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Interview: Sonia Rentsch

From garden grenades to dinner settings, the Melbourne-based designer turns everyday oddities into art

by Fiona Killackey in Design on 22 August 2013

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With a client list that includes the Washington Post, Rare Medium, QANTAS, Desktop and Inside Out, Sonia Rentsch is making a name for herself with unique, eye-catching images that force you to see everyday objects in an entirely new light. A former student of industrial design, Rentsch has decorated the globe with her creations, spending time in the US, Europe and Australia. We caught up with the modest creative in her Melbourne studio for a chat about prop stores, industrial design and filling in customs forms.

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You're known by a few different career titles and you've held a number of different creative roles since graduating from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in 2002. When you're filling in a customs form, what do you call yourself?

It changes every time: Still life artist, 3D illustrator, art director, designer. I haven't settled on my one-liner. I carry negative connotations around the term "stylist." It seems like a terribly absurd title, though it is what I am most commonly by-lined as.

You completed a degree in industrial design. How has that education shaped your work?

Studying industrial design honed my creative skills and understanding of materials. I left a qualified welder, founder and model-maker. It challenged my concept of what I could do with my future. University was only the tiniest seed in the story though; who I am and what I do has evolved through multiple channels of people, places and opportunities. I wish someone had told me it would take almost 10 years to get here, but I guess I most likely wouldn't have made it without those miles.

Has your work grown organically or did you have to put a plan in place and pro-actively seek jobs out?

Nothing comes if you simply sit and wait for it. One of my favorite quotes by Aldous Huxley reads, "Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him." After years of cold-calling, people are starting to seek me out and it's an incredible thrill. I'm not sure that will ever pass—the thrill of being sought, and of people liking what I create. I can only hope it continues.

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You've spent time living and working in Europe. What led you back to Melbourne?

I was tired of slugging it out in a city whose language was not my mother tongue and I knew that to move forward with my career I would need to be in a place that I could navigate like an old friend. Being away opened my eyes to a final destination, but to reach it I needed to return. Sometimes what might feel like a step backwards is, in fact, the total opposite.

In comparison to the world's "creative capitals," Melbourne is relatively small. Do you feel its size hinders or helps what you do?

We could do with a little shake-up, in terms of leaving the old guard behind—just look at our current political mess as a prime example—it can be difficult to get an idea signed off if it's seen as "challenging" or "different." The talent is most certainly here, we just need to utilize it. Melbourne's distance from other countries, as opposed to its size, is the hindrance in my mind.

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How do you create your work? Obviously each piece is unique, but do you have a process or a set time most things take to create?

They're tough questions. Most things have a deadline, so the process takes as long as the time frame I have to work within. I try not to use prop stores, especially in a small town like Melbourne. You see the same surfaces and objects on repeat in our local mags—it drives me nuts! I like to pick things up from my environment—streets, thrift stores, friends' backyards, parks. If a client says. "I want a stone backdrop," I tend to hunt down stone suppliers as opposed to using painted surfaces that appear as stone. I find myself constantly purchasing random things that I know will come in handy down the line. My home is filled to the brink with oddities, but I get rid of objects once I have shot them. I guess you could say I'm a hoarder, but a non-attached one.

Things always evolve. The "Harm Less" series started with a huge collection of natural found objects. I noticed that part of a cactus looked exactly like a dagger. I built a series of weaponry based on this, but concluded on the day of the shoot that the strongest object I had come up with was a gun. The art director agreed and so I built another four guns on the spot. Of course, the gun I had arrived with turned out to be the weakest of the series. The best ideas come when you need them.

What advice would you give to someone hoping to find similar work?

If you want to do something, start doing it. It sounds ridiculous, but if you want to create something, then create it.

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You've worked with numerous clients. What have been some of your favorite pieces and projects so far?

My favorite projects are the ones that allow me the most creative freedom. I recently shot a job for Voyeur—Virgin's in-flight mag—where they gave me a fairly open brief. I was totally thrilled that they trusted me. The "Harm Less" series I created for January Biannual was a joyous indulgence, as was the cover and poster I shot for Desktop's "Future of Design" issue, for that same reason.

Shooting for Qantas was amazing because I got to work with the incredible Michael Corridore and the team at Droga5. Working for MASH (Rare Medium) as I love the forward-thinking nature of their team and the dynamic onset with the photographer John Laurie. Scott Newett brings incredible lighting and a creative energy to each and every thing we shoot that pushes the images to a new level. I could go on. I'm uncertain there is a single job that I have disliked. Clients, maybe—but not the task.

Sonia Rentsch's prints are available at her online store, where they sell for $375 AUD plus postage.

Lead image and dinner setting images by Scott Newett, "Harm Less" series images by Albert Comper, portrait courtesy of Sonia Rentsch

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