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9 September 2021

Quiet Achiever

Part designer, part inventor, part artist, Clark Bardsley is hard to pigeonhole, although a common vein that can be clearly seen through his work is his inquiring mind.


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Curiosity may have killed the proverbial cat, but for Clark Bardsley, his inquisitiveness about the materials he uses has helped him build a diverse portfolio of ‘things’ and ‘spaces’, as he calls them, plus a reputation for design that’s put him in demand with a select group of local and international clients.

Clark suggests we meet at Miller’s Coffee, on Cross Street, a local institution that has provided caffeine devotees with their daily fix since opening its doors in 1984. I knew of it, but this was my first visit. Clark is clearly a regular. As he tries to give me a potted history of Miller’s place in Auckland’s coffee folklore, his softly spoken words are completely lost amid the cacophony of whistling steam, grinding and gurgling, and beans tumbling in the roaster. It’s a fitting backdrop for an interview with this ‘industrial’ designer, but not an ideal one. He suggests we move to the quiet of his studio across the road. I accept.

Goldsworthy is the eponymous studio of furniture designer Nathan Goldsworthy, and Clark and upholsterer Lou Ashford (Snick Upholstery and Interiors) are also based here. It’s a space that Clark thinks is quite unique in that it offers a shared creative area where like-minded, independent designers and makers can work autonomously or collaboratively. It’s a workspace model he’d like to see more of, he says.

Now that we have some peace, I start by asking Clark what exactly it is that an industrial designer does, and how he came to be one.

“I came to industrial design from the arts side. I always wanted to be an artist; that’s what I was passionate about. I never wanted to be an engineer, but I could do maths,” he says. “Then, one of my art teachers told me to check out industrial design, and I haven’t looked back. It has satisfied everything I wanted to do. It has satisfied the busyness of my mind, and allowed me to work across different types of thinking at once,” he says.

“For me, industrial design is about a partnership between design and industry, and understanding both. It’s about the designer understanding the industrial processes and the constraints around those processes. And it’s the industrial designer’s responsibility to come up with an idea for a product, but then to make sure that idea is producible.”

Clark’s bread and butter — or his ‘bread and butter… and jam’, as he puts it — takes up a couple of days of his working week, spread over three or four regular clients, whose commissions give him the means that allow him to experiment on his personal ideas, outside of his commercial work.

“Most of the work you see on my website is not commissioned. They are just things or ideas that I’ve been interested in and have taken to a physical expression of some kind. Sometimes that’s resulted in work — people have seen them and said, ‘I want that’ — but that’s just the nature of being self-employed. It has created a very strange array of work.”

It’s often the case that one piece of work becomes the catalyst for a designer’s success, or at least for their initial recognition or awakening on the public stage. Clark’s breakthrough piece came with his Arm Chair — an ‘anti’ chair design, which started life as a whimsical experiment in bending timber. But when international fashion brand COS picked it up and transformed it into a window installation for its central London store, it not only put him in the spotlight, but it also helped him better understand the work of his studio.

“It made me realise that there is a sense of humour behind everything, which I quite liked, and that story started to be told a bit more [in my work]. A little bit of absurdity and nonsense is good. In some ways, it’s an antidote to industrial design.”

Not that all industrial designers should be tarred as boring boffins, who are slaves to functionality, he says. “Many of the great industrial designers have added a little bit of whimsy into their work. Take the Castiglioni brothers from Italy, famous for their iconic Arco Floor Lamp. Italian designers have always had a sense of humour about their work, although they still understand how something should be used and its function — the humour is there as an added layer.

“If something has a sense of humour, that smile in the mind, it makes it easier to love, easier to keep, and easier to use for longer. People have to love the things they own.”

When he was at university, Clark admired German lighting designer Ingo Maurer. “He would do absolutely beautiful work, but it was kind of crazy as well. And lighting is one of those spheres where you can afford to be a little bit less function driven, because they can also be pieces of art.”

One of Clark’s early pieces, his Cloud pendant light, has some of the whimsy he talks about — a family of two or three round, metal light shades that have collided and forged together to symbolise the family meeting up at the dining room table. This design was a Best Design Awards finalist in 2014.

There is a growing demand for New Zealand-made, crafted products, which is driven by a new breed of consumer who wants to get away from the endless array of anodyne, mass-produced goods and products, and this has fuelled interest in bespoke makers, such as Clark and his fellow designers at Goldsworthy.

For Clark — mass-production designer on one hand, one-off artist on the other — this opens up a unique opportunity to bring together both sides of his skillset. From an industrial designer’s perspective, what does craftsmanship look like in a digital age, and how do you mass produce objects, yet make them feel like they’ve been crafted by labour and with love?

“Pattern is a way of doing that. If you build detail into something, and it makes it feel like it has taken time to make, then it’s easier to love. Even if a machine has made it, it has been considered by a human. Detail often comes from the source of the idea,” he says, citing his Herring family of furniture, which uses interlocking fingers as an assembly detail, without the need to use glue or fixings. “The question is, how can I start with the detail and expand it out so it becomes the story of the whole object?

“And what’s interesting about industrial design is that you can also tie cultural expression and functional expression and industrial expression together. Who else can do that? No one. Not an engineer. Not an artist. That’s what I live for, really — finding that sweet spot between those two things.”

Some of the more endearing objects that Clark has created are those that ask to be touched — the Familial boxes and the Hopscotch bench seat come to mind. Is it important to him that people want to touch his work?

“Very much. It’s all about the materials. Like oil paint is to painters, materials are to designers. Exploring the tactility and materiality of objects is something that has always been high up in my priorities. A lot of the experiments I do are about trying out new materials. The Arm Chair, for example, was about… hey, let’s try steam-bending timber. I’d never done that before.”

The Hopscotch bench seat is an experiment in using schist — a local stone available at his nearby Marua Road landscaping store — and elevating it into something that is more valuable. Its design also has the humour that Clark seeks, in the playful use of stone pavers. In addition, the finished piece evokes a sense of nostalgia, which is another trigger for a successful design. Familiarity is a powerful emotion, says Clark.

The wall behind Clark’s desk is a collage of multiple layers of yellow tracing paper, each sheet illustrating a progression of hand-drawn ideas and concepts. It’s a fascinating insight into how he works, and his development process for taking thoughts through to a developed design stage, ready for prototype or production.

“I find pen and paper is still the best way to decode an idea from the brain. It’s the slowness of the process,” he says. “It’s almost like a meditation, where all the information is going back and forth between your hand and your mind. You build up a deep understanding, almost an unconscious understanding, just by drawing.”

“Sometimes, an uninhibited drawing session, when you’re just using your instincts, can frame up the larger strategy that you end up delivering for a client. Working quickly and freely, there’s value in that.”

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