Brodie Neill is a furniture designer, and the more time you spend with him, the more insufficient that label feels. After growing up in the wildness of Tasmania, Brodie ventured abroad to complete his masters at the Rhode Island School of Design, an experience he says opened him up to a world of creative possibilities.
Since establishing his studio in London’s East End, Brodie has created progressive sculptural works with an accomplished roster of clients, from McQueen to Microsoft. His limited-edition works live in museums, galleries, and private collections across the globe. In 2016, Brodie represented Australia at the inaugural London Design Biennale with a critically acclaimed installation, Plastic Effects. His “ocean terrazzo” collection saw Brodie create a nature-driven technology that transformed ocean waste into mesmerising and provocative works.
The resulting material and designs, each a hypnotic coalescence of colour, form and texture, reified his role as an eco-innovator and environmental spokesperson. Brodie has since participated in talks in the European Union parliament and a marine conference hosted by the United Nations.
“You can’t help but be inspired by nature.”
“Daydreaming didn’t do me so well in school, but now it gets me a long way.”
“The ocean pieces came from a moment back in Tasmania and seeing the presence of plastic on the beach. I wanted them to be the building blocks of something new in a closed-loop cycle.”
“As a designer, you have a responsibility to that material, to turn it into something useful and with longevity. Recontextualising our relationship with the materials is very important.”
“I buy a few nice things a year and I wear the threads out of them. They become my uniform.”
Tell me a little about your upbringing. What is your family like?
My family was very creative, so therefore I was very much introduced to the arts and taught to express myself as a creative person from a young age. I was also surrounded by the wilderness and the adventures that are literally on the doorstep of Hobart. You can’t help but be inspired by nature. It was an amazing upbringing.
How would you best describe what you do professionally?
I call myself a furniture designer. It’s my default safe place, but I’ve been called everything from an environmentalist to an industrial designer, sculptor, and architect. It is all-encompassing, but furniture design is my base, my foundation, so that’s where I come back to. It’s what I studied and is an epicentre for me to then explore other areas.
What drew you to furniture design?
I grew up as a creative child from a young age, and it just built. Then, around maybe 12-13, it went from 2D to 3D, and I just started building things. I inherited all these tools from my grandfather, who was an engineer. I built things with my hands and never did the same thing twice, always expressing, myself to see what I could do. I learned that Tassie was a hot spot for this kind of craftsmanship. Once I got to university, it opened my mind. It laid out a potential future that was exciting. It made me realise this is not just something you do in your shed, that this is something that could take you around the world, across cultures, transcend scale and all types of creative mediums.
What do you love most about it? What gives you the drive to do it every day?
The creative challenge. Constantly challenging myself to do new projects in new areas. I hate repeating myself. There’s something in the design process. There’s that realisation, the quest to achieve whatever it is you’re trying to create. Once that’s done, then it has lost that kind of love and energy. It’s the challenge, and that could be creating a chair for production or a one-off public sculpture.
What inspires your creative practice?
I am conscious of feeding my thoughts and inspiration, putting myself in a position where those inspirational moments will happen. A lot of the ideas are quite instant, a moment of serendipity where it just happens. You get a ‘what if?’ moment. What if a chair looked like this? What happens if this material did that? It starts like that. It’s a curiosity that you explore. You have to put yourself in a position where you’re going to be inspired. I attend art exhibitions, get out to nature, engage with contemporary culture. I read a lot outside my field - fashion, sculpture, and environmentalism. Daydreaming didn’t do me so well in school, but now it gets me a long way.
Tell me about your day-to-day. Where do you live?
I live in London. I’ve been here for about 16 years. Day-to-day, at the moment, I’m still kind of working from home. We closed my studio in March 2020 at the start of the lockdown. I have a team of 6 people in total, and we all work collaboratively. I check in with them in the morning, and my first couple of hours often calls back home in Australia, as I still do a lot of work out of there. And as the day goes on, I get more of my own creative time. We’ve been really busy through the lockdown.
Do you think because people have been so much more focused on their homes because they were spending so much more time in them?
Yes. The similarity between my field and fashion is the shows. The trade shows, fashion shows, and you’re just bouncing between the two in a bit of a rat race. And then suddenly we had all this time on our hands, from a creative point of view.
Have you noticed a change in your work since lockdown?
