Up and Coming
The Fundamental Group, Architects and Furniture Designers

The Fundamental Group‘s designs may be inspired by geometric principles, but the burgeoning Berlin studio owes its  existence, at least in an abstract sense, to another realm entirely: physics, ie, the field in which opposites attract. As architecture students at Berlin’s University of the Arts back in 2003, Gunnar Rönsch and Stephen Molloy worked as assistants to rival department chairs, which in the world of academia, meant that they were automatically rivals, too. “If you sign up with one, you hate the other,” Rönsch explains. “Mine was building construction and detail design, while Stephen’s was based on a programmatic approach to structure — my chair basically had to solve all the problems created by his.” In time, however, the pair realized the inevitable — that by joining forces, they’d be stronger. First they became roommates, noticing how smoothly their collaboration on the apartment went, and then they began working together professionally, on projects like a friend’s house remodel. Their only other major conflict came when it was time, in 2010, to choose a name for their new company: Rönsch & Molloy, or Molloy & Rönsch? “A mathematician friend of ours was sitting in our kitchen talking about the fundamental group — a term from algebraic topology that describes very complicated 3-D surfaces,” says Molloy. “It was the perfect compromise.”

It was also the perfect mission statement, in a way. “It’s a tribute to something we don’t understand, which is one of the things that really motivates us,” says Molloy. While the Fundamental Group’s architecture practice is still in its early stages, the duo have spent the last two years releasing a steady stream of furniture and small objects that are physical manifestations of their attempts to work out simple mathematical logic problems. Their first release, the Kennedy and Monroe side tables, deal with growth patterns — what happens when you split a line over and over again? How many times must you do it before it produces a viable table surface? “The answer is 126, in case anyone’s interested,” laughs Molloy. The ultimate payoff of that approach, he says, is that it piques the user’s curiosity and prevents the final piece from seeming too static; the question itself is often evident in the answer.

Like any young architects, of course, the duo’s goal is to engage in those same sorts of explorations at a larger scale, playing with the logic of building structures, creating spatial puzzles. They take much of their inspiration in that realm from Islamic architecture, which has a similar mathematical bent. “Moorish architecture is interested in transforming one volume into another,” says Molloy. “They were constantly trying to put domes on square rooms. We’re also interested in how one space that has one function would lead up to another space with a different function, how that transformation would take place and what it would mean when you were standing inside the space perceiving it. What we like about geometry is that sense of transformation.”

Favorite everyday object: “The Google search page. Just a lot of white space, a box waiting for input, and then this odd thing they do with their logo. If you feel like procrastinating, you can try and work out what it is, but if you’re focused it’s super easy to ignore. Love it.”

Design object you wish you’d made: “The Volkswagen Beetle. Emotional, popular, effective, and resilient.”

Best thing you ever found discarded on the street: “When I was living in London, I used to scour the skips in the financial district, and once I found this truly awesome James-Bond-baddie-style office chair. It made me think I should also get a white cat and brawny henchmen.”

Design trend that needs to die: “I prefer people who have terrible taste but for whom possessions have real meaning to those who believe in any kind of good-taste consensus — it usually just makes me want to misbehave. In particular, though, any newly created vintage look of things is a betrayal of the future”

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Objects you keep around the studio for inspiration: “Gunnar and I are quite different there. He collects art and has a cache of beautiful things that inspire him curated in his space. I live a more monastic existence, with nothing but a clock and a clothing rail in my room, and two modest but handsome pieces of living room furniture I inherited from my grandmother that have largely sentimental value. I need to look beyond design to get inspiration —at plants, or mathematical geometries, or fashion shows and art exhibitions. Berlin is an ideal place to go out into the city, see what the people are doing, and then retreat into my cell and ruminate.” Above: the duo's A Few of My Favorite Things shelf

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What inspired your Atlas & Friends table? “Atlas is one of our more speculative pieces. We’ve always been interested in the way Islamic architecture translates and transforms geometries. The classic example is how they tend to fit a dome onto a square room, through polygonal rotations. We took a cube of oak and rotated it by 45 degrees on two of its axes. Then we planed off the pointy edges to reveal an equilateral triangle within the geometry of each cube.”

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What inspired your Atlas & Friends table? “When these cubes are arranged as a surface, they reveal a language of large and small triagles, but as you look around the edge, you see the chunky wooden cubes that create those triangles. The name Atlas is a play on the three meanings that spring to mind: the mountains bordering the Sahara, the image of the geographical features on the surface of the planet, and the Titan bearing the globe on his shoulders. It’s kind of a heroic piece; there’s a lot of labor involved, and it’s real, old-fashioned craftsmanship.”

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Design movement you most identify with: “Currently we’re really inspired by two distinct movements in history: the early Italian Rennaissance..."

