In her Exchange, Tamsin Rush shares with Ensembl why she thinks beauty is important in our homes and why style is a construct. Plus, we discuss the role for AI in design and how our collective awareness is impacting the products we make and the products we purchase, and vice versa.
Tamsin Rush is a British born, San Francisco based, multifaceted designer. Her work spans print to product, spatial to strategy, and her career has taken her from boutique to big agencies, startups to large corporations, and now to West, an end-to-end venture design studio in San Francisco. At West Tamsin’s official title is program manager, and she supports startups and founders with using design to launch their products and develop a strategy for product-market fit.
Our Conversation with Tamsin Rush.
You are a designer but have worked in a range of roles. Tell us about your journey to West.
I’m the only person I’ve ever met that’s had my career path! I’ve had the opportunity to work in many different forms of design, as well as tackle design from a broader, strategy perspectives.
I think my atypical journey and combination of design and project management allows me to really help the startups I now work with. I can apply insight from past challenges, help implement processes to get an idea to where it needs to be, and have an understanding of the hurdles founders face, which helps me have empathy for what they’re going through. I think the mutual respect I have for all sides - the functional side, the design side, and the founder side, - really helps me in this role.
Are there any projects that stand out?
While I was at Forpeople, a London design studio, we won a major design contract with British Airways. Through working on that project, I was truly exposed to the entire spectrum. I worked on the design side as well as the business side, and tackled everything from experience (like buying tickets, arriving at the airport, the experience onboard, how you booked a holiday ), to spatial design (like how the cabins were designed), to print and digital (like ticketing and print branding), and everything in between.
What inspired you to become a designer? And do you have a favourite design medium?
From a very early age I just wanted to make things. I love understanding how things are made. I love seeing where you are able to get to. I love seeing the outcome of hard work from an idea turn into something; something that did not exist before.
Inspiration and what I choose to work on comes out in different forms depending on how I’m feeling. I really do love all design, so I often find I go back and forth between obsessions. I love fashion, jewelry, printed materials, ceramics – I love design in all forms.
Why do you think people are obsessed with the idea of beauty? Whether in their homes, in what they buy, or in how they dress?
I think beauty is connected to happiness. I think surrounding ourselves with beautiful things, however we define beautiful, makes for a happy life.
I think your home is meant to be your happy place; your space to be happy. It’s your space to come back to after a hectic day out in the world. You want your room to be arranged in an order that makes you feel relaxed. The design for your home, or what you choose to surround yourself with at home, may be different from what you would select to surround yourself at the office. And that’s based on the way you want to feel when you are in your space. You want to enjoy your space. You want create a space where you can feel comfortable in.
The form that takes I think comes down to personality. Your personality dictates what you find comfortable, or how you define a comfortable space.
But there needs to be a balance, because you don’t want to be unhappy if you can’t afford something. We all aspire to own that Eames chair, but that does not mean we can afford to purchase it! So, there is definitely balance required to keep that obsession in-check.
What are the key elements to any good design? How do you balance each element?
I think the key to good design is to make sure you’re always answering the “need”.
In two dimensions, I found that things could often be designed for design’s sake. You designed in the moment; you didn’t necessarily need to understand the customer journey and didn’t always have context. When I started product design, I started to focus on the need and use and in turn how that informed design.
I think this includes incorporating vision – both your vision as a designer and the client’s vision for the outcome - into the need and what the client actually requires from the product. A good designer can keep sight on that mandate, make sure the overarching vison shines through, and ensure design elements are not pushed for the sake of achieving a certain outcome.
What are your clients looking for? (Beyond the obvious - making something beautiful)
Making something beautiful is not necessarily the goal of every outcome, although beauty is within each goal. Clients, especially startup clients, are looking for solutions that are beneficial within the budget they can afford.
In practice, sometimes this means clients are looking for help understanding the thought process behind a design. Why this imagery works, why this color works, why this font works – it’s all part of a bigger system.
At the end of the day, clients are invariably trying to use design to sell their business – design that helps them achieve that goal is design that works. So, they are looking for help getting there, and making sense of that process.
What about design at home?
I love home design. I think the physical aspect of interior design makes it something you can be very proud of, just as you want to be very proud of your home.
