Rufus Knight has always been interested in doing things a little bit differently.
Interview: Ben St George
Rufus Knight has always been interested in doing things a little bit differently. Whether it’s through the art, music and culture that informs his interior design, or the creative, graphic use of shape and form that underpins his minimalist approach to using space. His identity, both personally and professionally, is rooted in his desire to define what design means, rather than follow an existing definition.
Knight’s career has seen him work on large-scale commercial projects for one of the world’s most renowned interior firms as well as win accolades for his personal work in his native New Zealand. Soon the 29-year old designer will take on a new challenge - curating two spaces at this year’s Venice Biennale.
The Opotiki-born Knight left home to study design in Wellington when he was seventeen, a period he describes as fertile for education, both academic and otherwise. “My personality is quite impulsive so in that academic setting I felt, for the first time, a great deal of freedom to listen to pretty much anything and everything, which was closely tied to experiencing design and art, in a wider sense.” It was during this period that he was introduced to post-punk groups like Modern Eon and The Birthday Party, as well as the deconstructivist fashion design aesthetics of Martin Margiela and the Antwerp Six collective. “I think I have always, consciously and subconsciously, made decisions that keep me on the periphery in one way or another. Post-punk - and its discontents - was a natural middle ground for my interests in art, fashion and music. The highly aestheticized, pseudo-intellectual, melodramatic persona is such a perfect vehicle for your early twenties.”
Despite his strong interests in many creative mediums, Knight says that settling on interior design was an intuitive process. “I remember being very taken by the 1960’s American canon of Judd, Serra, Heizer, Matta-Clarke and realizing that, although it was classified as art, the work had a kind of interior dimension. I wasn’t brave enough to be an artist so all of this just pointed me toward interiors. I saw more possibilities for exploring interests in things like fashion and art through interiors than I did in Industrial Design or Landscape Architecture.”
“My personality is quite impulsive so in that academic setting I felt, for the first time, a great deal of freedom to listen to pretty much anything and everything, which was closely tied to experiencing design and art, in a wider sense.”
Lonely Lingerie’s Ponsonby store, which won gold at The Designers Institute of New Zealand’s Best Design Awards.
When developing a space’s aesthetic itself, Knight tries to work as closely as possible with his clients, ensuring that he understands and reflects their brand and voice through his interiors. “I like working this way because it keeps the focus on building stronger relationships – whether that’s between the client and myself or an owner and their brand – and also keeps me flexible and open to different aesthetics and appreciations. I think if you’re a good designer you should have the confidence to validate any aesthetic decisions and the insight to work with any medium.” Knight’s process begins with reducing the space to it’s purest possible geometry and then layering on materials and fittings to achieve a distinct atmosphere. “I think that process comes from an interest in still image and photography - editing a single view then establishing the next one more or less from scratch.”
Knight credits a 2011 visit to Swiss architect Peter Zumthor’s iconic hotel and spa complex Therme Vals with cementing both his aesthetic and his professional drive. “Given that the majority of the building is set into the hillside the experience has a strong sense of interiority and this also made clear to me how powerful materials can be when given due consideration. I decided to quit drinking and smoking while staying there and went for my ‘first’ run in the hamlets above the therme. Life changing decisions.”
2015 saw the launch of perhaps his best-known domestic project, the fitout of Lonely Lingerie’s Ponsonby store, which won gold at The Designers Institute of New Zealand’s Best Design Awards. “It was a dream project but it was also very interesting because creatively I feel it was very restrained, however, I think that restraint allowed us to concentrate on getting the details right.” Cool marble and aluminium fittings juxtaposed with the warmth and tactility of the salvaged timber floor to create a space that is by turn, romantic and restrained. “The layout and formal language of the store is very simple because of that we wanted the focus to be on the materials, product, and Lonely’s customer service. Also, I’m quite a prudent designer and because I was just starting out I felt I had to be cautious and not bite off more than I could chew.”
The space has been praised for it’s ability to juggle a strong aesthetic and presentation with a sharp understanding of the practical requirements of retail, something that Knight credits his time spent working in retail at Crane Brothers for. “Having that back-of-house knowledge for retail has given me a lot of confidence. It’s akin to someone working hospitality or fine dining and knowing the finer points of how a kitchen needs to function or how a table should be positioned to maintain line-of-sight for the front of house staff. But the nature of retailing is constantly changing so you can’t rest on your laurels. An aspect that was critical for us designing the Lonely stores was to introduce a feeling of domesticity that we felt wasn’t present in other retail offerings. The difficult part is bringing all those elements together. That takes a lot of testing, and it’s a balancing act as they ultimately affect, and are measured by, the people who inhabit the space.”
Following the Lonely project, and eager to practice interior design within a more established industry, Knight relocated to Antwerp after being offered a job with minimalist design powerhouse Vincent van Duysen. Van Duysen, whose portfolio includes extensive residential and commercial work as well interiors for retailers such as Aesop, Alexander Wang and Calvin Klein, was a perfect fit for Knight’s aesthetic. “Before our paths crossed, I had been drawn to Vincent’s work. He is the expert at re-interpreting traditional and classic tropes through a modernist lens, and this was an approach that had shaped my ideas about what constituted strong interior design.”
“It was a dream project but it was also very interesting because creatively I feel it was very restrained, however, I think that restraint allowed us to concentrate on getting the details right.”
Lonely Lingerie’s Ponsonby store.
Knight credits the twelve months he spent as part of Van Duysen’s team for honing his understanding of the potency of strong interior design, as well as informing his decision to bring his craft back to New Zealand. “The approach of the office, which was based around reinterpreting very classic, very Belgian forms and crafts through reductive aesthetic principals, made me question what New Zealand interiors could offer with a similar approach and, indeed, what in fact constituted a New Zealand interior.” It was this desire to question and define what New Zealand interiors could be that drove Knight to return home after a year with Van Duysen. “Balancing work in both hemispheres was becoming increasingly difficult. I decided to come back because I felt I had to give back in some way to the industry that was putting amazing opportunities, like being part of the Venice Biennale project, in front of me.”
It is, in part, the drive to define New Zealand's interior identity that brought the curation role for this year's Biennale to Knight's doorstep. Knight received the nod to curate following a recommendation from Nat Cheshire, of Auckland’s Cheshire Architects, and has been tasked with curating two rooms in the Palazzo Bollani as to sit alongside the main New Zealand exhibition. “The ‘New Zealand Room’ is a base for cultural events, symposia on architecture and design innovation and a place for New Zealand companies that are active in the European market to showcase their businesses to a broad international audience. Accompanying the ‘New Zealand Room’ there’s also the ‘Reading Room’, which will be a more informal space, adjacent to the exhibition entry, where visitors can pause and engage with a number of significant publications related to Architecture and Design in New Zealand.”
Beyond the Biennale, Knight says he’s unsure of what his next step will be. “What’s important to me is working with clients and brands that know themselves, know their worth, and want to translate those values into an atmosphere or experience.” As for how he will do that, Knight continues to look to his inspirations, be they musical, artistic, architectural or simply pastoral. “I guess I buy into that Romantic ideology of the landscape being deeply sublime and a fount of inspiration. Like Colin [McCahon] says ‘you bury your heart, and as it goes deeper into the land you can only follow. It’s a painful love, loving a land. It takes a long time’.”
Design powerhouse Vincent van Duysen.
“What’s important to me is working with clients and brands that know themselves, know their worth, and want to translate those values into an atmosphere or experience.”
Rufus photographed by Cam Downey.