“It’s more a hunch - knowing that there’s something in the material that I want to get to, but it requires working out of bounds of traditional architecture to get to it.”
Rhett Russo is no stranger to the obstacles that come with exploring new ways to make things. Part architect, part designer, part ceramicist, and educator who explores ambiguous processes of material formations through digital fabrication - he knows material firsthand.
“Any time you try to make something that’s not strictly within a discipline it can be challenging. It’s difficult to explain how discrete knowledge in one field has an aesthetic value in another field. On a fundamental level you are asking everyone to rethink how they might build things differently and that is a risky investment.”
“When you shape material differently - it often comes with the preconception that you’re not doing it the way that you’re supposed to. It may be odd or foreign. Yet that is exactly what I try to do, to foreground through my work that society has to look beyond how things are predetermined. Through a combination of computational technology and design I try to reshape and reuse materials in ways that change our expectations or how we value things. If we are to change our future, we have to change our values. For me, design is about presenting another, perhaps unexpected, reality– ‘this (thing) should not do that (thing)’. But it does….”
The Undergraduate Chair of Architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is passionate about his students being agents of change; advising young architects that ‘the way you define your work is up to you to describe - there’s nothing preventing you from carving out another reality that will have an impact.”
Rhett’s appetite for questioning the singular status quo is inherent; the US-born grew-up internationally, from South-east Asia to Northern Europe, he is the multi-cultural product of foreign and familial influences.
“Living on the move, my mother was into collecting things - everything from buttons to ceramics to antiques; things that were interesting and different. I was exposed to a lot of oddities as a child, rapidly shifting my cultural context from Singapore – to the Scottish countryside and English architecture.
“Every time we would come back to visit the US we would travel through a different place - Taiwan, Philippines, Hawaii - it produced different tendrils of cultural influence, and it exposed me to different interpretations of modernism. When I returned to live in the US years later it was a culture shock. I can remember being mesmerized by the different ways things were done in different countries.”
Rhett paid particular attention to the mentality and ethos around furniture in eastern culture - not just the imagination given to how the objects were made, but the ‘restraint that comes with craft’.
“Those different practices formed my design sensibility and curiosity about how shapes and materials can be intricately connected.”
His ‘sensibility’ has certainly yielded impressive work. Rhett’s design practice utilizes ceramic formations from grains, slabs, sheets, slips, and, semi-plastics to develop architectural assemblies, claddings and building components. His work - exhibited at various international biennales and exhibitions - ranges in scale from architecture to design, furniture, drawing, sculpture and ceramics.
When it comes to his design and making process, Rhett’s work fluctuates between computational and material craft.
“I feel most alive when I’m physically working in the studio, with the material. So much time, precision and planning goes into the computational code and modeling - but there is always the point when the materiality takes over. By making the physical object, you get into an intimate dialogue with the formation process and the material starts to talk back. This way of working allows me to address new opportunities for the design to evolve.”
“I’m interested in the ways that our notions of materiality are being transformed by technology rapidly moving towards Artificial Intelligence"
A personal favorite for the decorated designer is his globally renowned T-Stool, which Rhett affectionately describes as a ‘less a piece of furniture and more an architectural object - due to its folded structure and sheer size as a hollow ceramic shell’. His proposal for the Underwater Antiquities museum also stands out, for the way it ‘marries his interests in the adaptive reuse of buildings with a multicolored ceramic cladding system that recalls the museum's collection of broken artefacts.
Among his numerous design accolades is The Young Architects Award from the Architectural League of New York, where Rhett obtained his Masters of Architecture from Columbia University. He recently participated in the Taiwan Ceramics Biennale, The Florence Art Biennale and the Oslo Architecture Triennale.
As for now?
“I’m interested in the ways that our notions of materiality are being transformed by technology rapidly moving towards Artificial Intelligence. Increasingly our interface with materiality is changing and our ability to use computation to speculate on new materials using data at excessive speeds, and in untested combinations. There is an emerging comprehension for the next generation of designers that is currently beyond our sensibilities – if only for now.