I think there is so much fun to be had with painting and changing a space, although I do think having an artistic eye helps.
Home design can be challenging when you don’t have furniture to fill the space. But it’s always fun to improvise, and it’s very rewarding to find new pieces that fit.
Are smaller spaces harder to style?
I actually think bigger spaces are harder to style as you have more space to cover! This is particularly true if you’re trying to stick to a budget. In a small space, you can splurge on a few key pieces, but in a large space you may not have that option since you’re likely to need more furniture to fill more rooms.
Smaller spaces can be challenging when it comes to storage – you do need to be clever with storage.
But with small spaces you have this amazing opportunity to really get into the details and play around with the intricacies of the space. I think that when you design a small space, the final outcome is more rewarding – it’s an accomplishment to get everything to fit together.
I also think small spaces make me tidier, and as a result, happier. I’m more inclined to think of thoughtful solutions for organization and more inclined to keep things orderly when there is a limited amount of space to use.
Is postmodernism in design a fad - a rebellion against artistic straightjackets like “form follows function”? Or is it something deeper and symbolic of our post-truth society where we are comfortable with relativistic interpretations of style and beauty?
I would question whether we are seeing a fad, or something else entirely? We can agree that mid-century modern style is back, but in what way? Is it back in the pure, original form, or are we actually seeing something else?
I think that in design right now – especially as it is applied in our homes – is all about balance. I don’t know if we’re seeing the textbook application of a single style, but instead I think we’re seeing individual takes on a style, and how we can incorporate different pieces and make that style our own.
I’m not drawn to the excess of post-modernism, but I do enjoy seeing pieces which add personality to a room, pieces which mix up a singular style.
I don’t think the excess of post-modernism, in that pure form, has lasted. But I think a balanced, version that brings in elements of that style can be beautiful, and done right, can add authenticity to a space.
Are there certain elements of a space - its construction, lighting, finishing etc. - that lend themselves to be designed and interpreted more as modern, contemporary, minimalist or a postmodern?
I think the interpretation of style within a space is a construct. It comes down to the vision and purpose for the space.
The outcomes you are trying to achieve dictate the materials you bring in and the atmosphere you create. If you want to create something that will speak to a certain audience in a particular way, or prepare a room for a certain type of activity, you must change what you bring into the room.
My home, for example, is a period home; very mid-century. The structure is consistent throughout, but when you walk through, each room has a different feeling. That contrast has been achieved by changing the color pallet of each room – one is dark, one is light – and the furnishings in each. In one room, I want to read, to relax, to feel cozy. In another, I want to listen to a stimulating podcast, enjoy a bottle of wine with my friends – I want the room to feel like it invites and encourages each type of activity.
The structure, or the elements that you start with, will dictate what you bring into a room based on what you want to achieve. But the elements themselves don’t need to dictate the way the room feels. You ultimately have control of that.
Some feel that the modernist styles - with cold, sharp lines and machined, metallic finishes - are not suitable for a space that is meant to be a warm, welcoming place. Your thoughts?
Yes and no. I think it depends on the person designing the space and what it is they are trying to achieve.
Using cold metals and sharp lines does not need to make a space feel stark – although often that is the outcome. By accounting for the construction, selection, and placement of materials within a space, you can alter the ultimate outcome and use pieces typically viewed as “cold” to create a welcoming, homey feeling.
For example, I recently watched an episode of the Netflix series “The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes”. The featured home was in Miami, and had been designed to feel very modern, very Japanese Zen. The home was made from poured concrete. It featured a lot of metal accents. Long, sleek tables. And it had many very masculine touches. Yet by balancing these elements, the home still felt warm.
With competing ideas – such as warm and homey versus sleek metals and sharp lines - a good designer will find a way to strike a balance. The way each element is used in the space will ultimately impact the chances of achieving something compelling and beautiful in the end.
Some feel that the changing concepts of owning vs renting - the AirBnB, the Ubers, Rent the Runway and so on - will ultimately spill over to design and people will rent temporary looks for their home. Your thoughts?
Yes! In your home, you’re creating a look, which is no different the look you’re creating when you put on an outfit. When you rent that dress, you’re selecting a style that matches the way you want to be viewed and shown to the world. Your home is another application of that same desire – a way to show yourself to the world.
