Photos courtesy of Ro/Lu
Pink and orange chairs RO/LU
These chairs are made from wenge wood, laminate, and wool.
Ask Matt Olson, co-founder of art and design studio RO/LU, what he does for a living and you’ll be hard pressed to get a straight answer. He classifies his work as an “open practice,” but that’s about as definitive as he’ll get. A response, he says, that elicits questionable glances at dinner parties, but when you consider RO/LU’s eccentric amalgamation of projects, it’s easy to understand why Olson is vague.
To an outsider, it seems that Olson and his business partner Mike Brady are at the heart of the “is it furniture or is it art” movement, which has become increasingly more blurred thanks, in part, to Instagram. RO/LU’s welded-wire mesh form of a man on all fours that doubles as a chair is an example of those boundaries being pushed. For Olson, however, that classification feels limiting. “I don’t consider myself an expert in anything, and that’s the strength of it,” he says. It’s a mantra that’s allowed he and Brady flexibility to work on design projects that speak to them, something they’ve been doing together since 2003.
Though the pair had crossed paths on the Minneapolis music scene in the early ’90s—both were in bands and say that punk rock continues to influence their work today—it wasn’t until 2003 that they decided to join forces to create a landscaping company. “While we were working on landscape architecture projects, our interest was really in what goes into these spaces,” Olson says. “We were really energized by the work we were doing and we started to push into different areas. We wanted to let the work teach us where we should go.”
By 2007, they had expanded their practice to include sculptural furniture, and by 2010 those conceptually driven furniture pieces were on display at the Mondo Cane Gallery in New York and the Volume Gallery in Chicago. The Walker Art Center took notice and asked the duo to join its Open Field artists-in-residence in 2012.
Now, with Brady at the helm of the construction and fabrication work and Olson manning the communication and creative direction side of the business, their star has risen, gaining national recognition as both artists and furniture designers (and a slew of other things). They offer limited edition furniture pieces and are regulars on the art circuit, with pieces on display at Art Basel in Miami, the Swiss Institute in New York, and an upcoming exhibit in Milan, Italy. Noted fashion designer Phillip Lim recently commissioned 18 chairs to debut in his flagship stores around the world, and one of their installations will soon be at St. Cloud State, where Olson will be a visiting artist this fall. And if they weren’t busy enough, Olson has a book coming out this spring that dissects RO/LU’s practice of looking to external individuals as influencers. “It explores in depth the way other people really make us,” he says.
So with professor, author, maker, and artist on the list, it’s easy to see why the noticeably humble Olson has a hard time articulating his chosen profession.
“If you can’t describe something or you can’t really place it, there’s a pretty high chance it’s of interest to us,” he says. ro-lu.com