Aisling Rusk is the founder of Studio idir, a small, design-led architecture practice that flourishes in the in-between. Aisling is studying her PhD at the School of Planning, Architecture and Structural Engineering at Queen’s University, Belfast and is interested in the impact that the built environment can have on the negotiation of difference within societies that are in or moving out of conflict. She is also interested in liminality, or practices of locating in-between, particularly in divided and contested contexts where divisive binaries are rife.
We chatted to Aisling about working in a male-dominated industry and her design heroes in architecture.
What makes your architectural practice different?
Being unapologetically feminine in a very male-dominated industry. As a female architect, I design from a different perspective to my male contemporaries. I think my colourful branding embraces the feminine, as does the name of my practice, Studio idir (meaning in-between). As women, we often find ourselves operating in-between different roles - blurring the boundaries between personal and private, home and work. My other important job is being a mother to two little people, who have been known, on occasion, to join me for site visits and client meetings. For me, this focus on blurring boundaries, being in-between, extends to every corner of my practice. It influences the way I approach working with clients, combining my design skills with their unique expertise in their home and life. I also seek to play with the thresholds between inside and out and bring together the best of light-filled, expansive contemporary design with the irreplaceable character and charm of old buildings. And I enjoy collaborating and problem-solving with other makers - from the fellow creatives and design team members involved in a job to the skilled tradesmen on-site bringing our designs to life. With architecture, the end result is always a team effort.
Who are some of your design heroes?
I love the Scandinavian masters, such as Sverre Fehn and Alvar Aalto, for their sensitivity to context and materiality – the timleless ways in which their work references and sits within nature. Trees, lakes, rugged terrain – all are strongly represented in their projects.
I admire Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue for their deeply symbolic, poetic, allegorical works such as the Igualada Cemetery and (love it or loath it) the Scottish Parliament Building.
I also deeply admire Irish Modernist furniture-maker and architect, Eileen Gray, for her boldness and brilliance, blazing a trail for female architects right back in the early 20th century. And the person who introduced me to her - my former boss, Barbara Weiss, who showed me, by example, how a female architect can strongly lead a successful architecture practice.
What advice for someone wanting to set up an architectural practice?
Start by doing a project for yourself that really puts across what you’re about as a designer. Even if it’s only small. The process will give you invaluable experience, build your confidence, and provide you with useful contacts and material for marketing. I was fortunate to be able to extend my own house, which I then had professionally photographed and published in a couple of national magazines (free advertising). But it could be just be an item of furniture…when my super-talented friends Holly and Pete set up Board Grove Architects in Melbourne, their first project was a pair of coffee tables for themselves. They photographed them beautifully, exhibited them, and managed to get them featured on Dezeen – good going!
Get branding done by someone who gets you and what you’re about. And splash out on nice business cards. These things act as a statement of intent to show prospective clients, the world at large and - importantly - yourself, that you’re serious about what you do.
Take risks and follow random leads. But don’t feel you have to take every job that comes your way – it’s important to always reserve the right to say no when a job doesn’t feel like a good fit, or the timing isn’t right.
Get a mentor. Approach someone you admire, and ask them to mentor you – they’ll probably say yes. I have a great mentor I meet every month or so, who offers invaluable advice, encouragement and gentle challenge in the areas I need it. I get to benefit from his years of experience and expertise in practice, plus introductions to people I might not otherwise have the opportunity to speak to. This has been incredibly helpful during Studio idir’s first year in business.