Furniture designer Jonah Takagi introduces himself by admitting his tendency to be “a little stream of consciousness.”
Moments later, the free-form stories start flowing. He recalls, for instance, the exact moment he first thought about attending the Rhode Island School of Design. It was his cool Uncle Bob, who flew helicopters and worked on oil rigs who told him he had to go. Years later, after considering a career in architecture and even sculpture, he landed in the world of furniture design.
Rather than immediately pursuing a full-time career in design after school, Jonah moved to Portland, Oregon, finding a job at a junk store where he worked in exchange for goods. Soon after, he made his way to Washington, DC where he spent most of his twenties immersed in the world of music.
By age thirty, though, his mother suggested he consider a real profession—so after seven years, he returned to his roots. Today, he works out of his own studio, Atelier Takagi. He’s also the co-founder of Field, a brand centered around the concept of creating timeless, conscientiously made objects. We had the great fortune to chat with Jonah about indie bands, typical days and the winding journey that eventually led him full-circle to design.
This interview with Jonah is published in collaboration with OTHR, the forward-thinking design brand that utilizes the latest in 3D Printing technology to create unique objects. Follow along as we profile their international roster of designers here.
Tell us a little about your personal history.
I was born in Tokyo. My dad’s Japanese and my mom’s American. I lived in Tokyo for a bit, but my parents split up when I was two. My brother and I moved to America with my mom, and we all lived in a suburb of Connecticut called West Hartford. I actually went to the same high school as my mom and my grandparents.
When did you first consider pursuing a career in design?
Early on. My dad lives in Tokyo; he’s an architect there. As a child, I didn’t always know what he did. He was a bit mysterious in some ways, and there was always this sense of intrigue surrounding him since I didn’t grow up with him. When my mom was comfortable putting my brother and me on a plane to Japan, we’d go every summer. That’s when I was able to fill in the blanks about who he was. I remember we’d spend so much time looking at portfolios of his work and models he’d made. So, in a way, the whole design thing was always in the background.
What made you want to go to RISD?
When I was a kid, I remember sitting in the living room and playing Legos with my Uncle Bob. He lived in Singapore. He was the cool bachelor uncle who didn’t have any kids and just flew around in helicopters and hung out on oil rigs. As a young guy, he had this wild and crazy life. He told me RISD was the best art school, and that stuck with me. It was a stretch, though, because it was difficult to get in and it was expensive. I went for a portfolio day and they told me they’d re-average my GPA and take out the art to see just the academics. I knew I was in trouble. So when I got in, I didn’t think twice. I decided to figure out how to make it work. I just finished paying off my loans, actually.
“The realist, cynical side of me said, ‘Hey, Jonah, if this art thing doesn’t work out you’ll have some real life skills.’ Thankfully, it worked out. ”
How did you finally choose furniture design?
I thought I’d go into architecture, but part of it was turning me off. I liked the technical aspects of building this spatial thing, relating to people. But it felt completely overwhelming to imagine creating an entire building. Part of me also wanted to do sculpture, but it was a little too nebulous. It didn’t have that hard, technical, obvious thing to it that I liked.
So I naturally gravitated to furniture design. Furniture allowed me to make things with my own hands, and it was also related to architecture. The realist, cynical side of me said, ‘Hey, Jonah, if this art thing doesn’t work out you’ll have some real life skills.’ Thankfully, it worked out.
When did you decide to move to DC? What brought you here?
My girlfriend at the time was moving to DC. I’ve been here for about 12 years now. Different girlfriend now, but I’m still here.
When I first moved, I got a job in carpentry and prop building for sets and movies. I was just swinging a hammer, making stuff everyday. Then I went back to music and played in a band. I was on the road touring all over. We recorded a few records, and that was what I did for several years. Then I turned 30. I can’t remember if my mom actually gave me shit, or if she just put the pressure on me. I think it was probably subtle, but I felt the pressure to try to design something. Since then, I’ve had my own studio.
Do you find that your music and design work have influenced one another?
I started out with music because it’s really my first love. I think I often draw inspiration for both art forms from many different things, but music has more of an external feeling. Especially with drums, your mind is engaged and it’s more of a physical experience. When you’re designing stuff, it’s all a little more start-and-stop. There’s a lot of sitting around while you try to work something out, or a lot of waiting to find inspiration in some unexpected place. I also use music as a bit of an escape.
Is there a genre of music that you prefer? What are some of your favorite bands?
