Josh Owen and R. Roger Remington in conversation at Rochester Institute of Technology. Photo: Elizabeth Lamark

This interview is part of an ongoing series of conversations with the Areaware designers. We asked our Fall 2019 designers to select someone to conduct an interview with them about their practice. Josh Owen, the designer of our Menorah and a Distinguished Professor and Director of Industrial Design Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), spoke with R. Roger Remington, Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design and Director of the Vignelli Center for Design Studies at RIT.

R. Roger Remington: In your book Lenses for Design, you speak about your design process. Please share this with us, especially the triadic model.

Josh Owen: The triadic model refers to the interconnectedness and balance between the professional, academic and personal elements of my life. I strive to keep an equilibrium between working as a professional designer, an educator and raising a family. This is not easy but I have discovered pathways that I describe in the book. Thinking of my life in this way is helpful as a reminder of my priorities and their relationship to each other. Finding and attempting to maintain a healthy balance of all three components is what keeps me centered as a human being and I believe deeply in the myriad synergies that each offers the others.

A look inside Lenses for Design. Pictured here: Menorah for Areaware by Josh Owen.

RRR: Please tell us more about this book.

JO: Lenses for Design decodes learning outcomes from the experiences I have had in my industrial design practice. It takes the reader on a journey through many of the products I have designed for industry partners and the reasoning used in the process of executing these projects. The goal of the book is to share strategies I have developed with others for their benefit.

RRR: What were your major accomplishments at Philadelphia?

JO: I moved to Philadelphia right after finishing my Masters degree at Rhode Island School of Design to be with my girlfriend at the time who was studying in Philly. That girlfriend is now my wife of 20 years. Together with her, we had two children during our time living in that wonderful city. I began my studio practice there and later became a member of the COLLAB board at the Philadelphia Museum of Art where I helped enhance their student design competition and annual design excellence award. I also helped build a well-respected industrial design program at Philadelphia University and made many lifelong friends.

RRR: What are the greatest successes in your career?

JO: I tend not to think hierarchically about individual successes but rather that the totality of my efforts might create positive results. For me, success is three-fold: Social, Critical, and Commercial. For a designer to be effective, his or her impact should be socially relevant. In that capacity, I work as an educator to help others move their ideas forward and empower them to make enduring decisions. Critical success means that the work that one does is judged by peers and professionals to operate at the highest levels. When my projects (or the projects of my students) win juried awards or are included in exhibitions, publications or museum collections, this is Critical success. Commercial success means that one’s contribution has been accepted as useful in the world and contributes to the economic ecosystem.

Knock-off Lamp by Josh Owen.

RRR: What failures have you had and what have you learned from these?

JO: I have had many failures but I do my best to save potential failures by being organized and maintaining relationships. One example that comes to mind is the case of the “Knock-off Lamp” I designed for Bozart in the early 2000s. The company that commissioned it disbanded for reasons unconnected to their products shortly after the lamp successfully entered the market. When the item was discontinued, the IP rights defaulted back to me and I was able to leverage the initial success of the project into a new agreement with another company (Kikkerland) with whom I had a prior relationship. The project then enjoyed a second life as a successful product under a new brand. While it was not my fault, the initial discontinuation of this item would have been a failure by my own measure had I not figured out a way to save it from disappearing into the void of lost ideas.

Photo: Elizabeth Lamark

RRR: Thus far, what about RIT?

JO: Roger, I was attracted to RIT because I saw that good people were doing important work there. You are one of them. Entering into my 10th year at RIT I can easily say that these have been the most productive and rewarding years of my life. I owe that to the colleagues, students, and the context.

RRR: Compare Philadelphia University and RIT.

