It was through the merging of Ryan Russell and Byron George - partners in life, but up till then, competitors in the architectural field - that created Melbourne and Rome based Russell and George Architects. Although both confess to individual approaches, they shared the ambition to run a studio that incorporated various overlooked areas of design practice, focusing on a holistic vision, and designing and building key elements from scratch, rather than sourcing. This process freed them from the despotism of the mainstream market and has resulted in crafted, unique and deeply personalised design outcomes, within a process that is forever evolving and challenging.
BG: It's meant to work like an iPod, so you step forward and backwards through a menu structure rather than revealing everything on the home screen.
RR: It's also designed to work well on iPhones, which is why the type is so large - this means you don't need to zoom in to read it when on the go. It was a bit of a rebellion against tiny type as well - part of our branding is very large lettering - the message is instantly understood.
BG: That's nice feedback.
RR: There's an order, it works as a story, as if it were a presentation with the text in between, ending with "Ta Da" or "Voila" or "The End"
BG: "The end" came from a good friend, who tells these stories that sometimes ramble on, but he pulls himself up on it - he'd be talking away and eventually notice he's lost the whole room and suddenly say "The End!"
RR: There's the issue that many of our clients approach us with - they don't have a huge amount of money. They have great ideas and a great product, but they don't have the money to afford graphic design expertise. We tend to try to at least get them off the ground, and then generally, once their business is going, they seek further development. We are not graphic designers...
BG: Our approach is that design is really about solving problems. We try and approach every design problem and judge it on it's own merits. I worked for Fabio Ongarato for a while. It was an utterly new world to me. They do some incredibly beautiful work - it was so interesting watching the process of delivering a document or identity, the amount of hours that went into it was a similar amount that it took to deliver a building. Just because the outcome was different, and a different scale, it didn't mean it wasn't matched in hours and sweat and tears.
RR: There is also the fundamental side of our business, which we think modern architecture has gone too far down the road of specialisation - with good and bad consequences. We prefer to look to the more historical role of an architect - to be across every aspect of a building, including its interiors, its servicing, its function, how it's presented, everything.
BG: Alvar Aalto's work is arguably the best example of this, where he designed the door handles, light fittings and switches, fabrics, furniture - and you get this complete vision.
RR: This is the reason that our business is based on the work of 'directors', 'associates' and 'designers' rather than 'interior designers' and 'architects.' This definition means that people in our team look at the entire project as a whole, not just the interior or building fabric, or the furniture.
BG: Yes, exactly.
RR: You test it. One of the processes when beginning a project is that we don't show images of anyone else's work to assist in communicating our ideas, and we also don't show options. There is only one. The reason why we do this is we test all the options, in-house - that's what we are being paid to do. I think it's quite dangerous to put multiple options on the table because you end up with a watered-down idea, or bits and pieces are picked from each. From our perspective, you are being paid to do a job and part of that job is editing yourself.
BG: And you know an idea is a good one when you get excited. There's that classic "Ah Ha" moment, the breakthrough, that generates other ideas.
RR: There's a prototyping process and an experimental process and both occur simultaneously throughout a project, at various scales as the project progresses. Often it's seen to be something that is on the builder's shoulders, but we try to get into it before that, and then work directly with the builders to make sure it's resolved. We have built stuff in our office, prototyping ideas, and like to involve the selected builder in this as much as possible.
BG: A really good outcome usually requires having a whole range of people on board. People can have different opinions and views, but if the idea is robust enough through the testing process, people usually get on board.
RR: It's fundamentally about being able to communicate the idea. If the idea is a bit loose, if it could blow away in the wind, then it's not going to survive the whole gamut, the opinions of all those involved, and we should go back and start again. We try to form a very strong, single idea that everything else evolves from. It's not necessarily something that comes from experience, as our methods, and processes, change quite often.
BG: We were having a conversation the other day about "taste" and being "tasteful", mainly because there is so much of the same aesthetic going on in Melbourne at the moment, so many restaurants can have the same tiles or light fittings or have the same kind of offering, because it is seen as the right thing to do. It's all getting a little homogenous and dull. Having said this, we're doing a job interstate at the moment and I'm not sure if we've crossed the line into "bad taste". I mentioned this to Ryan, along with the fact that I don't really know where the line is and his response was "I hope you never find that line". I liked this response, so much design is stifled by people who base their idea of what is good on what they have already seen.
RR: And it comes back to that elemental perception of taste and style - these words are thrown around, and working in retail, we hear a lot about 'trend'. When you consider that taste and style can historically come from 19th century England, where a single designer is working for a single client - of wealth - producing something of great function or beauty - and the fact that it could set a trend was that it was done well.
BG: Let's not forget the perceived status of the client too. It is laziness, I feel. Trends are the death of ideas.
RR: Yes, exactly. Like something you pick out of a magazine.
RR: It's experimentation, that's what drives us. We hate specifying. If we can make something from scratch, we will. And generally, you can make it here, cheaper. This is a tragedy - there is great skill that exists in this country, at multiple levels, steel manufacturing and timber work, carpentry, and in our Rome office in Italy, we have access to this amazing artisan group. This stuff doesn't make the job more expensive.
BG: It actually tends to be cheaper.
RR: and we have that here, in Australia. But for some reason, the line between the designer and the maker has been cut. They are either scared of the build process, or the process itself has become interrupted by a middleman, who manages and turns it into a retail model. We try to work with the maker and see what is possible and experiment.
RR: You can rely of people's craft, instead.
