Inventor. Artist. Entrepreneur. Hyperologist. South West WA
Do you remember what you wanted to do with your life when you were a teenager?
I enjoyed drawing and making models and because my parents took me to Italy and France I saw a lot of figurative sculptures done by Michelangelo and Rodin etc so I was always keen to do something like that.
Explain a ‘typical’ day for you at work.
I’m 70 and I’m meant to be retired but today I’ve been replying to several emails for the Nauti-Craft and No-Rock companies, and I’ve been into the office to meet and greet 2 new members of staff and I’ve been out to lunch with someone who is happy to finance some projects. Tomorrow I’m meeting other clients from Singapore Germany and Perth and we’re going for a test drive on our Nauti-Craft prototype, then I’m taking them out to dinner at a nice restaurant. Before the weekend I have to draw another concept for a boat which skies.
Every day is quite different and I never, ever get bored, even when there is nothing visibly obvious to do.
Which part of your job gives you the most satisfaction.
Drawing and inventing new ideas.
If you have worked with any recent grads. What skills do you believe recent university graduates are lacking (if any) today and what strengths do they bring?
I’m amazed that grads these days know so much more than we ever used to know at that age - I mean we had never heard of ‘mechatronics’ and we now have a young mechatronics grad who is a real whiz at designing control systems, algorithms and things that I really don’t begin to understand. But he can’t draw or sculpt and he doesn’t seem to value things much outside his field of expertise! My only criticisms of education is that students become so specialised they are not v good at anything outside their field.
For someone who wants to do what you do what skills, experience or qualifications would you recommend?
I qualified from school with both science and art university entry marks but I chose to go to art school in the swinging 60s because it was much more fun than other academic studies. In retrospect it was a fairly lucky choice because as art students we were more or less left alone to invent our own curriculum and we were encouraged to try outlandish creative ideas.
Tell us briefly how you ended up doing what you do. Did you do many other jobs or start many other businesses before?
When we were first married we did lots of casual jobs to make ends meet, like waiting in restaurants and picking cabbages etc...
After art school my first proper job was when i was employed by the Inter University Council (London) in 1968 and Anny (Chris' amazing Artist wife) and I took up teaching posts at a Uni in Nigeria where we taught European culture and learned about African sculpture. After 5 years and 2 kids later we left Africa and spent a year in UK before taking up jobs at WAIT in 1975 (now Curtin Uni). After a number of years there we started up Tensile Structures, then Kinetic, then Nauti-Craft and also No-Rock.
Did you enjoy school? If so why and if not why not?
When I was packed off from home in Ethiopia to UK as a 8.5 year old boy I was very sickly and suffered a lot so my life wasn’t any fun. By the time I was 14, I had substantially grown out of my illnesses and started enjoying being in the rugby and swimming teams and I liked doing A levels Zoology, Botany and Art
How do you believe schools of universities might be changed to be more relevant or effective?
As above - young folk should learn to become self sufficient, never get bored, not become dependent on computers, learn to hand write well, learn to draw, (drawing requires lots of observation), - take an interest in everything.
Kids should learn to think strategically and they should be taught to remain mentally focused for as long as it takes to sort out a chosen problem. The thinking process can be very satisfying - if you follow what you set out to think about and disregard distractions.
A final word
I always tell our employees “if you don’t enjoy the job it’s not worth doing” and some of the guys have been working with me more than 3 decades ago so I guess it’s still fun and we are all good friends.
Film clip on Chris if
you click on this
THE FULL STORY: WELL WORTH A READ
Throughout my schooling, university studies and lecturing careers I was never comfortable to be ‘pigeon holed’ and streamed into either science and engineering or into art, sculpture and 3D design disciplines, which (as Leonardo himself knew), should all should naturally overlap in the real renaissance world of innovation. Until now people have mentally ‘pigeon-holed' me into various careers including sculpture, structural design, vehicle suspension design, engineering, architecture, naval architecture and the invention of stabilised cafe tables. To most people, these career paths might appear to all be incomprehensibly unrelated until you join the dots and put me in my own invented rather simple little pigeon hole - I’m an enthusiastic “ hyperologist”!
Please let me explain:
The geometry of hyperbolic paraboloids (let’s just call them 'hypars') has always intrigued me. During my childhood in Ethiopia in the 1950’s, I used to make aesthetically pleasing sculptural models incorporating the 3D geometry of warped surfaces, long before I knew what these sorts of warped forms were actually called.
Decades later, while lecturing in the Fine Art (Sculpture Dept) at a Uni in Perth I started studying the geometry of ‘hypars’ and I begun to incorporate them into some sculptural pieces for personally satisfying aesthetic reasons. However, I felt that I needed to make these pieces have some more rational utility and proper meaning beyond being mere nice objects to look at. Having taught myself how to make cutting patterns of hyperbolically warped surfaces and, being lucky enough to be married to Anny (who has great design skills and a flair for a range of construction techniques), we realised we could together construct exciting architectural shapes and temporary expo type structures as well as corporate exhibition 'tents'. So we stopped teaching at WAIT and started up our first company Tensile Structures, back in 1982. We soon found ourselves designing and building tension structures for applications all around Australia, for which we received 12 design awards. In its 'hay day' we employed 27 locals in Dunsborough the little WA town in which we lived. Our team of odd-balls was soon making and erecting tension structures in most states throughout Australia. We were so busy we unfortunately burned ourselves out and we sold Tensile Structures in 1989, but some of the old designs are still in production.