JO: Philadelphia University (Now Jefferson) was a fantastic 10-year run for me and I have the deepest respect for my friends who remain and those who have moved on from there. I began my career in Philadelphia so I have a lot of love for the people and the place. Comparing RIT to Jefferson is hard because it is a different organization with different people now. Institutions are about moments in time. They change. The Philadelphia University that I knew began with myself and several colleagues in a few rooms of an old Victorian mansion. When I left we had built a robust, highly rated, medium-size industrial design program. The principal difference between it and RIT is that it was a small university at the time (around 3K students). RIT has around 18K. So it had a wonderful, intimate feeling about the place. One of the principal differences about RIT that attracted me was the scale and the resources. As a large and unique university, RIT has robust programs in business, engineering, the sciences, and liberal arts, as well as an incredible wealth of arts and crafts, and massive archival resources relative to design. I feel that our ID program draws from all of these allowing all of us to find remarkably robust opportunities for professional relevance.

RRR: Who are your heroes?

JO: I’ve never really had any heroes because I’ve always felt that idealizing any one individual is a bit risky. I’ve always kind of marched a bit to my own drum I suppose. But here are some people whose works I find magnetic (in no particular order): Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Constantin Brancusi, Bill Laswell, Bob Marley, George Clinton, Jimi Hendrix, The Bad Brains, Steve Martin, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Stanley Kubrick, Kurt Vonnegut, Buckminster Fuller. If I had any heroes they would likely be my parents, my wife, my children, my colleagues, friends, and my students.

RRR: Who are your design heroes?

JO: Again, I don’t really believe in the notion of having heroes. Here are some designers who I greatly respect (in no particular order): Tadao Ando, Achille Castiglioni, Massimo and Lella Vignelli, Dieter Rams, Isamu Noguchi, Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen, Hella Jungerious, Hans Wegner, Kenya Hara, Konstantin Grcic, Jasper Morrison, Maartin Van Severan, Naoto Fukasawa, Gaetano Pesce, Florence Knoll, Charles and Ray Eames.

RRR: Who/what were your biggest influences?

JO: I have learned so much from all of the people I have collaborated with over the years. Growing up in the context of education and my father’s work as an archaeologist taught me a great deal about the process of seeking and acquiring knowledge, hard work, diligence, experiencing and embracing other cultures and conditions that are different than what you are used to. My mother taught me about the power of organization and relationship building. I learned how to listen carefully to others by spending years as a musician. My teachers at Cornell and RISD taught me how to be an artist, anthropologist and a designer. My colleagues and my students teach me every day as do my wife and my children.

RRR: How do these inspire your work and teaching?

JO: All of the people I mention above have taught me the joy of connecting with others and helping them on their journeys. I have learned how to exercise flexibility, improvisation and the ability to call upon a wide knowledge-base relevant to my profession. Mentorship is a great gift I continue to be rewarded by and that I pass along each day as well.

Dieter Rams at his desk.

RRR: You speak with respect about Dieter Rams. What is it about his process and work that inspires you?

JO: Rams is one of the great enduring examples of a designer who effectively merges graphic communication with industrial design in a very focused way. I mostly appreciate his ability to exercise restraint. Restraint may be the most underrated design strategy.

RRR: At Cornell, what was your foundation in design?

JO: I did not study design as part of my undergraduate work at Cornell. I did, however, take courses in many areas and have mentorship that was cognizant of design. I spent 5 years and received two degrees there, a BFA in Fine Arts – Sculpture and a BA in Anthropology – Visual Studies. I think I only had one formal ‘design’ course at Cornell and it was a first-year course called ‘Color Form and Space’ taught by a fascinating artist by the name of Norman Daily. I remember the most enduring lesson was on day one when he told us that we would not survive if we did not learn immediately to separate ourselves from our work. What he meant was that we would need to learn to be objective, take feedback and be professional. He was right. I find this premise relevant today as much as when I was 18.

RRR: Please speak about the importance of your travels and work with your father.

JO: Through his archaeological fieldwork, my father exposed me to travel, other cultures, critical thinking, keen observation, and hard work – all intrinsic parts of the process associated with the nature of his discipline. He did this as a practitioner and as an educator. Archaeological practice has many parallels to design work. Prior to beginning fieldwork, one must research and assess an opportunity, set up a reference grid for exploratory work and then carefully begin to uncover results that are documented and later disseminated as they are unearthed. As a designer and as an educator, I work across cultures using methods not dissimilar to those aforementioned and my commitment to education certainly stems from the good example he shared in using his practice to educate the next generations in order to move society forward.