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Design movement you most identify with: "...plus the Arts & Crafts movement in England and its Deutscher Werkbund counterpart in Germany in the era running up to WWI What the eras have in common is that they emerge after a period of cultural stagnation and open the doors to new ways of seeing. What intrigues us formally is that both strike a brilliant balance between a richness of texture and pattern offest by a purity and strictness in form. We aim for an essential simplicity in our work, but we also imbue our pieces with sublte texturing to give richness and depth, and ensure that people keep coming back to the work.”

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Most interesting thing brought back from your travels: “I recently bought a small ca. 15th-century clay pipe at a farmer`s market somewhere in Turkey. It was hidden amongst some old, used plumbing tools and I couldn`t believe my eyes.”

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First thing a stranger would say when they saw your work: “Amazingly, everybody has different associations. Some people pick up on the references we use, such as jacobean furniture or Deutsche Werkbund, but some people see completely different things. A lot of people see a menorah when they look at the Monroe (pictured) and Kennedy tables. This gives us no end of pleasure...”

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Favorite part of your studio: “Our windowsill (pictured). It’s where we put all our studies that don’t make it, so they can taunt us.”

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First thing you ever remember making: (Stephen) “My brothers and I used to play a game we invented called ‘crash-up cars.’ We would make cars out of Legos, but really they were more like tanks. Then we would crash them head-on, much like a medieval joust. The first car to lose either its driver (a little Lego man) or its wheels was the loser. Typically a good car could go about seven or eight rounds. The real trick was that you weren’t allowed to just build the driver into the car, he had to be able to get in and out without the car itself being taken apart. I must have made more than 100 of those beasts.”

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First thing you ever remember making: (Gunnar) “I grew up in East Germany, in a suburb full of ruined pre-Communist villas. Those houses rich with ornaments fascinated me, and so it was only natural to start designing my own villas for friends and family at the age of 10, and making models in various scales.”

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Last great exhibition you saw: “Anthony McCall – five minutes of pure sculpture at Hamburger Bahnhof. The exhibition was about creating abstract geometric spaces in a darkened room with lasers. It was remarkable for its ability to create a space and a moment of complete focus and wonder. As an architect, I’m insanely jealous of an artist’s ability to achieve meaninful space with such economy of means.”

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Most inspiring place you’ve ever been: “Sigurd Lewerentz’s church at Klippan in western Sweden — which I saw during my second-year field trip at architecture school — changed the way I looked at building forever.”

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Most inspiring place you’ve ever been: “His way with brick, and sepcifically the rhythm of the mortar joints, opened my eyes as to how it is an architects duty to find magic in the most banal of materials. I still can’t forget it. Especially because IKEA’s bestselling sofa is also called Klippan.”

Villa-Mairea-by-Alvar-Aalto-02 foto from kubododotcom

Design or art hero: “I’ve always loved Alvar Aalto, and in particular the Villa Maiera. The way he works on three distinct scales at once there, and the way each scale feeds into the next, is a real inspiration. First, he situated the house elegantly and confidently in the landscape; there’s a meaningful dialogue with the trees and the driveway, which telegraphs the spaces to come. Then he created this relaxed and organic, yet totally specific spatial flow that is elegant, surprising, and intimate.”

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Design or art hero: “Finally, and this is what the house is most famous for, there are the little details full of love and joy: the way the balustrade on the stair is treated, the way he places a chimney right against the window and allows himself just a tiny play of solid white mass eaten away by daylight, and the way the textures and patterns of the wall, floor, and ceiling create a calming whole without being precious or dogmatic.” Image: copyright Hassan Bagheri

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What you collect: “Gunnar has a small collection of works by contemporay American and German art-school graduates from the last 5 to 10 years, mostly friends and their friends. There are also some East German artists on The Fundamental Group headquarters’ walls, like Willi Sitte and Werner Tübke.” Photo by Gabriel Tamez

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Last amazing thing you bought at a flea market: “A set of 1920s whiskey tumblers. Very simple with delicate vertical stripes and nothing else.” Pictured: the tumblers sitting atop the duo’s Rhizom wall shelf, photo by Gabriel Tamez

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Fictional character who would own your work: “Hugh Hefner, Juliane Moore, Queen Margeret II of Denmark, and Benedict XVI are all welcome to get in touch with us to talk about discounts and free delivery options. We don’t do fiction.”

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Right now, the Fundamental Group is: "Hungry. We're always hungry, curious, tasting, and testing. In most ways, we live in a totally saturated, privileged cuture, but there are some things one can't get enough of in order to live a good life: knowledge, understanding, growth, the possibility of transformation. So we are hungry for that. And this hunger, this curiosity, this delight in glimpsed understandings is what we look for in our designs."