For someone who thought he’d make a career in social work, Tasmanian designer Duncan Meerding has done an amazing job at turning what has been a hobby since childhood into a successful full-time vocation.
Basing himself in a shared workshop in North Hobart with several other designers, Duncan crafts lights and furniture from wood that no one else wants. What is even more amazing is that he does so with an inherited degenerative sight impairment that has now left him with less than 5 per cent vision, which is concentrated around the periphery.
While his altered sensory state most certainly influences his work, it is his creative talent and extensive experience in working with wood that has led to where he is today. In 2011, he was awarded a one-year Springboard Scholarship residency at Designed Objects Tasmania, supported by Arts Tasmania and the Bi-Annual Tasmanian Ministers Youth Arts Award with which he was able to do a three-week mentorship with internationally renowned designer David Trubridge in New Zealand. Plus he was a finalist in the 2011 Bombay Sapphire Design Discovery Awards Australia with the design of his Cracked Log Lamp.
I caught up with Duncan recently by phone to find out more about how he works and what makes him tick. Here’s what he had to say …
How did you end up becoming a designer?
I fell into it in a way. I was actually thinking of going into social work. When I ended up doing wood work at the University of Tasmania, it was more about doing something I enjoyed as I hadn’t been able to do it for a while and, because of my new situation, I had to re-learn how to do basic woodcraft like making boxes. I ended up getting quite interested in it and learning about the more creative side of design.
It sounds like you’ve always done stuff with wood – played around with it, making things with your Dad. Has this been a natural progression for you or did you make a conscious decision to work primarily with wood as a material?
I already had an understanding of how wood performs. I think that’s probably one of the weaknesses with designers in general is that they will design something out of materials they don’t entirely understand. Having some sort of understanding of the material gives you an advantage from the making perspective. I suppose the more conscious part [for me] was that wood is a durable material and used in the right way can be one of the more sustainable materials; it’s a raw material, it hasn’t been processed and it’s not made from petrochemicals.
So where do you source your wood from?
In general, I try to source the wood for the Cracked Log Lamps from salvage – either from an arborist or logging salvagers [who are allowed access to logs that are considered waste from commercial timber harvesting]. Other timber I use for, say, the coffee tables is Tasmanian Eucalyptus.
I have a particular interest in using Eucalyptus over other timbers because it can be harvested much more sustainably (that doesn’t necessarily mean it currently is but it can be) and it grows fast, is durable and is a hardwood.
That’s one of the problems sometimes with consumer ethos – people want to get something because of the wood not because of the design, which is something I’m particularly interested in trying to change. Often people want to have something made out of one of the minor species, like rainforest wood, but if it’s really about the design and is being made from wood there should be a more holistic approach to it.
So your designs are not only influenced by wood as a material in itself, but the specific type of wood?
Absolutely. I’m very interested in using something that’s going to last a long time so I tend to use hardwood. And I like to use something that doesn’t take forever to grow so is more sustainable to harvest. I think it makes a lot of sense to make, say, a table from Tasmanian Oak or Eucalyptus than Huon pine. Where possible I try to use the right type of timber for the right application.
Tell us about the Cracked Log Lamp. Where did the idea come from? What does it represents to you and were there any challenges you faced along the way in getting it off the ground?
The actual concept behind it was very material driven. I had a scrappy piece of wood that was salvaged and it had cracks in it already and I wanted to enhance the cracks. I thought, what would it look like if I got light out of the cracks? I played with it a bit and the first one I did was a half log against the wall with light coming out the sides and then the next iteration was what turned into the Cracked Log Lamp.
In terms of getting it off the ground – it is a bit of a quirky piece so it was about trying to find the right retail outlets for it. But as it’s getting more exposure, it seems to be something that people are identifying with. I think people want to have some sort of connection with nature, particularly someone in the inner city who doesn’t get to go out into the environment as much as they probably want. So it reminds them of nature and also serves a function to create an ambient mood.
I’m sure you don’t want to dwell on the fact you’re legally blind but I’m sure it must influence the way you work and what you do. How have you adapted the way you work and create because of this?
If you asked me that a few years ago I probably would have tried to shy away from the question or said it has nothing to do with it. But it was pointed out to me by a close friend and colleague that it really does influence my work. Kees Dorst, a Professor of Design at the University of Technology in Sydney, was also very encouraging and said how it is very interesting and unique because no one else has that sort of influence and especially as I keep getting drawn to light. My old uni lecturer pointed out that the Log Lamps [represent] the way I see with light coming out the sides. I didn’t really think about it at the time but I think subconsciously it is something I keep getting drawn to because I’m interested in shadows and in the actual form of something in shadow and the dispersion that light creates.
There are of course certain things that are inhibitive for me to make. But I did a course in Melbourne before I went to uni that taught me how to use the tools safely. My lecturer also went to have a look as it was obviously a new idea to have me in the workshop. It was very much about being open-minded for her and other people in the course. So I do a lot of things with talking tape measures and things like that but sometimes it’s faster or better for me to outsource it to someone else.
Is there anything or anyone that motivates you or is inspiring you at the moment?
I get inspired by a lot of fellow designer-makers down here [in Tasmania, Australia]. It’s an interesting time to be around with all the new people coming into the design community down here.
I also [recently] volunteered for an institute in Kerala, India called Kanthari for about two months, which is all about creating socially and ethically minded projects. The woman who started it is totally blind herself and she and her partner also founded Braille Without Borders in Tibet.
Some of the projects are more artistically driven – like there was a totally blind dancer who wanted to start a dance school, another who wanted to empower people who were on the street in Nigeria. It was all about breaking down boundaries, not letting adversity get in the way of [achieving] things and using it to challenge concepts. That was very inspiring to me. A lot of those people inspired me more than anything else.
What’s a typical day for you?
It varies a lot. Some days I’ll be in the workshop all day, others I might spend on paperwork which can be a bane for small enterprises. Every week is different which is quite fun but you have to be quite planned in the way you do things. Often I’ll walk into work along the rivulet track and through town which is a good way of de-fragging the brain and then I’ll spend the rest of the day pottering around the workshop. The last few days I’ve been making little tea boxes for the markets and then other days I’ll put together coffee tables or I’ll work on the Log Lamps.
Do have any new designs or future projects in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
There are the Spiral Lights which were released last year and I’m trying to get them around a few other places. There’s something about them I like as they are very minimal in terms of form and again it’s very much about the pattern of light [they make]. I’ve also developed a coffee table which I launched last year at a design market in Melbourne. It’s a flat-pack coffee table that is made out of solid timber so I’ve tried to make it as durable as possible. I lot of people when they think of flat-pack think of MDF or craft wood with veneer but I want to challenge that and show that you can make solid timber furniture that flat-packs down. I’m playing with other things too, and developing my skills and playing with form.
With your ideas do they slowly develop over time or do you have light bulb moments?
The initial idea is usually a light-bulb moment. Like the Log Lamps were very much a ‘I wonder what would happen if I put a light in it?’ And the development and production of actually making it feasible is more of a long-term development process. With the coffee table, the initial form was quick but the whole process of executing it and figuring out how to do it was a much longer process.
What about a who’d have thought? moment – have you had one of them?
I’ve definitely had a who’d have thought? moment with the Log Lamps and in general with my design practice as I honestly wasn’t expecting to be doing this. With the Log Lamps, I never thought they would be the design that took off or that they would be as popular as they have been.