Up and Coming
ROLU, Designers

Before Matt Olson and Mike Brady of the Minneapolis studio ROLU began making boxy plywood furniture in 2010 — earning them serious contemporary design cred and a reputation for channeling Donald Judd — they spent seven years designing landscapes, minimalist geometric compositions in steel, wood, concrete, and grass. It was those projects, says Olson, that have helped define the group’s work since, from their love for earthy materials to their awareness of design’s larger experiential qualities. “A landscape is a dynamic thing,” Olson explains. “It has smells, it grows and dies and changes. That taught me to pay attention to what’s really happening with an object; the chair as a visual and functional thing is only the start.” In ROLU’s case, chairs can also interact with users, reference sculptures and performance art and drawings, or become performances themselves, often by way of little more than a few planes of OSB.

Olson, whose grandfather was a modernist architect and great-grandfather was a Herman Miller dealer, says the designers have a term for their boundary blurring philosophy: Sitting as seeing. “Seeing in art is usually the favored mode of gathering information, but it’s fun to think about other ways of experiencing objects,” he says. When the group introduced their recent Primarily Primary chairs, for example, whose fur-covered seats are delicately suspended from their frames with rope, the hesitation of viewers to sit down became a kind of interactive theater in the designers’ eyes. Their latest project, an interior for the Athens art-book store OMMU, has an equally expansive narrative: They began it by thinking about furniture as a series of visual samples, not unlike a hip-hop track, basing the chairs’ silhouettes on fragments of line drawings by the postmodernist choreographer Tricia Brown, which themselves reference the movements of dance. “It’s that when does something become something else question that we’re really interested in,” says Olson. So much so, in fact, that they named their upcoming summer residency at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center after it.

Meanwhile, ROLU — which these days is a trio that also includes Sammie Warren — is gearing up for a second show at the New York store Mondo Cane, whose owner Patrick Parrish was one of the first to take an interest in their furniture work. In February, London designer Peter Nencini will join them for a kind of open R+D lab at the shop, with the results of the collaboration to be displayed there at a later date. It’s another step in what Olson, who began his career in a rock band, sees as a meandering yet organic creative evolution, one in which disciplines like music, landscape, and furniture are merely different ways of expressing the same ideas. To learn more about those ideas, and to see more of ROLU’s recent work, check out the slideshow at right. Then look out for ROLU’s first-ever jewelry project, which launches for sale on Sight Unseen tomorrow!

What you’d make if you had an unlimited budget: “A huge difference in the lives of those who are suffering.”

What you’d make if you weren’t allowed to use any straight lines: “Music? No, a river… No, food!”

Favorite place to shop for materials or inspiration: “Where the past is becoming the present. And in art. We like to play with art history, to search for and think of connectivity and expansiveness. We love John Cage’s thoughts about randomness and how they affected our ideas about the beauty of ‘field recordings.’ We like to think of our work as ‘visual field recordings.’ We also get a lot of inspiration from internet language translators. We love the clumsy poetic possibility that appears when a chunk of text from the Japanese magazine Waterfall is run through a translator.”


What inspired your Primarily / Primary series (pictured)? “The full name is actually Primarily / Primary (after Carol Bove, Scott Burton and Sol Le Witt), three artists we were obsessing about during that time that seem present in this project in a very literal way. The Seattle textile artist Ashley Helvey helped us with amazing wool felts for the chairs, and her work definitely inspired us, too.”


“Our starting point was the late-’60s work of the German artist Franz Erhard Walther, whose ‘Handlungsstücke’ (Action Pieces, pictured) were, in part, an attempt to make participants aware of the physical and psychological moment they were part of. With both Primarily / Primary and a design we showed at Golden Age in Chicago last December called Ideas Can’t Be Owned…They Belong To Whoever Understands Them, we’re exploring the ways in which furniture can make someone aware of their body, gravity, memory, texture, and whatever else they might bring to it. We’re interested in the ways we interact with objects in non-aesthetic ways — physical ways. We like to call this ongoing inquiry ‘sitting as seeing.’”

01 CAROL BOVE 2010

Inspirational works by the Swiss multimedia artist Carol Bove.

02 JUDD plus NATURE equals DAN GRAHAM - ROLU for MONOPOL Magazine

Design or art hero: “It’s almost impossible to narrow down. With the images above, it was Donald Judd (form), John Cage (organic), Dan Graham (refelction), and Rei Kawakubo (clothes). They’re from our project JUDD + NATURE = DAN GRAHAM, a Monopol magazine commission that asked six designers to respond directly to the work of Donald Judd in honor of a retrospective happening in Berlin this past summer. We made a scale version of Judd's Stool #95/6 in acrylic, and for various reasons, we wanted to make it as transparent as possible and then fill it with organic matter. It was only after the fact that we realized there were many layers that pointed to other artists we’re interested in, too; it’s often after a work has been finished for a while that we start to understand it.”


"ROLU as Donald Judd and John Cage"


"ROLU as Donald Judd and John Cage and Dan Graham and Comme des Garcons"


Design movement you most identify with: “It seems like to have a movement, you must have some amount of certainty and a general consensus of facts. We feel certain sometimes, but we’re suspicious of it. Everything is cyclical. That said, we choose Sottsass! We think of him as a movement. Throughout his whole life, from his early years with the so-called Radicals or Anti-Design folks in ’60s Italy to Memphis, he produced interesting, dynamic, and gorgeous work. He changed and evolved radically, and we hope the same things happen to us.” Pictured: Sottsass’s “Seating Near Enigma,” 1987


ROLU’s Mini-Ettore nightstand, developed for a project with Phillips de Pury and Pin-Up magazine earlier this year. “If you look closely and use your imagination, you see the number 10 from every perspective and angle possible,” wrote the designers at the time. “The piece is called the Mini-Ettore, as it is a shrunken version of a cabinet our hero Ettore Sottsass designed.”


