Trent Jansen, a designer based in Thirroul, NSW, will take part in Vivid Ideas in Sydney under the Factory Design District program, that runs 3-5 June . 

Jansen will speak about this recent trip to Mumbai as part of a three-week field study for a project called Porosity Kabari.

Architecture and Design spoke to him about his time working in Amsterdam, his Design Anthropology and the Indian philosophy of Jugaad.

You were an intern in Amsterdam. How did that experience influence your design approach?

I was an intern in Amsterdam under Marcel Wanders. This was a massive influence on my career. I was an intern during the early years of Moooi and got to see some of the Moooi archetypes being prototyped and developed. I also worked on a project with Marcel that eventually ended up in production with Moroso, so I learned a lot working in Marcel’s studio.

I think my most valuable learning from my time with Marcel was understanding that I wanted to do my own thing. I really enjoyed working for Marcel, but did not feel the fulfilment that I felt developing my own projects. So when I came home I started working on my own projects.

Can you describe your Design Anthropology?

This method was devised to move design beyond the stark pragmatism of modernism and its incongruence with the beautiful imperfection of humanity. Instead, Design Anthropology focuses on these imperfections, studying the history and culture of human societies and taking design inspiration from the rich stories that punctuate human heritage. The ideas that result from this method are richly symbolic and tell innately human stories.

Through this method we explore the unique identities of individuals, families and communities, embodying engaging narratives that excite with their exoticism, or comfort with their familiarity. Every project developed under this model is designed to speak to its owner on an emotional level, becoming an important artefact in the life of the owner and forging a long-standing, meaningful relationship with that individual, family or organisation.

In some instances we embody the identity of an individual or single-family group. The ‘Briggs Family Tea Service’ for Broached Commissions, for example, explores the cross-cultural identity of a single family living in Tasmania during the early 19th Century. In other cases we aim to embody aspects of national identity.

How would you define Australia's design identity?

This is a very big question, and the focus of the PhD that I currently undertaking. Material culture is the physical embodiment of the values, ideas and assumptions of the person or group of people who make it.

If we look closely at the values, ideas and assumptions at the core of Australian culture, there are too many to count, and certainly too many to study, but we can begin to identify some strong cultural characteristics that proliferate most Australian social groups. Many of these can be found in the stories that we tell our selves about who we are – the myths that are used to pigeonhole our values and behaviours.

Myths like the colonial spirit, the bush legend and the Anzac legend are common in the rhetoric that is often used to identify Australian values. These are a good place to start, but they are exclusive of many cultures that reside in Australia, particularly the first Australians. Indigenous myths are present within our broader national mythology – dreaming myths, for example, are known by Australians of all cultural backgrounds and do contribute to our understanding of nationhood. However, these myths are also somewhat culturally excluding, pertaining mostly to the particular clan from where the myth originates.

As part of my PhD, I am developing many collections of furniture and object design, based conceptually on a variety of Australian myths. However, the core collection finds its inspiration in a series of cross-cultural, inclusive myths that proliferated Sydney during the early years of colonisation – one of the last times that identity defining myths, told by Indigenous Australians and those of European descent, demonstrated some intersection.

Can you tell A&D a bit about your recent visit to Mumbai and some of your experiences?

Each project that I work on adopts a different anthropological style as its foundation. Porosity Kabari was a field study of sorts, whereby three designers (two Australian and one Indian) landed in Mumbai and completely immersed themselves in the local bazaar culture, designing and making an exhibition of work completely within this context.

Richard Goodwin, Ishan Khosla and I set ourselves the challenge to design and make an exhibition of furniture-related objects using only the materials and processes found in Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar (thieves market) in only three weeks.

This was an amazing and challenging project in so many ways. One of the major challenges was obviously the amount of work to be done in a very short period, and the amount of trust placed in local makers that we had only just met.

A major theme of the project for me was ‘Jugaad'. Jugaad is a core philosophy of Indian culture and its basic meaning is ‘to do as little as possible’, and some say that it is also about ‘improvisation’. The circumstances surrounding the making of furniture objects in India in a short period meant that we were often forced to get by with very little, and improvisation became common in all of the projects that I was working on. 

In all cases, Jugaad took control away from me in a way that was uncomfortable, forcing me to relinquish control of my designs, but in every instance the results were unpredictably beautiful in a way that I could never have purposefully designed. This was an enlightening process for a designer that is used to guiding every stage of the process with precise control. It reminded me of the beauty of a happy accident.

Is there anything in particular that you learned there that you will be implementing into your own design approach?

I will be trying to bring some Jugaad into what I do, but it is difficult for me to let go.

What is your favourite piece of furniture and why?

The Knotted Chair by Marcel Wanders. I think that this piece changed design, taking our focus away from machined perfection and celebrating the beauty of idiosyncratic imperfection – the humanity of the objects that we make.