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A Youngster Breaks Into the High-End American Design Scene

Jonah Takagi talks about the dizzying feeling of quitting your day job, and suddenly finding there’s no rules — and no net.

This evening, on February 17th, New York’s Museum of Art and Design is presenting The Home Front, a panel discussion about the triumphs and tribulations of being an independent designer. Moderator Jen Renzi pre-interviewed some of the panelists, and this is the third and final conversation.

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Tickets, offered in partnership with Co.Design, are available here for just $9, with the offer code HOME.

Jonah Takagi came out of left field last year when he splashed onto the U.S. design scene in a big way: in the space of a few months, he snagged a Bernhardt American Design Honor award, his streamlined but quirky-cool light fixtures were picked up by MatterMade and Roll & Hill, was invited to participate at IMM Cologne, and he was tapped to show his work at the ICFF offsite show NoHo Next. And Takagi is multi-talented: He’s well known around D.C. as a musician, and he’s recording an album right now in his basement, with his girlfriend. We spoke with the upstart designer as he’s setting up shop–he just quit his day job building theatrical sets to devote himself full-time to design–and preparing for his Milan Furniture Fair debut.

My fantasy world and my normal life are finally starting to merge.

You just had a show of your work at the Civilian Arts Projects gallery in Washington DC. How did it go?

This was my first solo show in an art context. Having it in DC was kind of a coming out party for this part of me, within my community. Most people here know me more as a musician. It was a little weird, a bit of an identity crisis. When I go to design events like ICFF, I feel a little like I?m in a bubble, outside of reality and my day-to-day life. I put on my dress-up clothes, go and do my thing, and then I come home. So having the show here on my home turf made me think: Maybe this is my reality. My fantasy world and my normal life are finally starting to merge. It was definitely helpful for taking that side of myself seriously, and was what probably encouraged me to [bite the bullet and quit my day job].

Last week was your first week of freedom, no? How did it go?

The first couple days were really scary because I worked like a dog and didn’t get as much done as I thought I would. So I just printed out a sign with my company name in 24-point Helvetica and wrote, “Monday through Friday, 10 to 7” and stuck it to the door of our spare bedroom–my office–in blue masking tape. I even told my girlfriend she had to knock before coming in. It kind of helped!

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But is design a 24/7 activity for you?

That’s what I?m working out. Having a day job forced me to be really decisive. I didn’t have all the time in the world to devote to design, so inspiration would happen and I’d develop concepts at nights and on weekends–and have to make quick decisions. And now that I do have all the time in the world, I find myself second guessing things a lot, like, “Should I make this hinge an eighth of an inch smaller?”

So, what are you working on now?

Three new designs for Milan. They’re sort of inspired by television sets; they have a theatrical vibe to them. But, ultimately, they’re based on what’s easy [and affordable] to ship overseas. Making it work economically is a constant for me since the financing is all coming out of my own pocket. For instance, I?m making a desk that will collapse [so it’s easy to ship].

Having a day job forced me to be really decisive.

Tell me about your design process. I know you collect crazy industrial-parts catalogs and–courtesy of your set design background–are something of a whiz kid when it comes to researching obscure components online. Do you find parts and then design around them–or design first and then find parts to help realize your concept? Or is it a back and forth?

It’s gone both ways. Working in the theater on props, you never have enough time or money, so you’re constantly repurposing stuff–finding things that preexist, that are halfway there, and then modifying them to look like something else. That’s definitely informed the way I work. I?m a pack rat: I collect things and assemble and hot-glue them together.

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Helping to install a show in a theater recently, I came across a bucket of lenses used for the light fixtures and thought they were awesome. So I ordered a bunch of diffusers and lenses from B&H Photo Supply and messed around with them, holding them in front of different lights. That inspired the lamp that I?m making for in Milan. Ultimately, I don’t think I am going to use the actual components for the final design. A lot of the satisfaction is just having something to look at, something physical in my hand. Which is weird because I do a lot of work in the computer.

Do you have specific goals for Milan?

Primarily to find manufacturing opportunities. Having a background fabricating stuff for myself and for others, I understand the scale and money involved. I would love the opportunity to design without crazy money limitations. Most of what I’ve realized up until now has been self-financed.

I would just like to do something?.bigger, more. Have more freedom, have some weird crazy factory at my disposal. To walk through a factory and be like, “Let’s try this!” I can draw a million things that I could have injection molded, but unless you have $100,000 of investment behind you–you can’t even think about it. I’d love access to those technologies.

Now that you’re on your own, are you more freaked out about money?

Definitely Milan is a little bit of a stretch. But what else am I going to spend money on? I drive a 15-year-old car!

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Working a day job, I had a financial freedom where my designs didn’t have to sell or make money. I could design totally from the heart. But I?m in a pretty good place. My girlfriend–she’s a professional musician–and I have a studio in the basement and make music for commercials, so I make a little bit of money from that. You only land one in 10 gigs that you [try out for], but they pay really well.

Your creativity is something thing that you have to take care of.

Do you have a good balance between design and music?

Today, I realized that music was more important than I thought it was. I have to make sure that I keep finding time to do it; I need to use it more like a tool. Right now, I?m [down to the wire] getting stuff ready for the Milan. I?m stressed out and having anxiety dreams. So I worked on design stuff in the morning and then went and practiced for an upcoming gig at the Smithsonian?we’re playing improv ambient stuff inspired by Chinese cave art, very groan-y and weird. I feel a lot better now: I?m in a better place in my head having done something creative but that’s not design. The design stuff is so calculated on so many levels. I mean, there are intense “Eureka!” moments that happen–the genesis of an idea, for instance. But with music, especially with ambient pure improv stuff, you’re constantly in that place. It’s refreshing.

This summer, when I was having a creative block, my girlfriend gave me this touchy-feely New Age-y book about being an artist. What I got out of it was that your creativity is something thing that you have to take care of. It’s important to keep that thing healthy, to not get too wrapped up.

Having recently broken into the design scene, do you have any advice for aspirants?

I’d say: Taking risks is always scary but you have to do it. For me, that was going to Germany to show at IMM Cologne last year.

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Being genuine and nice is also important. Sure, there are abrasive people with huge egos who do well, but all you have is your reputation and once you screw that up? Being genuine and connecting with people goes really far. You don’t always have to be schmoozing. You can go have a cheeseburger with someone, half drunk after some weird showroom party and talk about music or the weather. That gets you as far as being completely aggressive and hustling all the time.

Still curious? Buy tickets to the Feb. 17th event here for $9 when you enter the offer code HOME.

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