Duncan Meerding — Through the Cracks
Posted on February 21, 2015
Duncan Meerding’s vision for the future of furniture design.
I’ve had an interest in creating and making things with raw and natural materials since I was young. My father used to make billy carts with us kids to race down the local reserve in West Hobart, as well as turning wooden bowls and creating bird houses from timber. I continued with this interest and started to make my own creations when I was at high school. Creating an item from a raw material gives an almost primitive pleasure, something that feels hard to explain, but something I believe makers from all disciplines can understand — be it throwing a bowl on a potters’ wheel or fashioning a table from timber or metal. This interest in making, together with forethought in design and my vision impairment are all central to my design identity. All my designs try to take into account an environmental and social responsibility.
My design work is often informed by the making process. I believe that a knowledge about the making process is an important thing to have if you are going to design something that stands the test of time, both metaphorically and physically. For me, designs that will last a lifetime, are locally made and try to take into account sustainability at the beginning of the design process are all very important features. I think sustainability is extremely important if humanity is going to go ahead. We talk too much about sustainability in abstract terms — for me the actual human consequences need to be taken into account. Within all my designs I try to maintain the idea of sustainability two ways. One, that the object is built to last and two, that the original materials are chosen with forethought in terms of their carbon footprint and the speed with which they can be renewed. Relating to this, a lot of my work integrates curves and forms found in nature. I enjoy spending time in the wilderness, something that Tasmania is renowned for. There is something fundamental in our human attraction to the natural environment and natural forms, especially in these days of large, artificial, straight-line construction. I often turn to timber in my designs.
The other central influence to my design practise is the alternative sensory world in which I design. My work concentrates on overall forms, rather than intense detailing, and the dispersion of light through and around objects. I am drawn to lighting designs and a lot of my furniture is tactile. While many other designers draw on these two factors, I believe that my own designs are influenced by the fact that I have less than five percent vision, which is concentrated around the peripheral fields. For a long time I avoided linking this to my work due to the negative stigma associated with disability in Australia. However, a number of designers pointed out that my partial blindness influenced my work in a positive way, and I was asked why I was hiding from this fact. My propeller, spiral and cracked log designs are all in some way representative of my visual fields — they disperse light to the side through a barrier. The carving and curved forms found in designs like the Lily Lamp and the Leaning Leaf Coffee table are quite tactile.
While I agree that my visual situation does influence these designs, I do not think it dominates them. I am now 28 years old and it has been ten years since my vision degenerated, but my interest in creating things from wood came long before this. I still ‘designed’ things before I lost my sight, and this earlier knowledge of making definitely informs my designs. But now my changed visual fields give me another edge. I often develop my initial ideas while playing around with the actual materials, or representations of them. This is partly due to the fact that I cannot communicate my ideas very well through drawing.
The design that has gained my practise most recognition is the Cracked Log Lamp and its subsequent variations in the Cracked Log Light series. The designs bring my interest in forms found in nature and the dispersion of light to the side together with my interest in sustainability. The lights are made from salvaged wood, and the very thing for which timber is often rejected is the feature of this design — the cracks. The design came about almost whimsically. I had a log of wood approximately 20cm wide, which was cracked. I cut a 23cm length from the end and removed the core of the log, placing a light source on the inside. The light burst through what was once associated with darkness — the cracks.
The beauty of the idea behind the Cracked Log Light designs is their use of waste wood, which could come from numerous sources — even from a tree cut down in a backyard. If these lights were eventually sold overseas, I would aim have them made in the country in which they were sold. It would mean that sustainability of the design was not lost through shipping it to the other side of the world. The price could be indexed by the average craftsperson in that country, while utilising a waste material. It could be the closest thing to ‘flat-packing’ my Cracked Log lighting designs. From this original idea, a number of new iterations have been developed, including pendants, sconces, an outdoor variant (which won the Green Award at Sydney’s The Edge design competition in 2014), and a seat.
I enjoy making one-off pieces of furniture. In 2013 I was engaged by Icon Footwear, a local shoe shop in Hobart to redesign and make their bench seating. I enjoyed thinking creatively about the traditional bench seat. I took their pre-existing large bench seats, created a ‘floating’ styled frame around each slab and inlayed different wood and a black resin logo in each bench. My favourite bench to design and make was one with a ‘stepped-style’ frame with contact only at two ends and curved rails in the centre.
As my practise evolves I would like to make more one-off pieces of furniture, particularly ones that integrate lighting. The Shadows in the Light Whiskey Cabinet and Stump B designs marry both of these elements. Shadows in the Light Whiskey Cabinet is a traditionally made solid Tasmanian eucalypt cabinet with an unexpected light play. When the door is shut, light is pushed through a tree-branch-inspired pattern cut into the door. When the door is open and the light is off, it looks solid. Stump B takes the Cracked Log Light idea and turns it into a seat-sized design that is battery operated, and lights up when the user sits on it. As well as the sensor mode, the light can be switched off entirely, or left on without anybody having to sit on it.
These two designs were part of my solo exhibition, From the Side, which demonstrated the way light coming from the side can influence our mood in a positive way. It also lent its name to my visual fields, where my partial sight is concentrated around the side. The exhibition was at the Sidespace Gallery, Salamanca, Hobart in April earlier this year. The gallery is approximately nine metres by nine metres and the space emphasised light dispersion.
The Leaning Leaf Coffee Table, Lily Lamp, Birds Nest Entrance Piece and the different cabinets use Tasmanian eucalypt as their primary timber. For me this is one of the better timbers to use from Tasmania due to its availability, beauty, and resilience. Tasmanian eucalyptus, if mindfully harvested, can also be a sustainable resource. In light of this, and discussions I had with a number of friends and fellow designers, I initiated the organisation of an exhibition promoting Tasmanian design and designers who prefer to use Tasmanian eucalypt over the slow-growing speciality timbers. This exhibition will aim to not only emphasise the importance of good design(ers) over the novelty of rare materials, but also will help promote and develop the perceived value of Tasmanian eucalyptus. The exhibition, Inform, will showcase over 15 Tasmanian designers and their work at the Long Gallery, Salamanca, in late 2014.
As well as being one of the Curators of Inform, I will showcase some of my work, including a propeller-inspired pendant light and a new whiskey cabinet design. The propeller-inspired pendant light was first developed in New Zealand when I did a short mentorship with David Trubridge’s design studio in late 2011. Three years later it will be ready to exhibit after multiple prototype experiments and a bit of a re-think.
The original form for the Propeller Pendant Light came about when I was playing around with the material. There are eight propeller petals on each pendant, coming out from a central point. Each petal is twisted, adding a three-dimensional element to the curvatious form. This twist came about because the original petals had been cut with the grain on an angle. When they were bent from the central point, they wanted to make a twisted three-dimensional form. These lamps, when assembled, will be approximately 18cm high by 55cm wide. Each petal will be curved from 3mm thick eucalypt. As well as the Tasmanian eucalypt version, I am also working on an aluminium version.
My design identity is still evolving, and what is to come in the future is not certain. What I can be sure of is that it will include the three things that form my current design identity. Initial ideas include a human-sized light similar to the Off-Kilter Night Light and further experimentation with timber bending in lighting, and some larger pieces of furniture.
Additional photography: Jan Dallas