BG: It's surprising walking along Smith Street and seeing ideas replicated in several different cafes. A particular project was Left on Gertrude street with its draped lights - work Ryan did 6 years ago. This has been copied many times over.
RR: And it is work that I haven't revisited at all - it was done for one client in one specific site - if you replicate, it becomes pastiche, naff. And boring for us.
RR: Abstraction is another. And it always helps that we work so differently. Byron is a slow burner-
BG: It takes me a while to gestate - I also like a little bit of silliness - if something makes me laugh, then usually it is good.
BG: We are actually partners as well as business partners
RR: So that's 24 hours a day together...
BG: We were together, and shared my studio space in the city. But we were competitors. Ryan won an award in 2007 which I then won in 2008, then he won again in 2009, it got a bit "Game on!" It was really the logistics of running two separate businesses under one roof that got us working together, and the development of trust between us.
RR: It allowed us to grow, and because of our different approaches, it allowed a really good design discussion, always robust - it even gets a bit angry sometimes! We also tend to polarise people - in a client meeting, generally a client will gravitate towards one of us, and only one of us can lead the design. We try to pull hidden stuff out of our clients, it's important to what we do, it's important to understand a bit of psychology when you're developing buildings for people.
BG: I would love to tear them down. There is a lot of rubbish being built in this city. The is also a lot of ego in some of the work - it's expression for its own sake, rather than considered, good design. I was talking to another architect the other day, she described it as too much "tiz" - it's a great word for it.
RR: Very rarely do you find restraint.
BG: Yes, there are only a couple of firms that do restrained buildings, Room 11 out of Tasmania, beautiful work - they know when to push and when to hold back. Kennedy Nolan in Fitzroy do some lovely subtle residential work. Sean Godsell does some great work too.
RR: Historically, Melbourne is, architecturally, a very interesting city. There has always been an architectural dialogue in this city. You look at buildings like Storey Hall at RMIT. Imagine doing that in Sydney or Adelaide at that time?
BG: They are moving towards doing more of that now, there is this kind of 'Melbournisation' of the country. Probably the most telling reference is the policy of introducing "laneways" to buildings and urban spaces. This is something that works well in Melbourne because the city grid and urban fabric is a certain scale, but is completely irrelevant in other Australian cities.
RR: Also, whenever we go to Rome, architects there are telling us we are so young to have a practice. We are - it's rare for a city to embrace young architects and designers, to give them a go.
RR: People in this city take risks. They are looking for shifts. For game changers. This is the historical dialogue that has always been there, but there is such a homogenisation of ideas, and cookie cutting, like with those apartments you mentioned - I guarantee the apartment plans haven't changed. It's all the same, just the skin. That's a big shame, there is such an opportunity with residential buildings. We are trying to do unexpected apartment models ourselves, that respond to the site, that are interesting and don't necessarily need to be bigger to get better living spaces. So much of the design out there is done in plan - but spaces aren't experienced in plan. There isn't an understanding of space. It's a lack of education too.
BG: Yes it has, in the last 5 - 10 years particularly. Technology has changed and will continue to have a huge impact on the way we do things and the way people are taught. Hand drawing is no longer compulsory at University - I'm in two minds about it. I thought this was a bad thing at first, to lose the ability to draw is dangerous, you can build something on the computer but not really understand what you are doing. But on the other side, a computer gives you an instant view of what you are designing.
RR: A computer can guide you to design something through the objects you choose - it's easier to build a rectangular box then any curvilinear forms, but it can also be a tool that frees you up.
BG: Goes both ways...
RR: Well it only becomes freeing if you can strip the computer apart, strip your process apart, and the only way you can do that is through sketching and building. One of the best things that has happened to my career is building stuff, and through learning from manufacturers. You understand enough to push boundaries, you can shift and change. When it is in the computer, you're not aware of the possibilities of what you can do. It also requires restraint on the part of the user -
BG: When you draw, every line means something. On a computer, there are lines there that you don't know what they are, they don't have the same intent. There's the potential to not think about what you are doing.
RR: But then again, I do love technology. We produce a lot of work here, and there is only 5 people in our practice - because we have good people, good practices and good technology. We will probably be investing in 3D printing in the next 12 months, as well as laser scanning, where you scan objects and models with direct input into CAD. Technology enables us to deliver projects quickly and effectively, and compete with the bigger practices without the expense of a room full of people. It is another tool enabling us to explore.
All photography by Dianna Snape, property of Russell and George, expect studio images property of Double Days
The referrals began with Leah Jackson who referred Stephanie Downey who referred Chris Hill who referred Jonathan Wallace who referred Dominic Hofstede, who referred Paul Fuog, who referred Ben Edwards and Juliet Moore, who referred Ryan Russel and Byron George, who referred Dianna Snape, who finished the stream with Jessica Brent. We also introduced Matt Hinkley who referred Warren Taylor who referred Yanni Florence, who referred Liv Barrett, who referred Fayen d'Evie, who referred Masato Takasaka, who referred Madeline Kidd, who referred Meredith Turnbull, who referred Nella Themelios.
In May 2012, we began a new Melbourne stream with Oslo Davis. He then referred Alexander Stitt, who referred Mimmo Cozzolino, who referred Fysh Rutherford, who referred Simon and Jenna Hipgrave.
In March 2012, we went to Austin for SXSW, where the daily referrals began with Sonnenzimmer who referred Landland and Hometapes who referred Zorch, who referred Brian Maclaskey, who referred Bobby Dixon, who referred Brian Phillips, who, through some auspicious coincidence, turned the SXSW referral interview project into a perfect circle, by referring us back to Sonnenzimmer. Then there was a giveaway to celebrate.