Jordan Söderberg Mills gives volume and weight to light

Jordan Söderberg Mills set out to create objects that generate shifting patterns using light as the raw material.

LONDON – A graduate from Central Saint Martins, Jordan Söderberg Mills is particularly interested in physics, ‘as close to magic as we can get’. With a series of ‘light-shaping’ surfaces, the 31-year-old Canadian designer recently completed his academic career, which took him from Toronto to Santiago and London. What did he experience on the way? We spoke with him about his artistic background, inspirations and views on product design. 

What was the first design that inspired you?
I was lucky to grow up in a household surrounded by art. My mom and brother are prominent art consultants, my sister is a documentary filmmaker, my dad is a writer.

We had a 3 meter tall painting of a peeing monkey (by Atilla Richard Lukacs) in our dining room, which sat next to an 18th Century Syrian gaming table with staggering, intricate marquetry. Our powder room was clad in aluminium sheet. I used to play with narwhal tusks and inuit tupilaq. There was no shortage of inspiration growing up.  

What was your first project?
As an apprentice of the artist-cum-blacksmith Francisco Gazitua - in the foothills of the Andes, Chile -, my first project was forging a knife out of a spring. Once I’d finished it, he promptly cut it in half and had me make two. It taught me to let go of the things I made.

Where does your inspiration come from?
Art, literature, and science – in particular, physics. It’s a way of interrogating the world and its material truth, and about as close to magic as we can really get. 

I admire Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Turrell, Yma Sumac, Pedro Almodovar, Anish Kapoor, Vito Acconci, Jenny Holzer, Douglas Coupland, Jose Parla, Olafur Eliasson and Herbert Franke. Their work makes the world feel bigger, more imaginative, more phenomenal. 

What’s your design process?
I begin by researching context – purpose, client, and material –, while sketching. I start with a soft pencil to get loose ideas down, then refine the line as I refine the concept. Then I iterate, iterate, and iterate. Subtle changes in form can really harmonize proportions. Also, it’s important to create models in the final materials early on to see what you can achieve in solid, three dimensions.

What is your graduate work about?
My graduate work was about using ambient light as a raw material. I created surfaces that can bend and shape light into ephemeral constructions of volume, colour and pattern. Using light allowed me to make relatively simple objects that can, at certain moments, express highly complex and shifting aesthetics. I wanted to see if I could create pure colour.

What is your vision towards the product design industry?
The world has enough stuff already, so true purpose and innovation is the first thing you should be designing. Do we really need more flat pack furniture? Is that bottle opener really all that whimsical? It’s important to ask if these objects are really needed, or if they’re just an extension of our own vanity. They are valid reasons for creating. Don’t be afraid to use them. Environmental responsibility needs to permeate all aspects of the supply chain in every discipline, in particular making, but it doesn’t need to dictate the aesthetic. 

What should be the main values of product design?
At its most Spartan, design should be motivated by need, function, client and material. Supplementary to that, the object should be well considered, and rendered in harmonious, balanced proportion. 

For me, the most satisfying thing about making objects is a sense of wonder and curiosity you can provoke in the viewer. It made me really happy watching people play with my work at the degree show. It made all the hard work worth it. Finally, objects should be crafted, exquisitely and with joy, to persist. 

What are you planning to work on next?
I have some exciting collaborations on the horizon, as well as sculptural and installation work using the systems I created in my MA. I also have an interesting architectural project in Vancouver, Canada, using timber recovered from the site. 

City of residence Currently London, UK. I have my studio in the Andes near Santiago, Chile, but I’m considering Berlin as my next step.
Age 31
Education MA Design: Furniture, Central Saint Martins, UK, and studied Art History at Trinity College, University of Toronto between 2001-2005. 
Collaborations The Victoria and Albert Museum, Blythe House, an installation in Shoreditch for London Design Festival, and a series of sculptural chandeliers with CSM fashion grad Xuzhi Chen. I participated in CasaCor, a Brazilian design exhibition, and have work in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Fine Art in Chile, having collaborated with painter Angela Leible. 
Favourite quote ‘Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.’ – Oliver Sacks
‘Machines are talking about you behind your back.’ – Douglas Coupland.
Best advice received Success isn’t some big, cinematic moment that will come to you, it’s a series of small victories that you make happen. 
Best tip for designers Learn in a workshop, not a CAD suite or virtual space. Real design happens when you pick up a material, try to understand its properties and limitations and see how you can play with those boundaries. Drawing and 3D modelling are powerful, speculative tools, but aren’t a substitute for the secret thrill of using an angle grinder.
Three things every designer needs Curiosity, perseverance, and a decent set of calluses.

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