Designing the Future: A Conversation with Richard Ong

Among his early career highlights, a bench of his design was featured at the Furniture Society’s booth at this years ICFF. Image courtesy, Richard Ong.

As part of our on-going series of interviews with young architects and designers, we’re bringing you a conversation with Richard Ong. Ong received his undergraduate degree in biology at Bowdoin college and is now at MIT, completing his M.Arch. This spring, a design of his—a bench—was included, along with other student work, in the Furniture Society’s booth at ICFF. Not too shabby considering it’s only the second piece of furniture he has designed. We’re pleased to share his thoughts on biology, architecture and design.

How did you get interested in architecture and furniture design?

From a young age, I was always  interested in design. I really enjoy figuring out how things work and relating form to function. I was definitely the kid that liked taking things apart simply to see what was inside—much to the dismay of my parents, when I could not put them quite back together again. Hopefully, now that I am little older, I am a little more proficient at fixing than breaking.

I started college thinking that I was going to major in both biology and studio art, among my two passions. I ultimately decided to focus on biology and have art as something I just did for myself, because to be frank, college was academically kicking my butt, and I needed to be completely focused if I wanted any chance of succeeding. It was not until my senior year when I just happened to take an introductory architecture course that I even considered architecture/design as a career. Honestly, I took the class just because it sounded cool and interesting. I owe a very large part of my development to my teacher, Wiebke Theodore. Her passion and excitement for the field was incredibly infectious to say the least. She showed and inspired me to believe in all the good and amazing things that architecture/design could do for people, society and our planet. The only real desire I have for a career is to know that I can contribute to something meaningful; she made me believe architecture/design could do that. I have no doubt she was the catalyst for my future in design.

As for furniture design, again I saw a class being offered that sounded cool and interesting and decided to try it. I just took it because it was something new to learn and I missed working with my hands. I remember having to convince Chris Dewart to let me into the class because I missed the registration deadline. It seems like my philosophy for life has been, “Hmm, that sounds cool and interesting, let’s see where that takes me.”

What was the first piece of furniture you ever made?

The bench that was featured at the ICFF was actually my second piece that I made, prior to that I made a chair for Chris’ class. I liked it, but it did not turn out as nice as I would have liked it to. I am planning on doing a reinterpretation of it in the style of my bench and using similar techniques.

Did you have an “ah ha” moment in terms of your career, or did it happen more gradually?

I worked really hard in college but never pulled a true all-nighter, I just could not do it. While taking that intro architecture course I found myself working a lot. One night while I was working at my studio desk, I saw the sun rising. I remember looking over and thinking, “Huh, that’s nice,” then turning back to my desk and continuing my drawing.

What sorts of things inspire you?

I love science and biology, the natural world is so inspiring. Form and function is completely related; there is nothing superfluous. Things are just elegant.

Who are you favorite designers?

For architects I would have to say Alvar Aalto. His attention to detail is just stunning. Big monumental gestures are great and all, but I love details, especially ones that are well-crafted and executed as they relate to their intended purposes. It really is the little things that matter. It is simply amazing how Aalto describes the profiles of stair railings or door knobs and their relation to someone’s hand while grasping and experiencing the moments of interaction. I also love the works of Robert Maillart. His bridges are just beyond beautiful. He has a way of scripting things so effortlessly and simply that it just leaves you in awe. I am a pretty big science geek, so I also love how he manipulates moments. I really do enjoy a well-drawn moment diagram; especially ones that are highly sophisticated but come across as, “Oh duh, of course, I could have done that, maybe”. Did I prove my nerdiness?

What do you see as trends in your field?

Hmmm, can I say what I would like to see? I would really like to see a return to craftsmanship. With labor being expensive and materials being cheap, it seems like the trend is just to add material redundancy over redundancy. I think we should invest more in skills by emphasizing smart designs that take advantage of materials and appropriate forms that meet contextual demands rationally and intelligently. Rafael Guastavino’s tile vaults are a prime example of exquisite craftsmanship that employs minimal materials but demands experience and expertise. It would be great to see a shift towards people and skills rather than profits and resource wastes.

What is your design process like? Are you a sketcher, a tinkerer, a computer guy?

I definitely learn best through doing. I like the physical feedback of working with my hands and actually building something. Most of the time I will get an idea and then just harp on it in my mind while doing everything. The best ideas seem to come in the few moments just before falling asleep. Of course the problem then is that I cannot sleep, because, once I finally figured out how to do something, I need to get up and do it. It is usually fine when I just want to run to my computer and model a few things, but it can be frustrating when I want to get to the shop and just put something together. It is probably a good thing that they lock the woodshop at night; I do not think the neighbors would appreciate the table saw going off at three in the morning. My science background has me constantly looking for mistakes and wanting to make minor changes to every possible variable, seeing the results, evaluating, learning then repeating, then repeating, then maybe repeating a few more times. I have a love/hate relationship with making mistakes, because, as much as I hate being wrong, I love learning from them.

What is your all-time favorite object?

Growing up, we lived pretty modestly. We did not have much in the way of toys and such, so I really appreciated any little thing that I could get my hands on. I loved rainy day recesses at school because that meant I could play with the Legos! Those were amazing—I actually still want them, but they are so expensive. My dad noticed how much I loved playing with these blocks, but, of course, it was a luxury that we just could not afford, which I understood. I am not quite sure how I understood at the ripe old age of six or so, but I did. My dad, being as resourceful as he is, came up with an amazing solution. He would bring home the plastic crates that supermarkets used to stack sodas and—“ta da!”—I had giant Lego(ish) blocks to play with. From that, I have learned to appreciate the potential of the things that we have. My favorite object(s) are the things that we tend to overlook but have tremendous potential if given a little love—and who does not need a little love?

What has been your professional highlight so far?

I have a professional life? I feel like I have been in school forever, probably because I have. This summer is the first time I have worked 40 hour weeks—feels a little odd but it has been a great experience. My professional highlights definitely come from the people I meet and their reaction/experience of my work. Some of my favorite moments are when I stand by one of my pieces incognito and someone starts telling me how much they enjoy it. It is always a great reaction/experience when I tell them I am the designer. As for the critics, when I hear them whispering, I tend to two-step my way towards the shadows. However, I am greatly appreciative and humbled by all of the positive feedback that I have received. Heck, I appreciate the negative ones too, but maybe just a little less. 

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