Brodie Neill has had a productive lockdown.
Sure, some big plans have had to be parked, hugs and handshakes are on hold, but the space left by cancelled trade shows and a closed studio has afforded the London-living, Tasmanian-born product designer extra hours of creativity.
Shifting operations to the home he shares with his wife and young family seems to have fuelled rather than fizzled productivity and ambition. He has completed private projects at a distance, continued some of his pioneering pursuits with reclaimed ocean plastics, initiated new work and even installed a large scale commission in a central London foyer in the twixt-lockdown summer window. He also delivered his first one-off piece for Lymited, the stately Core chair, just as industry doors were closing last year.
In more normal times Neill runs a busy studio in his adopted home of East London. He has made his name with an exploratory approach to design that closely investigates artisanal practices, which he then combines with thoroughly modern digital processes. Trained in design in Hobart, Tasmania and with a masters from Rhode Island School of Design in the US, his love of mixing up mathematics and traditional making techniques, alongside a drive to experiment with innovative production methods, led him to establish Made in Ratio in 2013. The brand of high quality functional furniture has found favour around the world, especially in the US: his Alpha and Cowrie chair designs are considered modern masterpieces. Professional curiosity also sees him pursuing experiments that become more limited designs and find their way to museum plinths, public spaces and private collections around the world. The Core chair was one such experimental pursuit.
The making of the Core chair
The making of the Core chair
The first lockdown fell just around the time that inspirations emerging from Neill’s 2019 trip to Japan started yielding results, and this included the sculptural marble seat. Falling in the year he turned 40, the trip was an eight week sabbatical cum family holiday cum research trip. Neill had never been to Japan, but had always been influenced by its culture and craftsmanship from afar, so the journey was something of a lifelong ambition. First stop was the mountainside on which Isamu Noguchi set up his workshop.
“One side of the hill is cut away, and slabs and blocks of the beautiful white-grey granite line the road. It’s all rainforest, mud and wetness,” he enthuses. “Up and down the hill there are workshops where the stone is being cut, slabbed and cored.”
The coring refers to the method of cutting cylindrical pillars from the granite, which are then carved into totems for temples and shrines. This is the clear inspiration for the Core chair’s manufacture, but it was the Noguchi workshop visit that informed the detail. “How can you get maximum effect from minimum interaction?” questions Neill, with reference and reverence to Noguchi’s artistry. “Look at it as a blank canvas. An incision with the most simple gesture can expose the functional object within.”
While he contemplated realising his idea for the chair there and then in collaboration with local expertise, consideration for the carbon footprint and the complex digital nature of his own unique intervention steered him instead towards the Hotavlje quarry in Northern Slovenia. This is where Neill had his base column cored from the distinctive soft grey marble swirled with pale white veins. Applying a CNC technique to his marble pillar the reliefs were sculpted, with the seat and backrest gently sloped for comfort and the base inclined for counterbalance. Neill’s last flight before the first lockdown was to Hotavlje, to check on the progress of the hand-finishing.
The creative home studio
The creative home studio
The finalised chair is not the only large parcel to have made its way through lockdown almost to Neill’s doorstep. Another project initiated during the Japanese trip – the makings of a planned capsule collection – arrived into local storage. It issues from a studio visit Neill made to Keiji Tominaga, a fifth generation woodworker making intricately jointed pieces that Neill had first spied at a Paris trade fair. “His work showed mathematical principles that appealed to me,” says the designer. United in their love of the golden ratio, Neill has combined digital knowhow with the ancient techniques Tominaga uses, to produce gridded panels of exquisitely worked wood. Neill’s studio plans to celebrate these by adding internal skeletons in the form of cabinets, shelves and sideboards.
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Meanwhile, Neill has been hand-washing the reclaimed plastic microbeads that make the ‘sand’ element of an hourglass design on his roof at home (this is part of a personal mission to repurpose and ennoble ocean plastics – from harvesting in Hawaii and Cornwall, to processing microbeads and cut pieces into new materials and products), bending wood into submission and generally relishing rolling up his sleeves to try things out with the few tools available to him. Operating from home has allowed him to apply the hands-on approach of his training, while continuing product development with the limited traffic required between home and small, minimally-manned local workshops.
“Lockdown has levelled the playing field,” says Neill. “Whenever this is over, I think there are elements that will carry on. It doesn’t beat real person meetings, but there’s a lot to be said for connecting via cloud… It has proved fruitful, productive and creative.” This designer for one plans to tread very lightly out of lockdown.