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Ones to Watch: Serra

Graduating from RISD with a degree in industrial design, Mike Ruiz-Serra is a 22-year-old artist living on the East Coast. His most recent collection, Pulp,  is crafted from paper pulp which is a mixture of recycled paper and wood glue. Through coffee tables, benches, and sound systems Serra looks to cross fine art with functionality; his pieces are meant to be sat on, touched, even connected to your iPhone. Inspired by historical references and a non-toxic practice, Ruiz-Serra is one to watch. We met him in Long Island City to chat about sustainability, combining tech with fine art, and what he has in store for 2020.

What did you study in college? How did it influence your artistic practice?

I graduated from the industrial design department at RISD. During my time there I learned a lot of different fabrication techniques. I was always drawn to manufacturing on a smaller, more localized scale which ultimately led to the type of work I do now. 

What materials do you use to make your pieces, how do you source them? How does sustainability play a role in your craft?

My new collection is an exploration into the structural/aesthetic properties of paper pulp made from recycled paper and wood glue. Paper pulp has a long, largely forgotten history as a building material and I think it should be used more today. Throughout history its been used to make furniture, ceremonial items, and even boats. When used properly, paper pulp acts similarly to composites like fiberglass. This is exciting to me because its made mostly from recycled natural material and is completely non-toxic.

This specific collection is rooted in the idea that radical design doesn’t necessarily rely on radical new materials such as plastics or composites. Throughout the whole process, I learned how much fun working with sustainable materials can be, plus I don’t have to worry about my work making me sick.

What’s your creative process like? How do you plan out how you want a piece of furniture to look?

My process varies from project to project. I guess the main commonality would be historical references. I’ve always been really into studying art/design history and I often reference that stuff in my work. 

When planning specific pieces, I typically work things out in my head or model forms in clay beforehand. I don’t draw.

For example, with your speakers – how did you combine the elements of technology and fine art? What inspired you to fuse those two worlds? 

I primarily made the speakers for personal reasons. I  wanted a good sound system in my workspace that’s geared towards my musical tastes. It’s very loud and bass-heavy, unconcerned with sounding crisp like traditional hi-fi systems. It was a good excuse to blend my long-standing interest in analog tech with what I’m doing now.

What kind of spaces do you see your pieces inhabiting? 

A space where they will be used. I hate to see functional objects not being used.

How has living in New York influenced your work?

I grew up in Westchester so I always felt like an outsider even though I would spend lots of time in NYC. I think that has benefited me in the long run though because I wasn’t too influenced by any specific scene and I had more space to work on stuff. It was also cool to be around New York during a time when functional objects were being taken seriously as an artistic medium. Between living in New York and going to RISD, art and furniture became interchangeable for me.

Do you have a favorite creation to date? Why?

Probably the sound system. It was the first piece I made in the collection, it kept me good company while making everything else.

Who are some of your favorite artists? Any dream collaborations? 

While making this collection I was spending a lot of time looking at a few different artists. Aesthetically I was inspired by Franz West’s paper mache sculptures and Scott Burton’s stone furniture. I also have to mention Zach Martin and Thomas Barger, who both made me realize the potential for paper pulp as a medium for furniture early on.

I’d love to work with one of those auto-shops in New York that specializes in building big sound systems. I want to keep working with sound, I think they’d be able to help me.

What have you learned from the artists you have worked with? 

I haven’t had many jobs working for other artists, but my experiences in the field have been really interesting and fun. My main takeaway has been that no two studios are alike.

What’s in store for you in 2020?

I’m starting to experiment with new materials and processes. Hoping to launch a second collection soon.

Stay tuned to Milk for more Ones to Watch.

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