There are many ways you might recognise Brooks Atwood in a crowd. It could be his mad-professor coiffure or his blindingly bright cape. Or perhaps his proclivity for breaking into spontaneous roars or joyous leaps in the air. But most likely it will be for his undeniably infectious love of being alive and squeezing every precious moment out of life. An internationally award-winning industrial designer, passionate educator and all-round boundary pusher, Brooks will be in Brisbane on June 4 as part of his series of talks for Portable. His aim? To teach the world how to fail like they’ve never failed before.
What was your childhood dream? My dream was to experience a journey that would let me be in the moment – because to me the trip is the best part, not where you’re going or what you’re doing there. So I wanted to be an astronaut because it seemed like that’s what they did. We moved all over the place when I was a kid and I think growing up like that gives you the ability to be very adaptable and charismatic, because you need to make friends fast when you change schools.
Were your parents an influence? God, yes. I’m not sure the best way to describe my parents because if people think that I’m crazy, funny, entertaining and eccentric, my parents have me beaten tenfold. I don’t know exactly why we moved around so much when I was a kid. They’ve never really answered that and I’ve never really asked specifically. My parents divorced when I was young, but I just remember growing up and never having a problem, because every time something bad happened, my mum would turn it into something exciting and an adventure. I’ve kind of just taken that with me in my life – no matter what happens, it’s an adventure so I should have fun doing it.
What is one of your first memories of appreciating or recognising design? I would visit my dad in the summers and he’d make me do all these chores while I was there, like build a deck, or a fence, or a boathouse. And while I was doing all that stuff I remember thinking that there had to be more to it than just doing the job. Why couldn’t I do a pattern in the fence or why couldn’t the deck bend? My dad was also very creative – he’s not a practising architect but he pretends to be one. In the seventies he was building houses with wood trusses and prefabricated systems before prefab was even a word. I guess I took his ingenuity and applied it to my mum’s creativity and found this really fun balance.
You say you work in the realm of boundary pushing. How so? I just jump into a new project and see if I can drown. Fail like a rock star – that’s what I tell my students. So I approach every project with a totally unique eye and perspective. And from the very beginning I try to take it out to an extreme nether-region of design and go as far out as possible. We don’t show the client all those things; it’s more for us in the office to see if we can come up with new things. That’s the way to be innovative – pushing the boundaries as far out as you can in every way possible. Nothing is taboo. Then we slowly start bringing it back to reality until it teeters into that kind of genius realm. I love to be in that territory that most people find uncomfortable.
Do you consider yourself to be a success? Absolutely. I’m doing what I love to do and I get to dream every day and be as creative as possible. To me that’s success – following your dreams and not being afraid of your own creativity and never apologising for it.
What’s been your greatest challenge? Other people’s fear. Other people are afraid of creativity and so I think my biggest challenge is proving the validity of being creative in different industries, like architecture. Boundary-pushing architecture is generally scary for people, and it’s the same with interior and product design. But I believe it’s the only way to be innovative. And one day it will catch up to me and people will notice, but I’m also okay if they don’t.
What are you most proud of? I’m most proud of being the person I am and not being afraid to take the chances and challenges that people ask me to. I’m also proud that I’m able to stay positive and creative under pressure and be true to myself and the things I believe in.
What took you from being defeated by failure to ‘failing like a rock star’? To me, again, it’s about boundary pushing. If you’re afraid of failing, then you’re never going to be able to push the boundaries. So when I say that on every project I try to push the boundaries out as far as I can, those are failures. I’m just failing over and over again, but I believe that I’m failing on a huge, awesome level and that something good is going to come out of that failure at some point. I tell my students that I want them to fail, in order to allow them to strip fear away and to know that they’ve tried and experienced and experimented as many times as possible. And they end up with something incredibly powerful and magical that, even if it’s not exactly right, it doesn’t matter because they went through this amazing journey and they’re not afraid of failing anymore.
Was there a failure that helped you develop this mindset? It wasn’t a particular failure, but I love being rejected from things. I apply for everything – grants, residences, artist scholarships – and I get turned down on all of them. But I don’t care because I’ve put that information and creativity out into the universe and I believe that, at one point in the future, it will come back to me. Maintaining that optimism allows me to eliminate fear.
Who inspires you? Other people without fear. Einstein, David Lynch, John Cage, Eddie Smith – people who don’t give a shit about preconceived notions of anything. They know that something is good and they’re going to go with it. These people have done amazing things with their careers and I hope that I’m following that path.
What inspires you? Experience and looking at things. As a designer, I’m reinterpreting what I see to people, similar to how an artist shows you what you’re not seeing. I need to be looking at everything all the time to see how I can see something new or do something differently.
When was the last time you did something for the first time? I try to do that every day, as many times as possible, whether it’s brushing my teeth upside-down or getting dressed backwards. I believe that you should do it as many times a day as you can. I take a different route to work every day or I’ll make a point to look at something from a different angle every day, even if I’m walking down the same path, just to see if I can see something I haven’t seen before.
Where do you find peace in life? In quietness in my home with my wife and dog. It’s like a safe zone where I can just sit and be quiet, and I can free myself and shut my brain off. It’s like meditation.
Do you believe in a god and, if so, which one? I believe everything is connected in the universe – energy, positivity and creativity – whether you call that karma or Daoism or Buddhism. I have faith in design.
What are your words of wisdom? Don’t be afraid to think differently.