Yeah. Not within my style but in the type of work I do. Growing up in Tassie, there’s a big designer-maker thing where your work is created to show in a gallery. In Europe, it’s more big projects. I’ve now seen this reverse, back to basics, with these big commissions. It’s people putting more time and money into their homes.
Do you think there’s a common thread in Australian design and creativity? Something within your realm that feels innately Australian?
There is a sense of expression and freedom. There’s no distinct style. Well, there can be. In Australian designers, there’s a push where some people will reference other styles, the Italian model, the Scandinavian model, the Japanese model. They’re very controlled markets, whereas Australia is a lot more open. And that’s what I mean when I say we have that freedom to express and be quite diverse.
I guess because we’re such a young country, we don’t have that kind of set design aesthetic.
Yeah. And you’re establishing yourself in the contemporary world where there are influences from everywhere - physically from other countries and digitally from everywhere in the world.
What or who is currently inspiring your world at the moment?
There are two worlds which I take inspiration from. The first would be nature. I’m completely blown away by nature’s perfection and the evolution of form. But then, now, we have these digital capabilities where we can replicate these through structures, forms and industrial processes.
Can you tell me a little about your ecological design? You do a talk called Waste to Wonder and have used ocean plastic waste to create new materials?
The ocean pieces came from a moment back in Tasmania and seeing the presence of plastic on the beach. I wanted them to be the building blocks of something new in a closed-loop cycle. It starts with material and recontextualising it. To look at the material and think what the potential in it is. Even if that is a perfectly new piece of wood, it’s a blank canvas, and it’s taken a long time to create itself. As a designer, you have a responsibility to that material, to turn it into something useful and with longevity. Recontextualising our relationship with the materials is very important. When you look at waste material, you think, “well, that had a life, it’s been discarded, and it has become waste”, but it still has potential. And I suppose there’s been an evolution through my work. I launched Remix in 2008, which is one of Kelly’s favourites. It’s a chaise lounge that has multicolour stripes.
Can you take me through the creative and physical process of making Remix?
It came from a curiosity when I was in my Shoreditch studio looking out my window, thinking to myself, “how am I going to afford all the materials to make my design”. And the construction site across the street was throwing all these sheet materials into the skip. So, here was all this potential. This material is going to go into landfill. I’ve got to do something with it. So, I started collecting that material, going to workshops, and looking at what was surplus from production, and I started recycling and upcycling. Suddenly I had 44 layers of different materials, which could all be CNC cut, a robotic machine that cuts it out. This robot is programmed to cut through a material, to sculpt basically, now that could be marble, it could be marshmallow. The robot doesn’t know. It’s just programmed to do it. If you sandwich all these materials together, it’ll just cut it as one. That was probably the first big piece that really took waste and transformed it, and Remix ended up in museums around the world.
How would you describe your personal style?
Monochromatic, very white and very black. I’d describe it as Antwerpian.
Do you have a piece in your wardrobe you can’t do without?
I get my favourites and then I just live in them. My Rick Owen cropped pants I wear until the threads fall out. My stuff is very simple. I buy a few nice things a year and I wear the threads out of them. They become my uniform.
I think that’s good. It’s sustainable!
Yeah, but you have to remember that sometimes I just jump into a workshop and start painting, but I have to remember what I’m wearing!
Do you have any favourite designers?
In winter, I live in my Neil Barrett pants and jacket, and summer is Rick Owens. Geoffery B Small, a UK brand which is quite small. Ann Demeulemeester. Maison Margiela. That kind of stuff.
Do you have any idols?
I look at the masters. Furniture designers and real pioneers pushing form and experimentation through the 50s and 60s. From Eero Saarinen, Verner Panton, and sculptors like Henri Moore, Noguchi.
The Noguchi Museum in New York was my favourite space.
I’d love to do a show there. They have a space for collaborators. In 2019 I was fortunate to go to visit his studio in Japan. I collaborated on Brodie Design pieces made by a master craftsman based out of a small town called Tokushima. Noguchi’s studio was on the foothills of a nearby mountain, which creates the granite that many of the sculptures you would have seen in New York were from. They’re gigantic works. The studio is as if he has just walked out. The tools, the dust, the very humble Japanese shoji screens, it’s all there. His living space was tiny, but then his workshop was gigantic. That day was raining like crazy, and I was the only person there.