“These pieces became a kind of company … They have this very personal, very emotional quality.”
IN THE PRESS release announcing, ‘Before the Fantastic’, his first solo exhibition in the UK, at Charles Burnand Gallery in London, Reynold Rodriguez observes: “Prior to every storm there is moment of clarity and quiet space, the precursor to the dutiful chaos that will ensue, a moment where procedural development begins; it is this nexus that is ‘Before the Fantastic…’”
Rodriguez should know. A native of the Caribbean island, Puerto Rico, it was a wild hurricane that kick-started his current career. The sensual plaster and wood furnishings on show – some animated by a surreal formal imagination – are the product of a period of intense creativity only made possible by the twin catastrophes of a storm and a pandemic.
In 1993, having graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in the US, Rodriguez ran a successful business building and fitting out shops, latterly largely as a contractor. As the softly spoken designer put it to me, wryly, “I am in Puerto Rico. There is no design culture.” But in 2017, the Category 5 Hurricane Maria devastated the entire island, causing a major humanitarian crisis. Rodriguez’s studio and shop were flattened.
In the ensuing chaos of recovery and reconstruction, Rodriguez moved his business into the second floor of an old 1940s hop storage facility above a brewery. “It was beautiful,” he declares. And alongside his main business, he began to collect huge pieces of wood, from storm-felled trees, transforming them into vessels, with as little intervention as possible, working on them to the point where they were both functional objects and yet still trees.
With other demands also on his time, he was at a critical juncture. At this point the pandemic hit. As lockdown was ordered, Rodriguez took the decision to move into his studio. Here, in the intense solitude of the global hiatus, Rodriguez began to make models out of clay – maquettes of furniture – which he then began to realise at full scale in the only material available to him in quantity, plaster.
“Plaster is like a 3D printing machine. You will come out with something very different every time,” he says. The first piece Rodriguez made, the ‘Pier C’ light, reflected his minimalist, highly finished, product design approach. It was named for one of his heroes, the Italian-French designer Pierre Cardin.
But quickly he lost his interest in precise geometry, moving onto the large supple ‘Continue’ light, curved like a body or a limb. Its tactile, hand-moulded, polished surface – alongside the graphic simplicity of its posture – give it its liveliness. Next came the playful ‘Three Sad Lamps’, which incorporate fragments of shell within the plaster. Rodriguez says, “There is a passion to the process because plaster is so forgiving. It doesn’t hold a grudge like wood or stone. And I like it when the plaster gets dirty.”
At a certain point his romantic relationship foundered and he focused ever more intently on his work. “These pieces became a kind of company,” he explains. “They have this very personal, very emotional quality.” The startling ‘Dreamer’ table, for instance, was born from the fairytale idea of a table that dreamed of becoming a light: “I was thinking about objects that yearn to become something else, as fluidly as plaster can become something else,” he says.
More explicitly actors in a psycho drama are the two lamps titled together ‘Under Your Shadow’, where one bulbous mushrooming light holds its head – protectively or oppressively – over a smaller light. These have only a small covering of plaster over the burlap matrices, so that the rough, raw fabric shows through. Rodriguez has also continued to produce wooden pieces, some charred, some polished, making chairs where once he made vessels.
Despite the tactile, artisanal feel of these objects, Rodriguez explains that as he has begun to create editions, “the work has a lot of engineering.” Each original piece is then scanned, modelled and rendered, so that it can be reproduced. Rodriguez’s training as a product designer and his meticulous attention to detail is still very much in evidence: he explains that a sleek chaise lounge made from polished gypsum plaster, leather and brass, required several efforts to ensure an immaculate meeting of materials.
Rodriguez is excited about where this new creative drive will take him. “The success is not getting here, it is what it will allow me to do next,” he says. Three of his pieces are currently on show in New York, as part of a display Charles Burnand Gallery has created at the Salon Art + Design. Whether through encounters in London or New York, he is hoping his unleashed fantasy will continue to be allowed full rein.