Last month, with ICFF and New York Design Week looming, I arranged for Matt Olson and Matthew Sullivan to get on the phone with me for what I was describing as "a long conversation about furniture design." Olson is one third of ROLU, a Minneapolis studio whose products include furniture, landscape design, urban planning and collaborative public art, among other work. And Sullivan runs AQQ Design in Los Angeles, where he produces furniture and objects that show a keen interest in the experimental spirit of postmodernist design (although he might cringe at that oversimplification); he also writes a twice-monthly column about lesser-known design figures for Core77.
I chose these two because I admire their work, and also because I thought that they could provide a sort of outsider's perspective on the industry—both make furniture, but their work is more about engaging with design history than producing and selling chairs for people's homes and businesses. Indeed, as I found out during our conversation, neither one really considers himself "a furniture designer" exactly, and getting them to talk about just furniture design was nearly impossible. Over the course of two wide-ranging telephone calls, they touched on everything from the nature of capitalism to their youthful punk-rock days and Robert Filliou's theory of the poetic economy. What follows is a vastly condensed version of our conversation.
Maybe we can start by talking about blogging—you're both active bloggers, and it seems to inform your design work.
Matt Olson: I'm an avid blogger, and have been for many years. I started in 2005 as a kind of marketing attempt for the studio, and it was an utter failure. But I got into the habit of waking up in the morning and posting something. At some point, I asked the rest of the studio if it would be cool if I just did it for myself. And then I started writing about what I was actually interested in. It's led us to a wild community of like-minded designers and artists—both on the blog and now, increasingly, on Instagram too.
Matthew Sullivan: Yeah, I was a detractor of blogging at first. But now I really feel that it is an amazing thing, and that it's only going to get more interesting. I also think it's problematic, though, just because it's so image-based. There are lots of images of things that really require your physical presence. Like, Matt, I just saw some Donald Judd stuff on your blog. He would say, I think, that a photograph of my stuff is meaningless.
MO: Judd would say that. I wouldn't.
MS: But this proliferation of images—like, you can have entire histories that you can scroll through in 30 seconds. Literally, if someone posted the whole history of art, the main pieces, you could be done in less than three minutes.
MO: See that's what I want. That's absolutely what I want. Because of the Internet, we live in a time when history is free of institutional or academic constraints. And I think it allows the images and the objects in them to live their own life in some way.
MS: Yeah, I think that it does democratize and deinstitutionalize a lot of things. And I like that it makes things less precious. Because that's the most annoying aspect of art—and why furniture in particular is interesting to me, because it's not as precious.
MO: I was actually just reading an interview last night, where one of the Memphis designers was talking about the conflict of trying to make something that was acceptable to her, and all of the sudden it gets so expensive, because it's so rare and difficult to produce, that it becomes completely out of reach to most people. And I was thinking to myself: Well, with online imagery, now you can get the spirit of something without possessing it. That's why I don't really think of what we're doing as furniture design. I think it has as much to do with photography and conceptual ideas as functional furniture.
MS: That's nice to hear you say, because that's exactly how I feel. I always think that that's one of the silliest things about design—the idea that design is solving, like, an engineering problem. I don't think that's what we do. We're cultural; Memphis is cultural. It's not about ergonomics or anything like that. Everyone wants to think that design is a problem-solving thing primarily, when it's really not, or that's not the main thing.
MO: Yeah. I'm good at making problems, not solving them.
So then how did you become interested in making furniture?
MO: I think we started the furniture in about 2008, but it was always part of how we talked about things. In the early years, we would tell our friends that we wanted to be like the Eames studio. And they would always chuckle—like, "Yeah, good luck with that; that'll be easy."
It wasn't so much that we wanted to do work like the Eameses, but that they really seemed to go from project to project, and the opportunities seemed to lead them as much as they decided to do something. So that's sort of how it has unfolded—in this really sprawling way.
Do you think there's a chance this approach might also lead you away from doing furniture in the future?
MO: I think there's a chance, yeah. I don't want to want to do something. I want to let the order outside of me push me toward what it's supposed to. To me, that's bewildering and exciting and true. I don't want to start to order things into some kind of a system. Ultimately, I just want to stay out of my own way as much as I possibly can.
What about you, Matthew? I have the sense that you want furniture design to be the central part of your work.
MS: Yeah, probably right now. But when I say furniture, it's not like—excuse me, but I don't give a shit about furniture. If there are a bunch of people in a room and there's a nice piece of furniture, I'm not going to gravitate toward talking about it. I'm not interested in that way. I just think furniture is an interesting genre. It's got certain rules and there's a history involved with people that did it well, and it is in contrast to art in some fashion. That tension that started in the late '70s and the '80s between furniture and art is still very relevant to me.
