Last week I was thinking about a project I wanted to make with wool felt (yes, I spend a good amount of time thinking about textiles, don’t you?!) when James announced that Josh Jakus was the newest addition to our site. What a sign of inspiration! Josh is known for his felt pieces made from factory excess fibers and rubber designs made from recycled tires. When people use one of Josh’s products they naturally encounter the way it was conceived and developed. Amazing stuff. Enjoy the Q&A!
I’ve read that you have a background in both architecture and furniture design. What was the turning point that led you from architecture and furniture to soft goods?
I started doing furniture design in architecture school because they had a woodshop and I’ve always enjoyed manual work. As a design process I liked the simplicity and perfection of furniture as a counterpoint to architecture, which is so complicated and messy (sometimes in a good way). After I finished school I continued making furniture while I did freelance architectural work. My intent was to turn the furniture into a business that would go along side my architecture, but it proved to be very difficult to come up with commercially viable pieces. So I decided to experiment with soft goods because they’re easier and less expensive to produce. And the success of my UM bags eventually pulled me away from architecture and into the product world.
I get a sense that you let the material drive the design. Is this true? The UM bags certainly push this notion as do the leftover felt rounds from the UM tote and Wine Pocket that make up the Cut Coasters set. Can you tell us a little about the design process that went into creating some of your pieces?
Yes, I do start with a material and a study of its intrinsic qualities. I liked felt because of its stiffness: unlike most woven fabric it’s very structural. But I also think about different manufacturing processes at the beginning. For example, die cutting material leads to different possibilities than hand cutting. And there are different ways of sewing things. I take those things into account and then just play around with things and see what comes out of it. It’s a fairly structured process though. Although I usually don’t have a specific product in mind, I’m always thinking about a basic utility such as holding, covering, opening and closing, etc.
The aesthetic element is certainly evident in each design yet everything seems to offer an “experience” for the customer. How important was it that each piece allows for a chance for the customer to interact with the material?
It’s very important. I think all products give the user an experience of some kind. A lot of mainstream products give the user an associative experience, such as belonging to the right group, feeling like they have reached a certain status, etc. I don’t really know how to do that kind of work so I can’t compete with the Pradas of the world. As an architect, I’m trained to think about the interaction between a user and his or her physical environment so I try to push that as a way of differentiating my stuff from everything else.
My philosophy is to maintain an ongoing design process and let product come out of that as they may. I have a lot of experiments sitting around the studio that never turned into products. I have to admit that as the realities of running a business have caught up with me, I’ve become a little more product oriented. For example, I’m currently working a slipper only because I’ve been asked for one a number of times and I think it would sell. I wasn’t too excited about the project until I made it my own and turned it into an experiment.
What do you use as inspiration for your designs?
My inspiration usually isn’t too abstract. It’s mostly just the qualities of the materials I work with, different making processes, and different basic uses. I look at those things the way an architect looks at a site and a program.
Actually I started working with felt because of its properties and I wasn’t even thinking about sustainability issues. And the rubber has many of the same qualities as felt, so it fit into what I do. So it wasn’t like I made huge sacrifices to be responsible about my materials. And the things I do like trying to use off-cuttings for new products just save me money. I like to think of my practice as ahead of its time in that efficient use and recycling are matter of fact.
What advice would you give aspiring designers?
In terms of design, be rigorous. Make things, don’t just think of ideas. It’s hard work but it’s satisfying. In terms of business, I would say that having good products, good manufacturing, and good prices are the most important thing. If you have those things, sales will take care of itself. But… think long and hard before quitting your day job because success doesn’t happen over night!
What is next for Josh Jakus?
I’m working on a second brand that will keep what’s special about my stuff yet have a bit more mass-market appeal and a lower price point. Stay tuned!