I had the pleasure of meeting David Gibbs at the Harlem House about a month ago. Collective 4, a design group that he founded with other friends from Pratt, was tapped to design the house's office space. What really caught my attention was David's bench, made from reclaimed water tower wood, but with the look of ancient bamboo. In a later email conversation, David told me about his more ambitious plans for the water towers of New York, part of a project called NYCWTF (New York City Water Tower Furniture). The project would begin with public seating that strongly references the shape and feel of a traditional water tower, and would be the perfect places to view solar-powered LED light shows that would highlight existing water towers. I caught up with David and asked him about his design philosophy, commitment to sustainability, and his fascination with these urban icons.Joey Roth: As a design student, were you always committed to green design?
David Gibbs: I was introduced to green design while studying in Switzerland. Some of these ideologies stayed with me as a student at Pratt, where I began studying morphology and understanding biomimicry (using nature's model as a basis of design). I started researching sustainable design and appropriate technology while working in the real world. However, in the professional realm there weren't many opportunities dealing with sustainability. I actually became pretty disenchanted with the frivolity and waste of design, based on want and not need. I relocated to Alaska for four years and got into renewable energy. I'm presently involved in Solar Thermal system design and installation with American Solar Works and a solar panel R&D; project with the Pratt Design Incubator and Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology.
JR: Where did you get the idea to use water tower wood to make furniture?
DG: The idea was inspired mainly by a couple of events; Watching a PBS short on Rosenwach Tank (a builder of wooden water towers). The film showed how water towers are built and disassembled. This brought about greater awareness of the towers. When 9/11 occurred I was living in Jersey City. While photographing what seemed surreal at the time, I noticed all the water towers dotted along the New York skyline. I began to wonder what happened to the wood once the towers were dismantled.
JR: Why do you think the water tower has become such an icon of NYC, and urban space in general?
DG: Ubiquity, proximity, curiosity, inobsolescence, and juxtaposition. While they're everywhere and you can't touch them, most people don't know what they're for, or even that the towers, with their seemingly antiquated technology, are still being used today on a daily basis even in the most modern of cities.
Water towers are found on 100+ year old brown stone buildings, poured concrete high rises and everything in between. I've seem newly constructed glass and stainless steel structures with brand new wooden water towers on top of them.
JR: Do you have any non-furniture designs for upcycling water tower wood?
DG: I refuse to waste any of the material. Presently I'm working on jewelry, but I plan to make smaller home accessories (picture frames, candle holders, coasters, napkin rings, etc.) and I also recently came up with two ideas to utilize the sawdust.
I would really like to make custom bathtubs or hot tubs. Seems to make sense. Anything for a rooftop deck or garden would complete the lifecycle in my opinion.
My design scale is very broad (from jewelry to architectural applications) via the enormity of the actual water towers. This whole endeavor is a great joy and continues to be an incredible discovery for me as a designer.
JR: How has studying product design influenced your take on urban planning?
Studying industrial design has made me aware of waste: both the amount of waste we as designers make during the creative process as well as, in some cases, with the end-product. This is a societal/cultural issue much bigger than a toaster, but there are thousands of such products being discarded and created everyday. Where is it all going? What am I actually creating?
These thoughts make me want inspire people to take notice of their surroundings and care about where they live. In particular, urban dwellers become so caught up in the hustle and ever increasing speed of life that their city becomes completely filtered out. Re-enlightenment about your environment can take place through urban planning.
JR: Anything else?
Read "Cradle to Cradle" by William McDonough & Michael Braungart, "Affluenza" by John De Graaf, David Wann, & Thomas H. Naylor, and "The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming" by Masanobu Fukuoka
The next time you're walking around NYC look up!