And as I was saying before, I think there's a preciousness that exists in the art world that, because of the gallery system, is a very hurtful thing, or it just doesn't work very well anymore. So right now I like furniture simply because you can touch it. I think furniture is something that doesn't have that barrier, that doesn't require that context.
MO: I agree with a lot of what you're saying in spirit, about the way the art world operates. But I guess that I've been involved in enough projects that are decidedly part of the art world that are contrary to that. I keep thinking—when I was young, I did music. I grew up on punk rock. And I had very specific ideas about, "This is good, this is bad. This fanzine is cool, this one is not—because it gets its money from a label." And I realize, looking back at it now, that I was wrong about most of it. Some of the music that was made by "major label" bands was amazing. And the music that I loved that was made by little independent labels—only some of it was amazing; a lot of it was not. So I've lived through this change of mind, and I'm really trying not to take any positions about whether things are art or design. I'm really interested in trusting that when I do something that I love, there is the potential that something cool can happen.
MS: I think that's a healthy perspective, for sure.
MO: It sounds kind of hippie when I say it out loud.
I think some people get into design because they want to be creative but they also want to make a living—and design offers more opportunities in that regard than trying to be a fine artist. Do either of you do furniture, in part, for financial reasons?
MO: No. I mean, of course we have to think about financial stuff sometimes. But Robert Filliou had this theory of the poetical economy rather than the political economy. And I really try to subscribe to the notion that that part of it will take care of itself if I don't try to be a businessman—because I'm not a businessman; anyone could see that. And so far it's really been true. I think that we have, on our own terms, been successful with what we're doing without thinking about those things a lot.
Matthew, what about you? Is one of the reasons to do furniture because you can sell it?
MS: No. Obviously I have vague ideas of what a successful design business would be for me, and I'd like to have an much money as I can fit in the bank, but it's definitely not something I pursue.
MO: I think money is really just another energy, and if you take care of the energy that you are sending out, I'm convinced that some of that energy will come back in the form of money.
Can we talk about how you make furniture on a very literal level? Like, how do you start working on a new collection?
MO: I think our first collection was driven by the blog in some ways. I was just seeing thousands of images a week, of furniture and sculpture and fashion and on and on. I got really obsessed with Gianni Pettena and some of the fringe figures of the Archizoom and Superstudio moment. I felt like those images were pushing us to do something. And yet it was sort of like if you're standing in a public square; I didn't understand what was happening, and I started to think of it as a field recording—like if you were recording in a public square.
So we started making things that loosely felt connected to Enzo Mari's Autoprogettazione work, and some of Schindler's furniture was drifting around a lot, and then Scott Burton was really hitting us. Our first presentation of a group of pieces was called Field Recordings Made From Wood. So we started following that, and then it just keeps expanding.
Can you answer the same question, Matthew? How do you get from immersing yourself in images to creating furniture?
MS: I don't know. I don't think I've ever had success with this. That's maybe what I'm working toward. But to answer your question—yeah, I take in a lot of stuff and read a diverse amount of stuff. The reason I'm interested in furniture right now is probably because it has a language. And I'm just really obsessed with language—not only written or spoken language, but imagistic or sculptural language.
I hate even saying this, but someone like Quentin Tarantino, with his movies, obviously he likes to play with the murky parameters of genres. To me, everything is like that. Everything is a murky parameter. I guess I make stuff from that angle. It's not an easy thing to explain. I'm constantly making things, just trying to make things that I personally find successful. I know it doesn't matter at all. But I'm OK with that.
It's interesting, because, Matthew, it sounds like you really struggle with your work—whereas, Matt, it sounds like you try to have a much more freewheeling and easygoing attitude. Is that fair?
MS: Well, like I said, I'm mainly interested in language. And when you're interested in language, you realize how untenable it is and how vast and ridiculous and infuriating it is. So I'm just much more of a plodder. I plod through. And I like that struggle. I don't know if I'll ever be a very flowing person.
MO: I hope I don't sound like I'm just wandering around. Because it doesn't feel like it. Of course we struggle with our work. We make decisions, we look at materials and decide things and talk about things and think about things. But it doesn't really seem that much different than if we were deciding to try and make a really good pizza.
MS: For sure.
MO: The more interesting part is the surprise of what happens. So if the pizza somehow turned into a chair—well, now we're getting somewhere.
Mason Currey is a former Core77 editor and the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Previously, he was the executive editor of Print and the managing editor of Metropolis. His freelance writing has appeared in the New York Times and Slate, among other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.