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October 16, 2017

AXONOMETRIC MAN - Justin Donnelly on the Power of Perspective

by Zach Zachs


"I think you learn to design through the way that you use tools," Justin Donnelly told me. Like many industrial designers, Donnelly first trained and practiced as an architect. And like many architects, he came to see much of his work developed as a product of how he conceived of space: in both the two-dimensional plane of a sketch, and how that particular aspect of an idea might transform into three dimensions.

Perhaps what is unusual in Donnelly's case is that the realization of his true vocation -- as a designer of objects -- came literally from his sketch book. "It took me a while to realize, but I came to end of a sketchbook at a coffee shop," he said. "And I went back through the book to find some blank space, some vestigial free area to draw on, and I had found that I hadn't drawn architecture at all. For a long time. Instead there were pages and pages of lighting, chairs and tables. I quit my job within a month."


He realized soon after that he had always had a natural tendency at odds with his earlier profession -- his drawings had unconsciously, almost with a will of their own, tended to adopt an axonometric perspective. "It dawned on me at some point that this vantage is not really a good way to design architecture," he said. "No one ever experiences a building from the sky. In the sketches of [Erich] Mendelson: he always starts with the horizon line. If you're very interested in form, as I am, that's the way to design a building, because that's the way you're going to experience it."


This sequence of realizations about his own perspectival tendencies started to shape his object design right away: but first he felt he had to learn, or relearn his approach to design. "I took a day-job while I worked on stuff," he recalled. "That allowed me to teach myself fabrication... I think you have to figure out what can be done yourself, with your hands, in order to get to the next level."


He entered his first collection of objects at ICFF in 2013. Faceted wooden tables and chairs with crisp, precise edges arranged under hanging lamps that looked almost like primitive 3D models of aluminum foil. Some of the attention remained on the more architectural details of his stage-setting.


"I used homasote, a matte grey recycled paper," Donnelly recalled. "In field work, you get familiar with a lot of down-and-dirty building products. I ran it through a three-foot-wide belt sander. Homasote is a very ugly product," he recalled. "But run it through a belt sander, looks like concrete. It looks soft to the touch ... Like Tadao Ando's concrete."


Despite his experience managing and taming tricky architectural projects into manageable or shrunken budgets, he found the particular challenges of furniture design to be harder, perhaps due to their apparent simplicity. "A chair is hard to do. I think I approached it naively, almost. In a sense I was ill-informed: I didn't realize it would be so hard."


Part of what emerged, however, was partly a reflection of that particular vision: the object almost inverted, showing its form through a kind of internal recapitulation of the axonometric perspective. "If you look at my work you'll see a lot of threes and sixes. Lots of hex forms. These things, in the beginning, were very abstract. They were paper. They were made out of chipboard, or Strathmore paper." The work he presented earlier this year at Sight Unseen, still shows an intrinsic affinity for implied faceting, and its presentation is a delicate treatment of depth and illusion. The focus encompassed the same principal concerns of form, material and color but began to unite each of these along with the nature of their functional interaction:

"All of the lighting I've done at A/D/O has been manually operable. I'm not compelled by something that's technologically advanced to the point where you touch it and it turns on. I actually want a mechanical on-off switch," he said. The Sight Unseen collection was originally titled Counterpoise: "Like the classic Anglepoise lamp. So for instance, if I'm doing a hanging pendant light: I want you to be able to reach up, pull it down, push it up, push it to the side. And that honestly was the generative idea behind the whole collection."


"I think as designers, especially as architectural designers, we tend to be very focused on the syntactical dimension of design, whereas I think what the public often wants is the semantic," Donnelly reflected. But what unites them sometimes is their arrangement and display: the framing becomes a way of imbuing a story into a more abstract design concept. "It's not like you only have one voice or one idea. You have a lot of different formal ideas, but you want to sort of exercise them together. I don't think we can really appreciate these objects until they're in an environment where you get a sense of scale, so they can stand together, or hang together as an ensemble."



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