Parallel Design Approaches: Nancy Ji
Nancy Ji is an architect in Melbourne, Australia. She was the winner of the 2016 Mercedes Benz Design Award for her entry, the Lily Tray Table and the emerging designer award at the Melbourne Fringe Furniture Festival in 2017.
The saying “Dal cucchiaio alla citta” (from the spoon to the city), by Italian architect and designer Ernesto Rogers, describes a creative design process that can be applied across multiple scales. Some of the most iconic everyday items are designed by architects. My personal favorites include a range of kettles by Michael Graves and Aldo Rossi for homeware company Alessi.
After moving to my first apartment, I found it hard to find furniture that would fit perfectly, so my partner and I made our own. The designs we came up with included an island bench with wheels and a modular shelf with copper pipe joints. By designing the pieces ourselves, we were able to tailor the designs to suit the limited space we had. Since then we have both designed more pieces while continuing to work in architecture.
Industrial design demands a deep understanding and appreciation of the human scale. Prototypes are often 1:1, which allows direct engagement with the body. Life size mockups allow you to test out the actual experience you would have with the object. Architectural models, on the other hand, often just showcase the design outcome. With full scale models, handrails and door handles can be designed as bespoke details, rather than simply selected from standard, off-the-shelf options.
By working directly with people who make our designs come to life, we start to understand not just their craft but also the economies of production. What is the most simple and economical way to achieve the design intent? How can we minimize waste? Archie is a table made from standard pieces of terrazzo tiles most commonly used for walls and floors. The tiles have notches cut out of them which allows the pieces to slot together. Working together with stone masons and a water jet cutter, we were able to test the limits of terrazzo to achieve the slender arched legs. The geometry nests together on a single sheet to reduce wasteful offcuts.
The finer scale of furniture gives greater design freedom and experimentation. I encourage architects to work at this level of detail in their work, to engage with materials and technology as they would when designing a piece of furniture.