Designer profile: Russell & George
We go behind the scenes with Byron George from Russell & George, to find out how he and business partner Ryan Russell create their award-winning designs.
A little creative friction often leads to exceptional design outcomes. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the work of Melbourne-based design practice Russell & George is so widely celebrated. The co-founders of the award-winning practice often disagree on design direction, but the end result is always well resolved. Russell & George was created through the merger of the burgeoning businesses of Ryan Russell and Byron George in 2010. Their work spans residential, commercial, hospitality and urban sectors and they have created some of Australia’s most sophisticated and distinctive interior designs for brands such as Aesop, Crumpler, Medibank and Tait Outdoor. Their projects extend across the globe, as far as New York, Tokyo and Rome, and each one often begins with a healthy degree of disagreement, according to George.
“We both think about things differently,” he says. “I may have been working on something for six hours – a piece of furniture or a building or whatever – and Ryan will come to my desk, point to something on my screen and say, ‘What if you did that?’. And all of a sudden it unlocks the whole thing.”
“We also have the sort of relationship where we’re not afraid to have a bit of a fight in our design,” he adds. “We have a really good friendship and there's a certain kind intimacy that comes from working closely with someone and understanding how they see things. But, at the end of the day, he still completely surprises me with some of the ideas he comes out with and I guess there's a healthy level of respect that goes on between the two of us as well.”
George believes design expertise is often underestimated. “I lot of people think architects and designers purely do things for aesthetic reasons, whereas what we’re trained to do is solve problems,” he says. “We’re also trying to create spaces that make people feel something. That may be a connection to a brand, or feeling cosy at home or feeling like you’re in a volume that takes your breath away because of the use of proportion and scale.”
Designing projects at different scales
Russell & George’s approach to problem solving is exemplified in spaces such as the 1000-seat cafe court in Melbourne’s Emporium retail centre, which feels surprising intimate despite its scale. Individual dining zones framed by custom curved timber banquettes aid this sense of intimacy while also helping to separate dining tables from the flow of foot traffic. The whole space is united by 20 kilometres of brass chain elegantly draped from the ceiling – a reference to the grandeur of a Victorian great room and quite a design departure from the average shopping mall food court.
“Ryan and I are both quite introverted and neither of us really like walking into a loud, open volume,” says George. “By having certain devices that enclose areas and contrasting them with a corner volume that’s enormous and open and light, it makes people feel comfortable and like they actually want to be there.”
On a far smaller scale, Russell and George’s longstanding relationship with Australian luxury skincare brand Aesop has resulted in a number of retail fit-outs. These include stores in Singapore, Seoul and across Australia, with many recognised through coveted design awards. “Aesop has such a strong brand voice, so it’s very easy to design something with them,” says George. “There’s a sense of calm and consistency across all their stores and that’s what we work towards.”
Specifying finishes that support the design
While the Aesop stores generally feature a simple palette of materials such as timber, brass and stone, George says that the Russell & George material selection is just as eclectic as their portfolio of projects. “Our finishes palette usually comes after we’ve developed the broader design idea. We choose materials that actually support the design rather than the other way around.”
An example of this approach is their selection of Laminex AbsoluteMatte Black for the central table in one of their most recent commercial fit-outs, Space & Time. It serves as meeting table by day and dining table by night in this multipurpose space (which is also home Russell & George’s Melbourne design studio). Byron says the material selection for the table was based on a desire to use a product with a smooth texture that was entirely resistant to fingerprints. AbsoluteMatte fit the brief perfectly.
Space & Time was also one of the few projects co-led by the two design directors. “We learned a long time ago that one of us has to be the boss on a project,” says George. “I think that the benefit of our relationship is that there is often quite a lot of friction when we're approaching something, but in the end, if we're both trying to be the lead designer on a single project, it just doesn't work.”.
To learn more about Laminex AbsoluteMatte, as featured in Russell & George’s Space & Time project, download the brochure here.