Living Design – Rufus Knight of Knight Associates
Initially drawn to interiors by a sense of multidisciplinary curiosity that extended from architecture to fashion, art, literature and music, Rufus Knight’s work today demonstrates the power of that original intuitive impulse that sought to explore and create connections throughout the spectrum of creative modalities.
In little more than a decade, Rufus’s career has encompassed six years at Fearon Hay, where he was an associate, and a period working abroad in Belgium, after which he founded Knight Associates in 2016. Since then, his studio has established a portfolio that includes work for some of New Zealand’s most iconic brands (Aesop, Fisher & Paykel, Lonely, and Les Mills among them), as well as residential projects and collaborations with architects such as Fearon Hay and Studio John Irving.
But while this trajectory may imply a singular ambition and focus, in the early days as a student at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University Schools of Architecture & Design in Wellington, “my interest in interiors was mostly just intuitive,” he recalls. Becoming keenly interested in the relationship between architecture and other creative disciplines during his studies, he felt that the greatest opportunity for exploring these interests lay in interior design. “This was a point in time where multidisciplinarity was somewhat of a notional term and few designers were practising at a high level with the fluidity we now commonly see demonstrated between disciplines,” he says.
In the work by the likes of Donald Judd, Louise Bourgeois, GeorgiaO’Keeffe, Gordon Matta-Clarke and Walter de Maria that captured his attention, he came to recognise that, while classified as art, there is “a kind of interior dimension. I distinctly remember reading an essay by art historian Claire Bishop called ‘Heightened Perception’that drew parallels between work by artists like Carsten Höller and Olafur Eliasson and its highly atmospheric qualities, interiority, and effects on the senses.” Meanwhile, in the New Zealand modernist canon of painting, literature and photography, “I started to understand myself and how a kind of creative psyche of New Zealand developed through explorations by artists such as Colin McCahon, Gretchen Albrecht, Ralph Hotere, James K. Baxter, Hone Tuwhare,Julian Daspher, and L. Budd.”
In little more than a decade, Rufus’s career has encompassed six years at Fearon Hay, where he was an associate, and a period working abroad in Belgium, after which he founded Knight Associates in 2016.
New Zealand architecture has always been contextualised by its relationship with place, but this has been predominantly understood in terms of a relationship the land, Rufus expresses. “We are reverent– and rightly so – when it comes to our relationship to the whenua[land]. Place as the central theme to creativity in New Zealand acts as a beacon; it helps us to understand who we are, where we come from, and where we are going.” Working in the realm of interiors, he found the scope to broaden the understanding of context beyond the natural world to encompass the cultural fabric that is also integral to the specificity of place.
In urban settings, which lack such an intrinsic connection to the land, engaging more broadly with context is vital to designing work that is no less meaningful than that which exists in the most pristine natural locations. “Despite the clear delineations between designing in an urban context versus more remote locations, what binds these two environments, specifically in New Zealand, is history,” he reflects.“I think the superficial reading could be that designing in an urban setting is less rich in some way, perhaps due to the absence of nature, but when you engage in the underlying narratives, this is not the case.”
Te Koha, an installation that Knight Associates was commissioned to design for the New Zealand exhibition at Biennale Architetturadi Venezia in 2016, demonstrates that this holds true even of a project that was temporary by definition and located thousands of miles from New Zealand’s rugged shores. The design strategy was to work with innovative New Zealand-based suppliers and locally source materials in order to develop an identity for the room that was sympathetic to the cultural depth, richness, and tactility of New Zealand’s landscape.
“Central to this approach was upholding and celebrating Mauri– the essence which binds and animates all things in the physical world – developed under the guidance of Rau Hoskins and with awhakatuwhera ceremony performed by representatives from NgāiTūhoe,” Rufus explains. He reflects that this project, although small,“established for me a way to think that honoured the indigenous materiality and traditional craft of our place in Aotearoa and presented it to the world within a modern design vocabulary.”
Since then, the studio’s success in engaging with complex briefs from established brands, which Rufus likens to cultural ecosystems of their own, and navigating a world in which, he observes, “retail projects are becoming more like small homes, houses becoming small hotels, and hotel projects more like small cities,” can be traced back to back to this approach that is defined not only by technical skill but the ability to intuitively synthesise and distil. Drawing on diverse points of reference that transcend disciplines, the richness that ensues is not simply aesthetic. Rather, a poignant emotional resonance arises from the sense that each space is at once highly specific to place and sensitive to context while also engaging with the universal attributes of the human condition – of expression, sense, memory, and emotion.
A number of upcoming projects are set to explore these considerations further, including a soon-to-be-completed penthouse apartment project several years in the making and the new Fisher & Paykel Experience Centre in Auckland. “Through our ongoing working relationship with Fisher & Paykel, we have explored what it means to produce design from Aotearoa New Zealand and how a sense of place is distilled and presented on the global stage. We are excited to be exploring these themes in more depth for the upcoming Auckland Experience Centre, in collaboration with Alt Group and NgātiWhātua Ōrākei,” Rufus says.
In 2021, Knight Associates is also launching a new post graduate scholarship for students studying Interior Architecture at Te HerengaWaka – Victoria University of Wellington. Hoping to “enrich the next generation of interior architects and designers through mentorship and financial support,” the scholarship represents another means through which to contribute to the discipline of interior design in New Zealand more broadly.
As a tumultuous year draws to a close, these projects and the new scholarship are the bright spots on the horizon. But for Rufus, there is a sense that no matter what may come, design will remain the one constant through it all. “The role of design in life, or in my life at least, is yogic,” he reflects. “It is a kind of devotional discipline and acts a kind of bridge between the mental, physical, and spiritual realms. It is something that I am in constant dialogue with and evolves in concert with my broadening perspective and outlook on life.”