Essay

The Room: Untitled (Presque Rien)

Rufus Knight and Mijntje Lepoutre

‘It is in the living room shielded by sofa cushions and huddled behind a ranked army of bric-a-brac that the individual searches for a safe haven from the shock of modern urban life. It is in the phantasmagoria of the interior that objects appear deprived of their immediate usefulness and acquire new meanings and functions, as they are cast in a system of personal associations and elective affinities. What talismans shroud our dwelling places.’ – Massimiliano Gioni, The Keeper, 2016

Presenting an intermediary point between public and private, the domestic interior operates both as an inward-looking source of refuge and relief in an increasingly busy and complex world; and as a visual display of self-expression – a construction of how we imagine ourselves
being seen.

Kim Paton: Can we start with your approach to the curation of your room?

Rufus Knight: Our approach has been to find a methodology that can respond to the brief of the interior and the constructed space of The Room without creating more excess. Through our research, we went through many different options to understand what that could be. We went around in circles looking for different material strategies and waste products and that sort of stuff, and then had the realisation that we could use the waste from the wider build of the exhibition structure as the material expression. Once Mijntje had that genius idea everything clicked after that, because we were grounded in a conceptual framework and it gave us a way to move forward. It made sense because it was very self-referential, it was like a feedback loop.

Mijntje Lepoutre: It was a really lovely process, it felt like the idea was sitting in an incubator waiting to unfold. In professional practice you work quite quickly and intuitively. Initially there were lots of different strands we could have gone down, but we were able to really unpack a single concept. 

KP: Does this strategy, to work with by-product or waste product, come from a resistance, or a reply to something in your commercial practice?

RK: We have a few clients who are very sustainably focused and it’s actually a driver for their brief, but this was quite a unique opportunity for us to explore something that was more related to art practice than architecture. It’s interesting because we always have such a demanding functional brief that it was great to do something more expressive.

ML: In terms of waste and the wider industry, we living in such a visual culture, constantly scrolling and looking at unreferenced imagery with no real context. Hopefully with this exhibition the experience of seeing it is slowed down. People will be able to experience it and read what it’s about, the way the exhibition is broken up forces people to slow down and meander.

RK: We’ve been talking about the Musique Concrète idea - that people will probably be like “What have they done?” that’s the idea of the title Presque Rien (Almost Nothing). What Mijntje described is definitely an ambition with the work. We want people to walk in and question where the work is, and contemplate detail more slowly.

KP: Returning to the idea of waste and sustainability. There’s an interesting parallel with the cultural sector which has its own issues with material waste. In exhibition making there is quite excessive material waste that is never talked about. Maybe five or 10 years ago there was a flood of conversation around ethical design, and it feels like it has receded, is that because it’s just too hard to get a desired outcome?

RK: I think it’s getting easier. I think maybe five to 10 years ago you would have been limited to a very particular kind of material palette, but now there’s carpets made out of recycled fishing nets, there’s a complete range of FSC certified veneers, there’s MDF substitutes made out of reconstituted plastics and timbers.

ML: And they all look really good.

RK: Yeah, it’s looking better and better. The case study that we keep talking about is the store for Kowtow in Wellington where it was paramount that materials were sustainably sourced, I’d say 95% of the materials we used were reconstituted or salvaged. We’re doing a second store with them now and it’s interesting, we are trying to push harder in terms of what the material possibilities might be. 

ML: Clients and consumers have become more aware of what they are consuming, and of it being sustainably sourced and also timeless.

RK: It is just common sense, if you care about it you of course want to work sustainability. but we’ve just this morning been talking about our room and what we’ll do with it when the show ends. We’ve created this half step deciding not to chuck the waste product from the build out. But then what – does it go to landfill? Building in that full circle story is the next step. 

ML: In our profession, that idea of cradle to cradle is challenging and a lot of it starts with conversation. A client might come to you wanting a new kitchen, and in a sense you need to educate them – asking questions about what they are going to do with the old kitchen, what if in 20 years they want a new kitchen. Inserting that into the conversation is important.