RRR: How has this affected your career and life?

JO: I tend not to categorize most things as good or bad, wrong or right but in terms of differences. I know what my preferences are, but I can also appreciate that others have their own and I enjoy these fluctuations in human experience. I work hard and try to have humility.

RRR: You are working on a second book. Please tell us about this?

JO: The Lenses for Design (LFD) book was originally conceived to expose what I have learned as a professional designer and an educator, offering observations that might be useful to others. I realized that this would be too much to accomplish in a single volume so I decided to focus on sharing professional observations in LFD. The new book, Design for Study, will focus on the academic lessons I have learned. My career as an educator has focused on leveraging industry collaborators into the classroom so the book centers on how those efforts affect pedagogy.

Massimo and Lella Vignelli ‘Metaphora’ Coffee Table, Italy 1979

RRR: Were the Vignellis an influence on your career?

JO: The Vignellis were always part of the pantheon of designers on my bookshelf, but it was not until I joined RIT that they became influential in the sense that I formed a meaningful relationship with them at that time.

RRR: How well did you know them?

JO: I met Massimo when I was exploring the possibility of joining the faculty at RIT in 2009 and I met Lella shortly after I made the decision to come to RIT in 2010. I felt an immediate kinship with Massimo and while I did not spend as much time with him as I would have liked, we emailed regularly, and I saw him in NYC and during his frequent visits to RIT. He was very supportive of my work linking the RIT industrial design program to the Vignelli Center. In NYC during design week each year, he always made great efforts to spend time with me and my students from the Metaproject. Unfortunately, I was never lucky enough to get to know Lella well as she was compromised by health issues that began shortly after I met her and was not present as much as Massimo was during her last years. Massimo wanted to see me when he was very ill, and I went to see him a few days before he passed. The conversation we had that day I will never forget.

RRR: Of their work, what inspires you the most?

JO: The Vignellis were excellent communicators and planners. Design was a lifestyle choice for them. What inspires me most about the Vignellis has nothing to do with their ‘aesthetic’ sensibilities or Modernist orientation, but with their deep-rooted desire to make things better for the world by making design a transparent and all-encompassing part of life. I feel connected to the Vignellis in that we share this holistic approach.

At Wanted Design in NYC in May of 2012, Massimo and Lella Vignelli congratulate Josh Owen after seeing the output from his work with RIT students and Corning. Photo: Elizabeth Lamark

RRR: What of their design values are also important to you? Can you give us specific examples?

JO: One example I often cite is the use of the grid. Typically, this is discussed relative to the Vignelli's work in graphic design such as theUnigrid system developed for their 1970’s program for the National Park Service where it was employed to ‘train’ park employees to homogenize their varied communication materials across great geographic distances. Another lesser talked about use of their grid logic was with their products. The Hellerware used a 3-dimensional grid to make sense of transporting, serving, using and storing items. The geometry in these related products is incredibly pragmatic making them incredibly beautiful because of their purposefulness.

Hellerware by Massimo Vignelli, circa 1969.

RRR: What are the requirements for a design professional?

JO: A design professional should be equal-parts communicator, planner, anthropologist, sociologist, historian, craftsman, and philosopher wrapped in pragmatic optimism. Healthy doses of business acumen never hurt.

RRR: What one thing do you feel is the most important thing that you want your students to take away from their education?

JO: The most important thing a student can take with them from their education is the establishment of a point of view. This comes from truly understanding their lessons and seeking to challenge them. If they have worked hard and listened carefully, they will have developed this. It will make them unique, empower their own fulfillment and allow them to add to the global dialogue.

Photo: Elizabeth Lamark

RRR: Looking into your crystal ball, what do you see in the future?

JO: I do not believe that anyone can see the future – it is ours to shape and we have a deep responsibility to craft it thoughtfully following the lessons that the past has taught us.

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