Objects you keep around your studio for inspiration: “Cameras. Our work is often about extracting a form from a photograph and recreating it in 3-D, so we play with cameras a lot. We’re interested in the amount of art, architecture, design, fashion, etc that we can only experience through photography. The way the camera ‘sees’ something is very important and exciting to us.”


One of the studio’s vintage cameras with, at left, a chair they made in collaboration with Eric Timothy Carlson for Product Porch at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.


What you collect: “Printed matter, art, and experiences. We LOVE books and zines and magazines and newsprint projects. The studio subscribes to or buys: PIN-UP, Purple Magazine, Bad Day, Fantastic Man, The Gentlewoman, Apartamento, Surface, Self Service, Nazine, Mousse Magazine, Acne Paper, Parkett, Artforum, Frieze, Here There, Casa Brutus, the Exhibitionist, Paper Monument, Dot Dot Dot, and many more! I can’t even start with the books, it will take forever.” Pictured: An experimental bookshelf concept in the studio.


First thing you ever made: “Imaginary stories about living a glamorous life when I grew up. My neighbor across the street, Marc Craney (pictured), was the drummer in Jethro Tull, and between him and Bjorn Borg and Ilie Nastase, my tennis idols, I was very aware of a great big world outside the Midwest. I sometimes wonder if my memories of my childhood would be similar to Wes Anderson’s.”

08 shoes

Favorite everyday object: “Shoes.”


Favorite material to work with: “Space, and organic matter: soil, wood, stone, etc. They’re materials that inspire us just by looking at them.” Pictured: A portion of Here There - There Here installation, created this summer with L.A.'s Welcomeprojects as part of Andrea Zittel's High Desert Test Sites outside Joshua Tree, which Olson says was a nice conceptual middle ground between ROLU's landscape and design work. “We also love steel, and traveling to the steel yard. We have two huge residential landscape projects happening this summer that involve steel, and we’ll use it extensively during our residency at the Walker Art Center this summer. It seems like it’s only a matter of time before it works its way into other areas of our creative practice.”


“Simplicity and accessibility were the first two things that attracted us to plywood. Often if we were at a lumber yard looking for it, they would lecture us: you cant use this in furniture, this is the worst wood! So we like trying to make something out of the least of things in the lumberyard; it’s kind of like making something from dirt, in a way — from the thing that’s easiest to get.”

16 walther from dia

Most interesting thing brought back from your travels: “A rare copy of an exhibition program for an exhibit by Franz Erhard Walther that I found at the Dia: Beacon bookstore. Sometimes we encounter an artist that isn’t well known enough to have a large presence on Google. Walther falls into this category, though it is getting better. There’s a large exhibition of his up at Dia: Beacon through February 13 that I emphatically recommend.”

10 &again

Haiku describing your studio:
you become yourself
while you become each other
again and again

“The image is one-third of the three posters we made that say: ‘When Does Something, Become Something Else? Again and Again and Again,’ which is the tentative name of the project we’ll execute while in residence at the Walker.”


First thing a stranger would say when they saw your work: “‘This is ventriloquism of form.’ I interviewed Jo-ey Tang, an artist whose work we love, for the ROLU blog and proposed that rather than asking him my questions, I’d extract questions that were asked of artists in Avalanche, an early-’70s magazine I love. He decided to answer using text from books he loves. He called the exercise a ‘ventriloquism of form,’ and this was as close to perfect in describing our work as anyone has gotten.” Pictured: ROLU as Scott Burton


Last great exhibition you saw: “’It Broke From Within by Goshka Macuga’ at the Walker Art Center, curated by Peter Eleey and Bartholomew Ryan. The exhibit was a deeply layered work that used the culture of American politics and the Walker’s collection, archives, and architecture — even its institutional view of itself — as material. From the moment I walked in, it seemed to vibrate a mysterious poetic narrative underneath a potential literal one. Very complex and somehow soothing.”


Favorite design ritual: “Reading interviews in Purple Magazine, or making arrangements of objects in the studio (pictured). With our projects, we’re always curious about what they’ll become. Whether they’ll end up this way or that way, here or there. Making arrangements and sketching free geometric drawings is somehow like stretching before tennis. You really shouldn’t skip it!”

20 mono ha google2

Favorite Google image search: “‘Mono Ha,’ which refers to a group of artists working in the late ’60s in Japan who were consumed with the integrity and totality of materials. Their work is related for us to the ideas we explore in the landscape.”


Right now, ROLU is: “Super excited to announce our residency in the ongoing Open Field program at the Walker Art Center. We also just released some new furniture pieces commissioned by the Athens bookstore/gallery OMMU, and we’re really excited about them! We’ll be working on a book about our work with the graphic designer Benjamin Critton, to be published by OMMU in 2012.” Pictured: The Tricia Brown drawings that inspired the furniture ROLU designed for OMMU


The final OMMU objects. Click here to watch a series of videos ROLU made for the project, and be sure to visit Sight Unseen tomorrow to see the studio's first-ever plywood jewelry series, which will be available in the SU Shop!