I nspired by the ocean plastic that washed up on his local beach in Tasmania, Australian-born, London-based designer Brodie Neill has a commitment to circularity and responsibility that has resulted in Material Consciousness – a selling exhibition of nine sustainable furniture pieces at Sotheby's from 6 - 19 May 2022, in the London galleries and online. Divided into three materials – Ocean Plastic, Reclaimed Timbers and Circular Metals, with three examples of each – the show will examine their potential and creative possibilities and demonstrate Brodie's ethical, environmentally-focused approach to creating beautiful works within an ethical framework.
Where did your appreciation of responsibility in design come from?
I think it stems from my upbringing in Tasmania. Australia is a pretty wild, outdoor place in general, and Tasmania is a few more degrees of that. You’re surrounded by nature and you are taught to design by treading lightly and really using the material at hand in a responsible way. So if it’s a piece of metal, that means all of the processes that have gone into refining it, and the circularity of that… or a piece of wood that’s taken millennia to grow. The exhibition demonstrates this in a closed-loop sense, which is why we decided to call it Material Consciousness, to really have that deep understanding of material and connectedness.
Do you think your upbringing gave you a different perspective?
Having been raised and taught about resourcefulness in design, you don’t think that you’re any different to anybody else. But when I moved to the Northern Hemisphere, you realise that you do have a different way of looking at things. And, basically being at the bottom of the world, sometimes, not everything is available. So I always had a sense of using what’s at hand.
Often the sheer scale of manufacturing processes make it seem an impossible task to turn things around…
That’s been an uphill battle. But I’m encouraged to see that there’s been movement even in that area. We might be talking to factories about how we can get rid of bubble wrap, but when you’re just a small company, they can see that as quite annoying. But all of a sudden you get a bit of a momentum, and then [design brand] Vitra walks in and says, “We don’t want bubblewrap either” – and then things start happening!
You’ve talked of having a ‘penny-drop’ moment – finding plastic waste on the beach in Tasmania…
I’ve had a few of those! But I think I’ve always had that ability to rephrase the question, to see the material potential in a problem. I was back in this remote area that I used to frequent as a boy in 2015, walking along the beach, and it just struck me, seeing the presence of plastic: a toothbrush, bottle lids, even a McDonald’s straw… I remember it all vividly. And I thought to myself, how could we use them as the building blocks to something new?
"I was walking along the beach, and it just struck me, seeing the presence of plastic: a toothbrush, bottle lids, even a McDonald’s straw... And I thought to myself, how could we use them as the building blocks to something new?"
A few months later, I was asked to represent Australia at the London Design Bienale at Somerset House. So this was the perfect opportunity to literally bring the issue of ocean plastic to the round table of the international design forum …And in the form of a round table!
So we started collecting ocean plastic. We put out a call – bear in mind this was in the early days of social media, before Instagram and Twitter were what they are now – and we were just inundated. The studio was full of stinky bags from all over the world! So we were able to create this atlas of ocean plastic and for it to be this global collaboration, which elevated me well beyond the design studio into becoming a spokesperson for the issue.
There’s a magical sense of transition in the process isn’t there?
Well, it’s gone through some strange processes and many hands to get to here for a start. Often you can’t tell what these pieces of plastic were originally, because they’ve made their way through various water systems to end up in the North Pacific Ocean, which is basically the sinkhole of it all. Drop something in the Thames and five or six years later it will make its way to Hawaii. And the churning of the currents, and the salinity of the water, together with the UV exposure, breaks it down into smaller and smaller pieces. So when we collect that aggregate, it’s so multi-coloured, but it’s also very bleached and faded. Often if you cut into it, there will be a white-ish perimeter but it’s actually very vibrant inside, where you can see the original colour. So there’s a real story behind every little piece – unfortunately!
How did you physically gather the material for your work?
I’ve been there myself, to Hawaii – that’s where most of it comes from. But we’ve had stuff from the Inner Hebrides, and Devon – Torquay and Newquay are hotspots, sadly. You get a lot of nurdles down there, which are the pre-production pellets of plastic – probably thanks to the proximity to the Channel and out to the Atlantic.