Rent the Runway is a great way to test a look before you commit. In interior design, one may covet a hero piece, like an Eames chair, but decide that investing in the piece is too much, or wonder if the piece would actually work in their space. The renting model works perfectly here.
In architecture, the excess of postmodernism is said to have spawned new urbanism and its emphasis on sustainability and the environment. Do you think the same thing is happening in forms of design? And if so, what does that look like?
The shift we are seeing in design is not necessarily because of post modernism and the subsequent shift in architecture. Instead, the forces at work that resulted in the architectural shift have similarly impacted other areas, and design is no exception. The post-modern design era may have created more “stuff”, but I don’t think it is to blame for overconsumption. We’ve gained an awareness, and that awareness is driving change.
I think design is grappling with a number of new realities – we know our population is rapidly growing, and people are living longer. We’re more aware of food waste. We’re more aware of the harmful side effects of fast fashion. And so, in response to this awareness, we see an ongoing cycle of new products emerging and new consumer behaviors forming (though not necessarily in that order).
Our understanding of plastics is a great example. We’re becoming self-aware of the way we use plastics, especially single-use plastics, and that awareness is showing up in our products. Everlane just launched their ReNew collection, made from recycled plastics, and pledged to eliminate single use plastics from their operations entirely. There is a new consumer awareness about plastic packaging used for food, about single-use plastics like straws or plastic cutlery – as a result, biodegradable packaging is on the rise, and it’s not uncommon to carry a reusable straw or spork with you. Our awareness impacts the products we make and how we design them.
Do you think AI software could one day significantly disrupt your business? How might that disruption look? Do you think there are certain aspects that will always require a human touch?
Yes – I think people are trying already. And I do think AI stands to make a significant impact on the world of design. For example, AI can be used to rapidly test how people respond to design, and from this testing the AI can make recommendations that we can use to move a design forward.
But would humans ever be eliminated entirely from the process?
The emotions, thought, and craft behind design require human energy – these are things that come from life experience, from human interaction, from an emotional understanding of what the client wants. I don’t think this could be effectively replicated by a machine.
Also, we should consider human connection to a story. What about the emotional connection to a designer? To a founder’s journey? To an extent, we believe in and purchase products because we believe in the story behind them – and you cannot get that with a product created entirely through AI.
But I am curious as to whether you can teach a machine to follow a story, and whether it can do that better than humans. Look at Céline (or should I say Celine). The brand’s history and spirit have disappeared entirely with departure of Phoebe Philo and arrival of Hedi Slimane. Celine today feels nothing like it did in any of its previous forms. Could a machine have continued Phoebe Philo’s vision? Would it have evolved Céline in a way that felt more authentic to the brand’s past? Would that have made us happy?
Hedi Slimane has most certainly not followed the brand’s precedent for style. His debut collection was not just a departure from Phoebe Philo’s form, but from the entire brand history. Do we accept new Celine because it is human? Would we tolerate the same departure if it came from a machine? Or categorize it as a total failure? I’m not sure what the answer is.
I’m also curious about the physical elements of design. How does AI get into the physical world? With letterpress, you notice a marked difference between work created through the traditional method – where individual plates were placed into the letter press – compared to work creating using technology that manufactures an entire plate in one shot. The look and feel of the finished product is not the same from one to the other, suggesting we still need that human element.
The same human requirement could be applied to fashion – how do you tailor a garment that accounts for the right fit and drape? How do you catch the way a dress will fall, the way it will flow? This requires attention to detail and understanding of the wearer, fabrics, and style, and the ability to make changes to the physical product when something is off. Is this something a machine can perfect, where a human simply executes the machine’s instructions? Or do we need the human eye to understand the process and execute the vision for the garment? I’m not sure.
Perhaps the question is what will we allow AI to do? Will it be allowed total access in certain areas or only let inside in small, controlled amounts? The answer remains to be seen.
If you were not a designer, what would you likely be? Why?
I’d be a designer! A jewelry designer or a lingerie designer.
I’d also love to work in animation. My dream job would be to work with Jim Henson animatronics and spend my day with Kermit the Frog!