As a boy in East Africa we used to go on family camping trips down the Rift Valley in our bone shattering Land Rover and I became fascinated by its barbarically inflexible suspension system which couldn’t warp and articulate enough to absorb the rough African tracks while our other car, a basic VW beetle was much more nimble and comfortable off road and it also maintained adequate traction off road without even having a 4x4 transmission.
Decades later, Anny and I worked and travelled extensively off road in West Africa and then in Australia, and my frustration with 4WD suspension systems was re-ignited. While it may appear to be a bit of a leap in technologies I realised that the underlying hyperbolic geometry we had employed in the design of warped tension structures was also applicable to 4 point support systems which could possibly enable on-road and 4WDs vehicles to have a ‘free warp mode’ while improving consistent loading on all 4 wheels along with improved ride comfort and traction.
In between other jobs, I started making some experimental radio control models in 1985 - 1990 to prove the equal loading suspension idea, and Anny and I (who were seriously ‘ broke’ by then) leased a brand new Toyota SUV which we ‘butchered' and converted into an extreme terrain vehicle capable of climbing over 1 metre high rocks, tree trunks and ridiculously rough terrain. We were extremely lucky as this lead to a few R&D conversion contracts with many of the most famous international 4WD car and truck companies, and a few top military organisations, who flew out about 40 future prototypes to us in SW Australia to convert to our innovative Kinetic technologies. By this time we had moved into a proper shed and we soon gained an adventurous staff of several engineers as well a number of skilled techs and helpers.
Our suspensions dramatically improved the car companies SUV and truck suspension systems enabling them to obtain a lot more traction by spreading the vehicle’s weight consistently between all wheels - even when the axles were extremely articulated (warped into a ‘ hypar' shape) while other a ‘normal' off-road vehicle would get stuck with one wheel hung up in the air. In fact, normal 4WDs began to look rather like a rocking cafe table alternating it’s downward pressure from one tripod of support onto another!
Our car and truck suspension systems have now been adopted and are now being manufactured by some of the most respected vehicle manufacturers in the world and I still get a blast from seeing a growing number of ‘our’ cars on and off the road on a daily basis. Another high light for me was back in the 2003-5 time frame when most of the ‘works’ Citroen and Mitsubishi rally cars fitted with our Kinetic systems won the World Rally and the Dakar Rally events multiple times. I’m also particularly stoked that McLaren also uses our technology in their non off-road super sports car.
Along with the newer shareholders in Kinetic, we agreed to sell the company to the American company Tenneco International (who own Monroe shocks and who subsequently moved the Kinetic business back to USA). From there it appeared to be entirely logical to me to start another R&D phase adapting our hydraulic suspension technology and know-how to suit suspension systems on boats, which, as we all know, don’t normally have suspensions at all, although they need them because they roll, pitch and knock us around on undulating and rough surfaces making many of us sea sick and sometimes causing serious injuries in commercial applications.
Our next new company Nauti-Craft.com was very fortunate to be able able to re-employ many of the original Kinetic team members and we were even able to carry on working in the same ‘ Kinetic’ premises. We were also very lucky to be chosen by the Carbon Trust to be sponsored to work out more comfortable and safer ways for engineers to go to, and to access wind turbines in high seas around Britain. Currently Nauti-Craft is involved with the design and development of both commercial and recreational vessels of various sizes including wind farm access boats.
Meanwhile, several years and a few dozen spilled cappuccinos later, I was still frustrated by wobbly alfresco cafe tables, and I felt the need to 'crack’ this age old ‘simple’ problem of having to choc-up one leg with beer mats and even credit cards. The hydraulic suspension systems we designed for cars and boats could have worked quite well for tables but they were obviously ultimately unnecessarily complicated, expensive and too vulnerable to be minimised to be satisfactorily incorporated into cafe tables. So our next R&D challenge obviously was to make a very simple, robust, mechanically interconnected suspension system for alfresco tables which spreads the load evenly between the 4 feet whose positions warp like a hypar to accommodate to uneven floor and rough paved surfaces. We invented, patented and made dozens of prototypes to test different ways to accomplish our aims while also being very conscious of the need to make aesthetically pleasing 3D sculptural designs, which would look equally elegant in Fremantle, Paris or San Francisco.
We started No-Rock.com in the early 2000's to commercialise the IP and we have now developed a range of products which are being manufactured and sent in sea containers to various international destinations.
We don’t have plans to rally our table versions yet or take our table technology out into stormy seas but watch this space!
Never give up and don’t worry if other people think you’re nuts.
Chris has a very unique story. For the full version of his story which allows you to better understand the evolution of his ideas see the bottom of the interview.
On what he does
Throughout my schooling, university studies and lecturing careers I was never comfortable to be ‘pigeon holed’ and streamed into either science and engineering or into art, sculpture and 3D design disciplines, which (as Leonardo himself knew), should all should naturally overlap in the real renaissance world of innovation.
Until now people have mentally ‘pigeon-holed' me into various careers including sculpture, structural design, vehicle suspension design, engineering, architecture, naval architecture and the invention of stabilised cafe tables.
To most people, these career paths might appear to all be incomprehensibly unrelated until you join the dots and put me in my own invented rather simple little pigeon hole - I’m an enthusiastic “ hyperologist”!
Above: Chris and Anny's Tensile Structure is still in use today for Leeuwin Estate Concerts
Kinetic suspension system
Above: Revolutionising your dining experience? No Rock tables are Chris' latest project
Below: Nauti-craft. hydraulic suspension system for multihulled vessels website here