I also went back to visit family in Australia for the first time after the pandemic and to exhibit at Melbourne Design Week, and came back with a suitcase full of the stuff! It’s a crazy thing to do, but you can’t leave it there. So to lock it away into something that’s going to be archival and collectable and longlasting feels more responsible. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no magic wand. We’re not going to make enough of these tables to solve the problem. The plastic is entering the ocean far faster than we are able to take it out.
Is there a system for extraction in place?
There’s not really a system. A friend in Tasmania organizes an annual collection, and just as you’d need to go and buy the wood to make a chair, I support the people collecting the plastic. In Hawaii, I hate to say it, but some people are vacuuming it off the sand. There’s so much of it. There are other places where it collects in little coves and people just use nets to pick it up. It’s quite disheartening.
But on the positive side – the end result is something aesthetically beautiful and desirable, that will no longer be seen as disposable.
Yes. And every piece has a story. The Jetsam table in green, which we’ve done for the first time for this exhibition, is actually the by-product of our own circular waste-product design, when we ended up with a lot of green plastic we didn’t want for another project. So we’re looking at every single part of what we’re using and being resourceful. And we use a bio resin to bind it together. It really looks amazing. Once it’s polished up, it’ll be like an encyclopedia of single-use plastic items scattered through that.
It’s not just about single-use plastic though, is it?
We decided to do the exhibition in three tripytchs – three sets of three – to show three sets of research. Over the years I’ve done a lot of pieces with metalwork – it really is one of the most recyclable materials you can get. And I think that if we really harness that, these materials won’t slip though the gaps. It really bugs me when I see an aluminium can in the bin and not in the recycling, because I see that as a missed opportunity. We all have a responsibility to keep these materials in circulation.
Take stainless steel: an amazing metal when it comes to circularity. We all know it as being super-hardwearing and high-performance. And of course it’s robust and malleable too, it does create the most amazing shapes and forms – and that’s what we’ve done, we’ve really celebrated that with its fluidity, and the craftsmanship it goes with.
"Wouldn’t it be amazing if you made a stainless steel chair and you were able to see what that material was in a previous life, through some kind of DNA thumbprint through blockchain – so that everything was connected?"
Metals all come from somewhere – they’re mined and refined and shipped and shaped. So if there is a circularity and you can avoid that obsolescence, then all the better. Obviously in the case of furniture, you’re creating something that’s intended to be long lasting. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you made a stainless steel chair and you were able to see what that material was in a previous life, through some kind of DNA thumbprint through blockchain – so that everything was connected?
There’s this idea of potential in materials and the creative possibilities within them that often haven’t been fully explored yet…
That leads us well into the wooden pieces. I’ve never been interested in working with African and Amazonian hardwoods, because that doesn’t seem like a responsible thing to do. But when you start to look at the secondary market, and all these materials that were harvested and processed and used 70 years ago, you see it in a different light. We did a project with an African Wenge wood – which is a beautiful chocolate and black Zebra-like striped wood – something that I would never touch in its virgin state. But here it was – from a parquet floor in a school in Leicester, where it had been for 50 years. So the opportunity was too good to refuse. We’ve refurbished over 5,000 of these blocks and turned them into sculptural volumes that you can carve through, so you see this patchwork of all different grains. And they’ve been put together for our Torso pieces. And then we have two other pieces, Longitude and Lattitude, which are made from mahogany, from floorboards in a Hastings hospital. The idea is just to highlight the potential of what is out there, to give them new life – while keeping the trees in the ground, using what’s already in circulation.
"The virgin material has a whole infrastructure of industry that brings it under your nose for the cheapest price possible. Whereas for us, at every stage you have to almost to undo a lot of that."
Have you noticed a growth in more ethically-minded collectors and clients?
I think you’re probably seeing that in parallel with the luxury industries as well. There’s a sense of poetry behind the objects – it’s not about paying top dollar for exotic materials, it’s about supporting innovations that could help the environment.
If you can illustrate the hand processes that they have been through in this transformation, then people understand the value. The virgin material has a whole infrastructure of industry that brings it under your nose for the cheapest price possible. Whereas for us, at every stage you have to innovate – almost to undo a lot of that. To go against the grain. As it were!
Material Consciousness is at Sotheby’s, London, between 6-19 May 2022.
All photography (excluding portrait of Brodie Neill) by Angela Moore.