Australian designer Brodie Neill is a leader in a growing movement of contemporary designers who use their work as both a form of education and activism regarding the environment and sustainable practices. He introduces NGV Magazine to a new work for the NGV Collection as part of the NGV Triennial, which turns toxic sea refuse into something truly beautiful and functional.
Tell us about the work Gyro, table 2016, which is a contemporary interpretation of a nineteenth-century specimen table, shown for the first time in Australia at the NGV Triennial.
The Gyro table was designed and produced for the Australian pavilion curated by NGV at the inaugural London Design Biennale in 2016. It is a modern rendition of the traditional specimen table, contemporised by replacing the precious marbles, ivories and timbers used in the original with a kaleidoscopic mosaic of tiles created in Ocean Terrazzo – a self-developed composite material made from ocean plastic waste. Gyro takes its name from ‘gyre’, which refers to the network of currents that circulate ocean water around the world. Today, at the heart of these gyres are millions of tonnes of toxic plastic waste. NGV provided curatorial support for my installation at the Biennale and has since acquired the Gyro table, so it is very fitting that it will be shown for the first time in Australia at the NGV Triennial.
Tell us about the research you conducted for this work.
I worked very closely with an international network of scientists, researchers, beachcombers, engineers, recyclers and manufacturers to create Ocean Terrazzo. We invested in a significant amount of research and material testing, initially unsuccessfully experimenting with melting different types of microplastics together to create a new material. When working with ocean plastic, it is impossible to know the age and chemical makeup of the plastic fragments, so we adopted a traditional terrazzo technique to bond the plastic pieces together.
You work with recycled materials. How did this idea come about and why is this topic particularly important to you as a designer?
I have been working with recycled materials for nearly a decade now. One of my most prominent recycled pieces is Remix, designed in 2008 and shown at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia as part of the Rigg Design Prize in 2015. Remix addresses the vast amount of sheet material that was going to waste from construction sites. The mix of materials, simply sourced from skips, is remixed into a solid multi-striped block that is CNC-shaped and finished with a super-smooth French polish. Like Gyro, Remix is a lot of craftsmanship and technology devoted to what starts as waste material, but finishes as something so much more. The process of design is to give a material form and function, and there is no reason that the material could not have once been something else. We need to identify opportunities with waste materials in order to ease the consumption of the world’s natural resources and nowhere is that more important than plastic in the environment. As part of the NGV’s Parallels conference in 2015, I was invited to a design a camp on Bruny Island in my native home of Tasmania. Having visited the exact same coastline throughout my childhood, I was struck by the abundance of plastic waste that had washed up on the shore. These were not the same pristine beaches I remembered as a boy. Several months later and as thoughts for the Australian Pavilion at the London Design Biennale gathered, I felt compelled to engage with the global issue of ocean plastic. I felt it was important that, as the world’s largest island, Australia took a leading role in the protection of the oceans by addressing the issue at the international design forum in London. With Ocean Terrazzo I have re-contextualised a waste material into something desirable in the hope of shifting people’s perceptions of plastic, while encouraging recycling and a greater care for the environment.
How do you source these materials?
I worked with an international network of beach clean-up groups and coastal-care charities to source the ocean plastic, as well as collecting some of it myself. Thanks to the support of marine biologists and oceanographers across the world, I was able to access a vast network of volunteers via social media. We had people sending in ocean plastic from all corners of the world.
How much time do you typically spend on each work?
Once the waste plastic arrives in the studio it is cleaned and sorted into different colours. The Gyro table is created in hues of blues, black and white. These colours help give the Gyro its ocean-like haze but are unfortunately in greater abundance due to the warmer UV colours of red, orange and yellow being consumed by fish and seabirds. The gradient of microplastic fragments are cast into Ocean Terrazzo, which is then cut and inlaid into a kaleidoscopic pattern. The table is then polished and finished by hand. The entire process takes several months and includes more than half a million fragments of ocean plastic.
You grew up in Tasmania which has a strong culture of artisans and craftsmanship. How did this feed into what you currently do? Are some of these aspects apparent in your work?
My childhood and education in Tasmania have had a lasting influence in my work. I was privileged to grow up very close to nature and the forms of many of my pieces are inspired by the shapes found in nature. The single-surface monocoque fold of the Cowrie collection, for example, is inspired by sea shells. The three-dimensional structure of Clover light meanwhile mimics the organic lines of the clover leaf. Equally, Tasmanian makers have a strong culture of working with natural materials, particularly with wood; again this is something prevalent in my work and I am very interested in harnessing the natural strength of wood – as well as other materials – through hand-craftsmanship but pushing its boundaries with digital design.
What is your background? What did you study?
I studied furniture design at University of Tasmania in Hobart and then a Masters of Design at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in the USA.
You currently live in London. What is your experience of Europe right now?
I first moved to London shortly after graduating from RISD to set up my studio and be closer to manufacturers across Europe. In the twelve years since, there have been many twists and turns, with Brexit presenting the latest challenge but I am sure London will continue in the only way it knows how. It is the uncertainty that is most damaging, though like in most cases, creativity always finds a way to shine on. Environmentally, Europe faces similar climate-change factors to those of the rest of the world, most commonly experienced with hotter summers and even colder winters. But fortunately the politicians are slowly warming to the concern and I have been invited to speak to the European Union in Brussels on my work with ocean plastic in the hope to curb the amount of plastic entering the seas, while identifying ways to collect and utilise what is already there. Beyond Europe and over the years I have been able to broaden my scope of work around the world, including a large number of projects at home here in Australia, so I am fortunate to have a foot in both camps.
What is the message you communicate with your work?
As designers we must always create objects that improve on that which has been designed before us. It is important to strive for new solutions, to evolve; it is in our human DNA. Through my work I shift perceptions of the made environment, taking inspiration from nature while using it in the most sparingly fashion. Where possible I highlight waste streams as the building blocks of alternative materials, utilising the mundane with extraordinary outcomes.
This was originally commissioned for and published in NGV Magazine Issue 8 Jan–Feb 2018.