Trent Jansen’s CV would have to be the envy of many a design graduate: a Space+Edra Design Residency in 2010, the Bombay Sapphire ‘Design Discovery’ Award in 2008, the Spiral ‘Rendez-vous’ Japanese Manufacturing Residency in 2006, the Australia Council for the Arts ‘New Work’ Award in 2005, the Object ‘New Design’ National Graduate Award in 2004, and an internship with acclaimed Dutch designer Marcel Wanders in Amsterdam. Wow!
Now, juggling the demands of teaching at the School of Design at the University of New South Wales’ College of Fine Arts, and working in his studio, where he creates commissioned pieces as well as his own designs, Trent has certainly placed himself firmly on Australia’s design map.
I caught up with him by phone to learn more about the man and his design ethic.
What made you become a designer and how did you go about making it happen?
It was a little bit of luck. I always wanted to be an architect when I was kid but then when I left high school I decided I wanted to be a graphic designer. I went to the College of Fine Arts and studied not only graphic design but object design. I really loved the stuff I was introduced to at the time and decided then that I wanted to do object design. For me, academia is a big part of the how. I teach at COFA [The College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales] two or three days a week and that provides me with an income to live and my work provides me with an income to make more work. It goes around in circles.
After your studies, did you go out on your own straight away?
I was an intern pretty much straight away. As part of my degree I had to do a professional placement with someone and I approached Marcel [Wanders] to see if I could do it with him. Luckily he said yes and I found he was probably the most inspiring and interesting person I could work for. He was a guy I really idolised. But even though I loved it, it still wasn’t as satisfying as working for myself, so I decided pretty early to go out on my own.
Was it quite hard starting out on your own?
Yeah. It’s beyond hard. You don’t make any money to begin with. It’s certainly not the reason I’d do it at all. It makes it a struggle as you have to earn an income doing something else. Then you spend the majority of what you earn on what you make. It’s a strange thing to begin with but I was pretty lucky early on as I won a couple of awards which was like a launching pad for my career and gave me a bit of momentum. I told myself I would follow the momentum until it dried up and then I’d do something else. But I’ve never really lost that momentum.
You’ve created a variety of different objects, what was the most challenging to work on?
It would have to be the Briggs Family Tea Service 2012 for the Broached Commission. [The Commission initiates bespoke and limited edition design collections based on a different event in Australian history. In this instance, the designers were given the topic of the colonial period via an essay and had to design something around it].
It was challenging because I was working for a new creative director – Lou Weis – and hadn’t worked with him in that capacity before. He’s amazing and had a very strong vision. There are always times when you work with a creative director and you have different points of view and you have to negotiate to find a middle ground on elements of the project. We did that a lot and it was his first design commission and it was my first time working on a limited edition project so we were both finding our feet in those worlds.
On the more practical sense, making the work involved using unusual materials, and dealing with people who weren’t used to making objects for industrial outcomes. It is a working tea service – although I don’t think it gets used that often (of the ones that have been bought so far). It was a real challenge to turn some of those materials into an outcome that could be used. Particularly the kelp – which involved months and months of lacquering and that was all done by me because there’s no one who’ll manufacture anything in kelp. So the majority of work we outsourced to crafts people but the kelp and the copper and brass components I had a strong hand in.
With the Sign Stools and Cyclesign bicycle reflectors – where did that idea come from and why street signs?
It was a very simple re-use project and was the major project I did at university. I wanted to design something that was as sustainable as could be and I was walking down the street one day and saw this big sheet of aluminium that would otherwise have been melted down. The form came from an intuitive response.
I was, and still am, very interested in environmental ethics. I was doing a lot of research into strategies of being sustainable in design and the things that we make. Re-use, I think, is the most effective way of being sustainable. It often doesn’t work in industry but there are certain outcomes where it’s relevant and can make a difference.
Where do you get the street signs from now – you obviously don’t just happen upon them?
I get them from scrapyards mainly. I have a good network of people that I get them from.
What motivates you?
That’s a hard one. You’ve got to have some kind of aspiration or ambition to do this – to push yourself every day to work, mainly, in solitude. I employ people from time to time and sometimes have interns but the majority of the time it’s me on my own. Different takes on sustainability has motivated me and to design things that are sustainable but I kind of think that should be normal now and shouldn’t define a practice.
The driving element [for me now] is more on national identity. I don’t think that we have a strong design national identity [in Australia]. I think the objects we use have the chance to represent us as people and to enable us to connect with our culture. We don’t have objects that are truly relevant to the way we live and the unique characters that we are. The Bridge Family Tea Service was the first kind of foray into that. I’ve also been doing a series of three pieces for the Italian company Edra which I’ve been working on for the last two years since I was a resident with them. It’s all about Australia and a particular Australian identity that I’m trying to capture. I can tell you about the typology but I can’t really tell you anymore. They’re very cagey about that kind of stuff. There’s a wardrobe, an armchair and a side table and they’re all influenced by a particular Australian mythical creature.
Clearly Australia is inspiring you at the moment. Are there any other things that inspire you?
Reading is a big part of what I do. But I rarely read for leisure as I read so much for work. Each project is influenced by different topics so I have to pursue each to really be informed by it.
What do you do in your downtime then?
I really love what I do so it’s not often I feel the need to escape from it. I hang out with my girlfriend when I’m not working. I live in a small town in New South Wales and like to hang out in a café in town and it sort of represents relaxation for both of us. We ritualistically go there every Saturday and spend half a day doing nothing. Apart from that, I think gardening might become a big part of my life. We’ve just bought a house so I think I need to start a vege garden.
Have you ever had a ‘who’d have thought?’ moment?
Yeah I do but to be honest, they’re often about other people. The majority of the projects I work on are so planned that while there’s room for that stuff it usually happens at the end. One of those moments would have to have been when I thought it’d be a good idea to make a tea service out of wallaby and sea kelp. I didn’t see that coming at the beginning but they were really important commodities for the people at the time.
I think that’s what so great about working as a conceptual designer as you sometimes get forced in directions you don’t really have a choice about – they’re driven entirely by the narrative gained from the research you’ve done. A lot of ‘who’d have thought?’ moments are from seeing what other people are making. I’m either really inspired by them or maybe it’s something I don’t get but others really love. That’s the beautiful thing about this industry – there are staunch modernists and heavily conceptual workers and all those in between and it reaches a broad range of people, yet it’s all called design.
And we’ll be featuring Trent’s Cycle Signs and Sign Stools on our store which will be launching very, very soon!