetry cutting jobs. Only minimal finishing is required to “elevate a material with a low perceived value into something beautiful and functional”.

Another design challenge Bardsley appreciates is organising and humanising our experience of technology – specifically, consumer electronics. He says collaborating with talented engineers is one of the most rewarding parts of the design process.

“I have been working with a small company of product development engineers on some exciting innovations in the tech industry. But these projects take time, so it may be years before I can share them.”

Promoting design

In marketing terms, he promotes himself as a design studio. “I am not a shop or a manufacturer. A design studio cannot be successful independently; it needs partnerships with great manufacturers and relentless, passionate entrepreneurs in developing products.”

Bardsley says he adapts and responds to each design brief differently, striving initially for clarity and simplicity. “However, the final expression might require embellishment or complexity, because those are the right values for the work.” Robustness is important, but quality is paramount – “making something valuable to someone, so they care for it”.

Wrinkle coffee table: a continuous line of bent steel supports a birch ply (or laminated glass) top. Cloud pendant lights (spun mild steel): a combination of two or three intersecting hemispheres. Photo: © Clark Bardsley Design Left: Wrinkle coffee table – a continuous line of bent steel supports a birch ply (or laminated glass) top. Right: Cloud pendant lights (spun mild steel) – a combination of two or three intersecting hemispheres. Photos: © Clark Bardsley Design

Harnessing talent

His personal take on the unavoidable rationalisation of the furniture industry is that it “creates yet unseen opportunities for businesses and designers. It would be nice to see some of those businesses investing in design to create relevant products. There is a talented, experienced and underutilised community of industrial designers right here in New Zealand wanting to help companies that won’t settle for the lowest common denominator.”

*Blair McKolskey, chief executive of the PLN Group, sees design as the means to articulate a point of difference between quality local products and low-cost imports. The group continues to collaborate with New Zealand designers by providing manufacturing facilities and a distribution network to tap into – selling to both the residential and commercial markets.

“The designer invests their time and skills to fit our brief. We invest in the cost of development and marketing with the idea that our investments are in equal proportion to the amount we are likely to benefit.

“The interest alignment gives us all a little more peace of mind. Not every design is going to be a global success, but that is natural with any investment.”

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