RK: One thing I held in my mind starting this process, is there’s such negative connotations around recycled materials. If you are talking about reuse and recycling it’s about as far from luxury as you can get. So, a question for us was how do you make it appealing aesthetically.

KP: It will be interesting to see how that unravels over the course of the show, and how people draw connections between your process and the overall aesthetic. 

RK: Agreed. That is a connection that we are really interested to see. Will people who know our work and might be our clients, see the link when they walk into the space? Yes, it’s very paired back and minimal, and stylistically it does reflect our approach in our practice, but we’ve been incredibly restricted in our material use with off cuts of timber and wood chips. 

KP: The end-grain you’ve used for the floor is the remnant of the very cheap 4x2 that is used to frame up the entire exhibition. You’ve faced this uncertainty about whether it will hold up to human activity, or whether it will start to deteriorate as it gets walked on. How do you feel about the potential failure of the product? 

RK: I feel completely comfortable about it because we are in the gallery context, for us it’s a safe space. We try to do this sort of stuff in our practice, we try and experiment do new things but here we do have a safety net. If it holds up really well and patinas beautifully I can see us using it in our practice. The opportunities to do this sort of thing are really rare. This has been a chance for us to initiate something and see the effects of it.

KP: From the outset you’ve described the tradespeople that you would be working with as craftspeople, that craft would be expressed through their work. They are not the craftspeople that we refer to a lot at Objectspace, but the distinction you make is important.

RK: I think Ambitec is a classic example because there is so much craft in what they do, despite being a commercial company. It’s something they have formulated from scratch and created a total aesthetic around it, and then from that a commercial product dropped out of it. To actually do what they do has a really high level of craft. We talk about this with clients and it’s really appealing to them to know that we might work with people who have that intent. 

KP: Thinking about comparisons to the art world where a craftsperson or fabricator of an artist’s work isn’t necessarily credited, do you see that tradeoff between designers and tradespeople? 

ML: I think there is a less singular approach in a design fields – we are working collaboratively all the time. The better our relationship is with the people we work with the more chance we have of pushing the materiality and scope of the outcome. We were talking in the office about Richard Serra’s work for Gibbs Farm and his process with the engineers, pushing each other to find ways to join these enormous panels. It’s that kind of relationship we are hoping for. 

RK: It’s been a high priority for us to let the process inform the work, so we don’t try and get in there and direct too much, or micromanage people we are working with.  The development of the idea actually comes out through working with contractors. Rather than us having an explicit vision for it.

KP: With this project do you think there will be a sense with which you measure its success or failure? Is there something particularly you want to get out of it?

ML: It would be amazing of course for audiences to be able to make the connection between our material approach and the waste by-product of the overall build. Getting up close to walls and seeing the flecks of the pine, they are small detailed moments.

RK: It’s quite nuanced and in an ideal world we wouldn’t have to explain it, we’d love for people to see and enjoy the absurdity of how the floor and the wall came to be. I think I’ve said it before throughout this process but we like to think we practice in this fine art area. But it’s been a really good test for us because it’s really hard to conceive a project in this way. It was so hard to arrive at an idea that would satisfy our appetite for participating in something like this, but that would also meet the level of execution that we do in our normal practice. It’s sort of marrying the two up. We always try and bring this level of craft to our projects but it doesn’t always happen, it’s quite interesting to test how far we can take this now when we’re not burdened by a functional brief.

ML: It is very revealing, as an artist it is a self-conscious practice. With architecture and interiors, you have a client which you in part stand behind, but here we have to stand in front of it. We’ve been grappling with no restraints, but enjoying it. 

Rufus Knight and Mijntje Lepoutre, Untitled (Presque Rien), The Room, 2019, Objectspace. Image: Samuel Hartnett.

Rufus Knight and Mijntje Lepoutre, Untitled (Presque Rien), The Room, 2019, Objectspace. Image: Samuel Hartnett.