The Melbourne Industrial Designer Who Finds Inspiration in Nature’s Logic

Adam Cornish is a product of his environment – and so is his work.

Article by Emma Pegrum

Tait Seam Chair Collection

Adam Cornish grew up in a fern nursery hand-built and run by his mother (a painter) and father (a man with a knack for building things) on their forty-acre property in rural New South Wales. His parents also had a second-hand furniture store, where they collected and restored antiques. He traces the appreciation for nature evident in his design back to this time, watering the ferns, playing in the bush, and learning hands-on skills.

Two decades later, after finishing his industrial design degree at the University of Technology Sydney, Cornish garnered international acclaim when he exhibited at the Salone del Mobile Milan and secured a line with iconic Italian brand Alessi. He’s since started his own studio where he designs collections for leading Australian companies NAU and Tait (among others) and has exhibited award-winning pieces at New York’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) and NeoCon in Chicago.

His work makes connections between the natural, the built and the human environment. In that sense, Cornish says his upbringing is a huge influence. “I’ve ended up somewhere between art and construction,” he says. “And when I look at what I feed myself for inspiration, the natural world just keeps popping up.”

Case in point: Cornish’s Flex Wooden Hammock, a sculptural but flexible plywood hammock he originally designed as his graduation piece at RMIT in 2008, which went on to win Herman Miller’s Asia Pacific ‘Yves Béhar’ competition. “I often get accused of sounding very matter of fact about it,” he says, “but for me, good design is the straightest line between all the things you want to achieve. The most elegant solution will be the simplest solution.”

With the Flex Wooden Hammock, Cornish was exploring a solution for the way traditional cloth hammocks tend to fold the body into itself, and noticed that in using wood, he could instead simply mimic the articulation of a human spine. “That was the logic,” he says. “It needed to curve to your spine, so what better solution than to create a timber spine?”

Flex Wooden Hammock

His Trinity bowl, the first of the now five-piece Trinity line with Alessi, is another example. It’s more visually representative of nature’s influence on his work than the rest of his portfolio, but if you look closely at this very smart fruit bowl, you see the straight line between it and nature’s evolutionary intelligence. The design is based on the Nautilus shell – one of the natural world’s finest examples of a logarithmic spiral, or growth spiral, where the radius of each spiral from the origin grows exponentially, according to the Fibonacci sequence. “It’s not only a beautiful structure, but it’s lightweight and strong, because of the way it’s self-intersecting,” Cornish says. He started experimenting with laser-cut triangles, overlapping and spiralling them onto each other, not trying to mimic how the shell looks but “mimicking the actual process of growing it out”.

The Trinity bowl was released in 2013, and since then Cornish’s international and domestic profile has only grown. His more recent designs, such as the Seam collection for Tait, are less aesthetically obvious in being nature-inspired, reflecting instead the maturation and refinement of Cornish’s design language over time. But his practice is a balancing act between youthful abandon and tried, formulaic application.

The Trinity Bowl

Alberto Alessi only saw Cornish’s Trinity design because he took the prototype, under his arm, by tram, to Alessi’s Milan office and sat on its front steps, in the heat of the day, waiting for someone he could approach about a meeting to emerge from inside. He was in Italy exhibiting the piece at the Salone del Mobile Melbourne Movement stand – an initiative of his mentor, the respected late Professor Kjell Grant. But he knew Alessi wouldn’t see it unless Cornish put it right in front of him. That kind of boldness takes as much innocence as self-belief.

“Naivete is a really powerful thing,” he says. “After years of practicing, you almost want to get that naivete back because there’s something powerful about not knowing all the rules. You end up taking risks, following that gut feeling.”

He still follows that feeling, but now it’s something less like innocence and more like intuition, or well-rendered instinct. These days the challenge is to maintain a balance between observing and listening to nature – to the gut – and methodically applying the formulas, processes and techniques you learn as your career progresses.

For Cornish, last year’s events offered an opportunity to tend to this balance. He escaped Melbourne’s infamous lockdown – one of the world’s harshest – and instead spent time on the New South Wales south coast, near the Shoalhaven River. There, he reconnected with nature by going rock climbing and meditating outside. “I got to be in nature more than normal, which was the opposite experience to many,” he says, audibly grateful. “I used the time to look at my mindfulness practice, which has been amazing for my design. It’s a reminder of not needing to have a formula for everything, to trust [my]instinct more and allow things to develop naturally. Knowing yourself personally is important. If you can order your mind correctly, ideas will flow.”