I am really into traditional songwriting. I can’t listen to anything that isn’t the best in its genre. You know what I mean? It’s too much. Sometimes the lyrics are so bad, or the chorus and verses don’t match up. Recently, I’ve been listening to the Kinks and the Zombies. Other than that, I really have a thing for jazz and classic stuff. There are less words in jazz, so you really listen and connect with the music. I listen to pretty much everything, though. I have that discover weekly feature on Spotify, which is nice for finding new stuff.
What was it like to be a musician here in DC?
It’s honestly a bit tricky to be creative here. It’s expensive, and there’s a lack of space. DC also doesn’t have the same room for artistic development like New York, which is industrial and corporate. DC’s on a river, but there was never a big industry here so there aren’t a lot of places to have a painting studio, or a rehearsal space, or a wood shop. We didn’t have the big, old factory businesses that house creative ventures. So I’ve always worked out of a home studio space. My girlfriend and her band even practice in our basement. For design ventures and music ventures, it’s a vibrant and supportive place. But it could definitely be better in many real, practical ways.
Have the places you’ve lived—Washington, Portland, Japan—influenced your work?
Washington has, definitely. The city environment informs my work, but at the same time, it’s a bit of trying to break free from it all, if that makes sense. There’s never enough money or time. Japan has had an influence, in the sense that part of who I really am is essentially there. Travel in general, has a great effect on any artistic career. I work about 10 feet away from the room I live in. I’d go crazy if I wasn’t out on the road sometimes—I’m constantly trying to work with companies in places I want to visit.
Jonah helps produced the beats for Sneaks, a project with singer Eva Moolchan.
Tell us about Field and how it all came about.
Field was a collaboration with a childhood friend who’s an amazing drummer. We’ve been friends since we were 13. He ended up going to business school, because he knew he could be a great drummer—but knew he could be even better at something else. That’s a crazy realization to have when you’re so young, but he was always wise beyond his years. Field originally started as a conversation with him to see if he could help me with getting products out there as a project manager. Then we got more ambitious and wanted it to be more of a brand with designers. When we’re together, we naturally revert back to when we were 13. We often have to remember to act like adults who know what they’re doing, instead of young kids who are totally out of control.
What is your studio like?
The studio still feels new for me. Before, I was designing in the spare bedroom that was literally next door to my master bedroom. It was too weird. I’d get up in the night to get a drink of water, and the light would be pulsating from my computer. You can’t get away from your work. I’d get Skype calls in the middle of the night from different time zones and panic. I was even grinding my teeth, and I had to get a night guard. That’s when I decided to move my studio up to the attic. Just that tiny bit of extra distance from the bedroom has been revolutionary. In the other space, there was only enough room to do one thing at a time. Now, I have it all layed out. I can draw, do something on the computer and then move to the floor to make a model out of cardboard. It’s a much more fluid process.
A greatest hits compilation of Jonah’s work
Double Vessels for OTHR
Tier Tables for Umbra Shift
Flip Flop Shelf
Basecamp for Kvadrat
“There’s pressure that goes along with producing physical objects, because they take up physical space. Objects take up energy, so you really want to make your designs count.”
How do you approach designing a new product?
Honestly, the creative process is so hard to nail down. It’s exciting but frustrating. For example, in writing they probably say, ‘We need this. It has to be this long. It has to be about this.’ It’s the same with design. You have to use this material and it has to cost this amount and it needs to be done tomorrow. Sometimes you want to say, holy fuck! There are always new ideas coming, but sometimes you have to mull over one thing and draw it over and over until it’s right. It could be months before you finally have a breakthrough. It’s crazy.
It must be difficult to constantly create, while also working within such specific boundaries.
That’s probably the most frustrating part of what I do: learning how to coax these things out and sort of massage the ideas. It’s like pulling stuff out of thin air sometimes. Anybody that’s never done it before thinks it will just appear, but it’s actually really hard.
There’s pressure that goes along with producing physical objects, because they take up physical space. Objects take up energy, so you really want to make your designs count. It’s an existential crisis, because you don’t want to add to the noise or chaos. There’s so much junk out there. I don’t want to just throw more shit on the pile.
Thank you, Jonah, for sharing your many stories. See more of the designer’s works at Atelier Takagi website and on the Field website, his collaborative design brand. And if you would like to own the 3D printed Double Vessel designed by Jonah, head to OTHR.
For more design inspiration check out the stories we’ve produced with OTHR here.