July 7, 2010

Ryan Russell’s latest project, a rich red makeover for event management company 2Fish, is a shining example of creativity overcoming a tight budget.

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Many designers long to say goodbye to the days of shoestring budgets and having to prise beauty out of thin air. Surely a clear sign that one has ‘made it’ in the design world is when those small jobs vanish off the studio table and are replaced by clients standing at the office door with baskets of cash? Is it worth asking whether a gap is left in our creative practice when these smaller projects move on? Is there something deeply challenging and forever vital about the finicky gigs? Ryan Russell’s recently completed 2Fish office fitout is a small project that recognises the value in continuing to take on those little jobs where resources are tight, but a great client and greater challenges distract our logical brain from always wanting something bigger.

On this particular day, Russell has been up and ‘on’ since 4am. A familiar scene, no doubt. His trajectory is that of a quintessential upwardly mobile Melbourne designer. He served time with Cox Architects and, as an associate, worked on large-scale international projects. Russell made his move into private practice when he was commissioned for a high-end fashion boutique in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. The project went on to win several awards and is now a destination for those eager to experience Russell’s thrilling lighting installation as well as for the pieces that are displayed and sold.

Russell’s practice is, in itself, a creative work in progress. He has just doubled his staff and, thanks to the involvement of a parent company, Byron George, has the capacity to take on substantial commissions. He describes his own approach as “broad”: the practice works in both architecture and interiors, and frequently crosses the line into industrial design, lighting design, graphics and branding, as well as set and stage design. Often Russell finds himself on-site installing the particulars of the project – the result of the occasional lack of money and, more often, a perfectionist tendency. The 2Fish project reveals how cross-disciplinary interests migrate between the territories of design and bring together the traditional role of the architect, but also the artist, the furniture designer and the seller of ideas.

2Fish engaged Russell’s genius on its dated sixties warehouse tenancy in fashionable Prahran in an effort to reimagine its event management company. With a budget of $30,000 Russell deployed the theatrical techniques of flattage, screen, cut and layer to create an unfolding spatial narrative from the street entrance to the boardroom. These tactics allow prospective clients to engage in the constructed world of 2Fish with confidence and a suspension of disbelief akin to a visit to the theatre.

The strongest and most apparent ‘trick’ is the metaphoric use of red. Russell was able to negotiate a new and private entrance for the company and then captivate the potential client in an outpouring of colour. Read: rolling out the red carpet, the theatre of arrival and the world of celebrity. The walls and stairs ooze drama and deliver guests to the first floor. A red rope exaggerates the metaphor further (playing on the notion of ‘fish’, ‘bait’ and ‘catch’) as it intertwines and creates a netted and sculptural piece linking the vertical space of the stair with the reception desk. The rope work, installed by Russell after an extensively modelled three-dimensional drawing, is neatly furnished with splices and other yachting paraphernalia harnessed to the ceiling and joinery. A dramatically devised screen of white curtains wraps around the reception area and conceals the existing office partitions. The reception desk is a juncture of solid and void that mediates the front of house, the back of house and the adjacent boardroom.

Russell speaks of a desire to get to the bottom of his clients’ personalities and the boardroom is a space of theatrical excess that both masks and reveals the agendas of 2Fish. He says the company is a fearless client, proclaiming they were really “up for anything”. He involved the staff by developing a wishlist and gave each member $60 with instructions to buy a secondhand chair. He then primed and painted them a luscious red and the chairs sit at the conference table like characters. They each have a name and every staff member is present and accounted for even though they are, in fact, elsewhere. Russell’s favourite chair? “Grace Jones, the tall eighties beauty to my left. This one? Prince Alfred.” And who, indeed, contributed the country colonial number?

In a moment of reflection Russell concedes that such open-minded clients do have downsides. He names the occasional confusion, but also the challenge of finding some sense of restraint with the design concept. The free fall provided by such briefs can lead to a lack of clarity. Fortunately, the message has been clear on this occasion. The legibility of the work is perhaps a bonus. There has always been a comment and plenty of feedback, be it from the client or the courier. And for Russell this is a vital part of the process: finding the common ground and acknowledging that everyone has something to contribute. Furthermore, the work provides that important and rare place to test ideas that, more often than not, find second lives when they go on to influence the really big ones.

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