First things first, I think that I need to clarify exactly what type of rust i’m talking about. Did you know that there are many different things all called rust? Rust is a C++ developer language. Rust is also a survival video game. The rust that I am talking about today is the chemical reaction between iron, oxygen and water. Which forms oxidation and it leads to corrosion.

My relationship with rust is complex, but then all relationships are complex, they have both positive and negative aspects.

Before I show you any images and start sharing my thoughts I’d like to start with a question –

When you see rust, which ones are you?

Decay,

neglect,

beauty

or power?

Rust is probably not a subject that many people would have associated me with.

Much of my work in branding and brand development is about creating the best view of a business or product. Ensuring consistency and delivery across all kinds of mediums and I love it.

In fact I’m so passionate about it that I created my own brand DressCode Shirts. This is another area that I have wanted to explore for some time, then in 2018 a number of things happened and I plucked up the courage to put my money where my mouth is and launch the brand, indulging both my brand development work and unleashing my creative ideas for textiles and technology on the world.

So why am I talking about rust?

What’s my relationship with it, why does it fascinate me? There’s a number of reasons for this. Which I’m now going to explain.

Going back to the 4 words, let’s start with DECAY

Decay from shipwrecks, old cars, abandoned buildings and things that are really old, hundreds or thousands of years old. Rust is a natural process that develops over time – considerable lengths of time.

Time is certainly a really important aspect of rust, it’s organic, a natural process that is cumulative and ever evolving, like brewing a fine wine or whisky, you don’t know what you’re going to get at the end. When we think about decay…well we don’t really like to think about decay do we? It seems to be in our DNA that we ignore our fragilities, 2020 has proved this already, as people believe they are immune and untouchable.

The rusty mirror

I believe rust is a great example or mirror for our consumerist ideology of the world in which we inhabit, where things should be perfect – perfectly made, perfectly packed and perfected fitted to our image of self.

Maybe it’s me, but as consumerism really took off, post war in the 60 and 70’s there was little surprise that in the 80’s, a time when I grew up, life was pre-packed, good to go. In the past decade ‘vintage’ has become very powerful and in demand. Perhaps we reached a tipping point where new and shiny don’t rule the way?

Could you imagine the iPhone 14 available in rust with scratched glass effect. Perhaps not, but then again it has been done by brands as they seek to embrace the imperfect.

Metaphorically, rust is synonymous with decay, that’s OK I am comfortable with that, understand it and recognise it but, I can’t help being drawn to it as well.

Another perceived negative aspect of rust is it’s associations with Neglect

Again this is reflective of our consumerist culture. Buy it, own it, forget it and buy another. Rust also gives us insights into what we perceive as beauty and good design. Allowing us to see the layering and other intricate detail that goes into making of these objects of desire. Seeing the inner structure, understanding the processes used to make the objects and the vulnerabilities within them.

If you’d have asked me about rust as a teenager (circa 1990) I would have probably said it was reflective of neglect, using immature examples such as cars with rust to say ‘people who neglect a thing’. But when was the last time you saw a rusty car?

As I said it’s a complex relationship, the aspects of neglect and decay are quite negative, contemplative reflections of our world, so why does it interest me? And why am I telling you about it?

That’s easy, Rust is beautiful – just look at those textures, colours and shapes.

These hidden gems appear as if by magic, not over night, but over long periods of time. It’s a visual demonstration of what’s happening under the surface. The beautiful array of colours and textures that are created.

The junctaposition of this process and the bits of an object that haven’t yet rusted, magic and happy chance of where within a piece of metal the rust takes hold and where it doesn’t.

I love the randomness of this, the patterns it brings and the contrasts it creates. I find my relationship with rust has been heightened through my work, my occupation. We all spend a great deal of time and effort developing the finished product, whatever that may be. We refine it, covet it and then protect it. The craft, passion and ambition that is concentrated down into every aspect of our everyday objects is simply immense.

When objects are new, or new to us, we put them on pedestals, however there comes a point where they are either superceded, or just become part of our everyday life and we no longer care for them, we leave them, neglect them and allow them to decay. I once thought that this was the beginning of the end, but not anymore, this is just the beginning of the next chapter, a time where processes outside of our control make their marks on our creations.

I am genuinely torn about where the most beautiful aspects lie in this relationship. Clearly there are environmental concerns but there is beauty here as well, on both sides.

I find myself asking where is the beauty in the design and development of the original piece? The development is certainly the place in which we spend the biggest part of our endeavours – creativity, thinking up new and exciting solutions…innovating. We’re pre-programmed to do this stuff, it’s in our DNA.

We create beautiful things

But when you look at the after affects, when our creations are left alone in the world. There’s another type of beauty at work then, something special, something unique. Whether we are designing for practical purpose or personal pleasure. Seeing how those objects react with the world at large, after the event, as they are left behind and often taken for granted, fascinates me.

Because there are amazing things that happen in this space – shapes become distorted, creating objects that are themselves more intricate than what came before. There are beautiful colours, a real rainbow of tones, every colour of the rainbow from a brown piece of rusty metal.

That feels special to me, and I’d go as far as to say magical.

All of this rusting is happening over long periods of time and I really like that. I believe it grounds the process and gives it real strength, which brings me onto the final aspect of rust that I want to talk about, Power!

I believe that rust and weathering is the greatest demonstration of human’s battle with nature. We talk about circumnavigating the globe, exploring the universe and much, much more. I believe that humans have an inherent power struggle with our world. A place that naturally brings us so much joy, amazing food and has sustained live for 1000’s of years, yet for some unfathomable reason, we feel it should be subservient to us. There to do our bidding, as we decide what goes where. Rust proves to me that all of that thinking is wrong and out dated.

Yes. We have achieved great things, but every one of those great things rusts or decays when left to face mother nature. Yes we are powerful, but our power is insignificant compared to that of nature. Rust is a visual demonstration of this, a beautiful and complex demonstration that shows we really are no match for the power of nature.

The most extreme and magnificent example of this would have to be Chernobyl, if you’ve seen the David Attenborough ‘A life on our planet’ on Netflix you’ll have seen, nature has taken back that space that humans destroyed, what became uninhabitable for us has been recolonised by nature.

As I said, my relationship with Rust is complex. There are two sides to it – both positive and the negative. It inspires me and concerns me in equal measure. But most important, for me, it presents a unique snap shot into a relentless power struggle with nature, a battle I don’t believe we will ever win. Nor should we.

Closing remarks

I hope that you have enjoyed this brief insight into my world of rust. I’d like to finish this post with this definition, found online in the urban dictionary – Rusty.

A handsome man with beautiful eyes and a big heart. Very funny and outgoing. Loves to stay busy doing what’s good and encourages people he cares for to do what’s best. He’ll give you the love you’ve never felt before and make you believe and achieve your dreams. He might be evil but in a funny way. He likes to joke a lot but always tells the truth. Honesty and trust is a big thing for him.

I’m not claiming to be all of these things by any means. But I certainly do aspire to many of them and feel that I would be proud to be labelled a ‘rusty’.

Thank you for reading. This talk is part of the ‘ED Talk series, it is also available as a video over on Medium.