Tereza and Vit Ruller of Amsterdam’s iconoclastic design studio The Rodina didn’t meet at art school, industry events, or through fellow graphic designers like most design partners seem to. That would be too conventional a story, and there is nothing conventional about the Ruller design practise or narrative. Instead, the Czech-born couple met on stage while filming a rendition of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, and because of what they describe as a strange “brain mistake,” involuntarily began to follow in the footsteps of Tony and Cleo. “And then the real tragedy began…” they say with a glint of theatrics in their eyes (or perhaps its irony) “…love.”
The Rullers founded their graphic design practice in 2012, and initially referred to the creative process as “a play.” The Rodina started out producing interactive installations, curating exhibitions, and creating identities for art and culture-based clientele, relishing especially in joyous, digitally rendered formations, effervescent colors, and gently sardonic themes. Now, a combination of intense research and cross-media formats gives the studio its distinct edge, and it’s not rare that the Rullers are invited to host workshops at the likes of Glasgow’s Graphic Design Festival and Brno’s International Biennial of Graphic Design (where this year they sit on the panel of judges).
Perhaps because of the playful nature of where they met—or because of Tereza’s background studying fine art—the way The Rodina views design is as a kind of catalyst for performance and action. Its work invites collaboration and play—whether through an interactive website, or with installations that ask spectators to participate. The reason for encouraging action is a political one; it comes from a desire to break from “static, non-active consumerism”, and instead of interpreting design as something with a coercive quality, The Rodina treat design as an agent for activity, for evoking restless responses, confusion, and continual conversation.
“Designers are so used to understanding graphic design as a surface-centric practise,” say Tereza and Vit Ruller. “But surface can also be a place for action, for participation, or for a chance-driven act.”
An emphasis on performance means that Tereza herself has starred in The Rodina’s graphic design. For 2016’s Shadows of Paradise, a project for Small Museum Amsterdam, she became a human poster, with polka-dot orange cheeks and a swirling, graphic cape. She dressed herself as a “designer in the role of a priest” and led “an enchanting ritual to chase away Western society’s fears.” The predominant theme of the piece was to loudly expose and interrogate how mass media arouses fear and suspicion during what Tereza describes as a “street therapy session.”
Tereza also became the leading star for a project called Playbour, an investigation into how the divisions between work and play are dissipating due to the prevalence of social media.
The Rodina continually channel this ideology into traditional client-based work too. “It’s essential to combine the pragmatism of commercial work with our personal attitudes and beliefs,” they say. Their latest identity for Itch My Ha Ha Ha, a music festival in the Czech Republic, combined their unique outlook with the confines of the brief.
“We wanted to create an ironic interpretation of the music scene,” explain the Rullers, who were also inspired by the 60s Czech modernist fairy-tale TV-series Hey Mister, Let’s Play!, whose protagonists are two shape-shifting bears. “The central idea for the identity was to suggest that pop culture is shapeless matter, which can limitlessly mutate and absorb anything.” Their idea culminated in the creation of an ecosystem of creeping, strange, and tumbling creatures, created using digital rendering and a system of “stone assets.”
“We rendered eight mega-boards full of 3D stones with different textures, then it was easy to cut out individual stones and arrange them into bodily forms.” They call these creatures “stone guys,” and they gather together in a dense, quixotic, and meandering way across flyers, digital banners, and posters.
So is The Rodina a pair of concept-driven designers, or an enigmatic art duo? The answer lies somewhere in-between, or around—or above or below—these categories. “We love the undefined territories between borders, which often make artists as well as designers angry and curious,” they say. “We believe that the borders are not natural or essential. They are produced by actors of the game—the institutions, schools, museums, etc. to keep status in play.” Instead, The Rodina considers its fluid, dynamic work as “critical and topic-focused”, not restricted by the media or discipline in use.