”You just point your bike in one direction, and as you get from point A to point B, there is nothing up for debate. If you made it to point B, you did it right.”
Photograph by Greg Kahn, courtesy of Freunde von Freunden
Jonah Takagi × Industrial Designer × On the Road
Jonah Takagi is an American product designer and ½ of the design duo behind Alfa Sofa, Takagi Homstvedt. Though he’s often on the road, most recently between New England, New York, D.C. and Chicago, where he teaches at SAIC, Jonah maintains a fruitful solo practice in addition to the collaborative practice with Hallgeir Homstvedt. Jonah grew up between Connecticut and Japan, is an accomplished musician, and genuinely appreciates a good bicycle.
RE: THE UNIQUE DESIGN CHALLENGE OF UPHOLSTERED FURNITURE
It’s hard to describe the way something upholstered should feel. Making a wooden chair or table is pretty straightforward: you draw it, it’s more or less pixel-perfect in the computer and that’s usually what you get out of the factory. Maybe you’re looking at finish samples, and so you might worry about, say, the sheen of a finish or a dye.
For a couch, specifically, when you’re thinking about seat height you want to know where a cushion starts versus where a person ends up when they sit down. There are densities of foam, webbing, and fabric to consider. It starts at this height, but as soon as someone sits down it’s at another height. It’s something you want to be deliberate about.
“Humans have been making things to sit on for thousands of years, so things like standardization of height are mostly questions that have been resolved.”
The development process was pretty long for Alfa. In the end, we arrived at something we’re proud of and I’m glad that Dims. didn’t balk at using fancy textiles. I’m sure there are equivalent textiles from other manufacturers, but there’s a cachet that comes with working with a company like Kvadrat — it’s just plain nicer. I’ve done collaborations with them before and they’re amazing.
RE: FROM 3D MODEL TO 3D OBJECT
When we’re in the 3D environment working through a project, we’re starting from sketches and we’re pulling dimensions from known objects. So much of the work of designing a couch or a table or a chair has been done for you — humans have been making things to sit on for thousands of years, so things like standardization of height are mostly questions that have been resolved. Our point of departure was the reality of how people sit and how people live. If there’s one major concern, it’s scale. With Alfa, proportionally, and the way it looks and the way all of the forms relate to one other, the scale is satisfying. But it’s just not something you can say until you see it in a room and can feel the piece take up visual space. There’s no way to replicate that. You can print a life-size drawing and pin it to the wall, but until you’ve been in the room with it, the jury is out.
“My becoming a designer was maybe a mix of a creative inclination that I just had, coupled with thinking that what my dad did was awesome.”
RE: MODERN MOBILITY
For the last three years, I’ve been more or less living out of a suitcase. My mom lives in Vermont now, so I spend some time up there in the summer. I’m able to do most of the work I need to do in a responsible way wherever I am, whether it’s on a computer, sketchbook, iPad, borrowing friends’ studio spaces and things like that.
RE: ARTFUL ROOTS
When my parents met in the ‘70s, my dad was an architect and my mom was a hippie lady. She was into painting and printmaking. She didn’t study art in undergrad, but she got into Pratt to do printmaking and was auditing classes at Yale one summer when she met my dad. He was getting a master’s there, in architecture. They met, got married and moved to Japan. Ultimately, my mom became a lawyer. My parents divorced and she had two young boys and just said, “Well, I need to make money.” There’s creativity inside her, even though she never dug too deep or realized it to its full potential.
My becoming a designer was maybe a mix of a creative inclination that I had, coupled with thinking that what my dad did was awesome. My dad is someone who was more on the periphery of my life — I didn’t grow up with him — he was in Japan. He’d come over and visit sometimes, and we would go over there growing up. He’d send portfolios around and I’d look at them and draw floor plans of houses and play with Legos and things like that. From early on, I had an interest in making things and putting them together.
RE: A FIRST CAR
I once made a soapbox derby car. It wasn’t for anything organized. We’d just go to the top of this mountain road in the Hartford suburbs where I lived and everyone made a car. My mom was working all the time and I was sort of left to my own devices, but I was the only one who figured out how to make rack-and-pinion steering. I used 2-by-4s and cords, so my car had a full-on steering wheel while everyone else had a basic central pivot. That was a moment of being very proud of myself. It was also pre-internet. I figured it out myself in the garage.
RE: THE COMPLEXITY OF A CAR
Before I was a designer, I played in bands and was touring and would come home and work building sets. I once had to make the watchmaker’s cart for A Christmas Carol. We based it on some pretty simple go-kart principles: electric motor, rack-and-pinion steering, it was simple. I imagine that I’m a little above-average in making things, but it was just a total failure. During a rehearsal, there was a raked stage that had a slight angle for forced perspective, and the brakes failed and the actor who was driving it rolled off the front of the stage into the orchestra pit and got really hurt! The show had to open with his understudy. I had tried really hard to make that cart! To think about a modern car and all that it does is just crazy.
RE: A TO B
I’m not particularly into cars. I have a 2013 Honda Fit. I am very particular about having a manual transmission, though. I’m interested in cars as objects, in the same ways as fancy watches or guns, for that matter. Cars are like chairs in that they might look nice from across the room, but then when you’re in it, you don’t get to see it or enjoy the way it looks. You might have a really cool looking car but you can’t experience the way it looks while you’re driving it. For me, it’s more a point A to B thing. If it works and I don’t have to put much money into it, I’m happy.
RE: MANUAL TRANSMISSION
On the most basic level, maybe it’s a control thing. I just like it in principle. It's a connection to this crazy mechanical thing that’s beneath you, conveying you somewhere. It’s a way to understand how it’s working.
“Bicycling is a lot about being self-sufficient: I have everything I need on this bike, if something breaks I can fix it. I have tools to cook my food and a bed on my back.”
RE: BIKES ARE BETTER
I have a few bikes. More than I can ride, actually. You can only ride one at a time! If all else fails, there’s always Jonah’s Bike Shop.
RE: LONG DISTANCE
Most of the riding I do is by myself, and most of it would be under the dirt / touring / gravel road situations. Long distance means different things to different people. Over the last summer, I was biking a lot because there was nothing to do in the midst of the pandemic. I would do 3 or 4 days, just self-contained with a sleeping bag and a tent and a stove, riding around Vermont. It’s really hilly there, and so 40 miles on a dirt road when you’re carrying a lot of stuff can be a lot. I do trips that are maybe 100-150 miles. This summer, I’m going to do a ride called the VTXL, where I’ll get a ride up to the northeast corner, where New Hampshire and Canada meet. You ride from that corner to more or less Bennington College, in the lower southwest corner of the state. I don’t remember the exact distance, something like 400 or 500 miles, and it takes about six days.
I find it very relaxing to do that kind of thing, because it’s very uncluttered. You just point your bike in one direction, and as you get from point A to point B, there is just nothing up for debate. If you made it to point B, you did it right. Bicycling is a lot about being self-sufficient: I have everything I need on this bike, if something breaks I can fix it. I have tools to cook my food and a bed on my back.
RE: A SOLD-OUT INFLECTION POINT
I’d always played music in bands and it was a big part of my life. Until about 2010 that’s what I did, and was building sets and doing carpentry when I was home. I wasn’t doing any design work at all. I turned 30 in 2009, and just asked myself what I was doing. I played a show at Webster Hall in New York. We were opening for Spoon. There were a ton of people, it was a sold-out show. My mom came down from Connecticut and she was so proud, so psyched. She was like, “This is amazing! You’re doing so well!” I was feeling pretty discouraged, though, and I told her we only got paid $250. She said, “Well, that’s cool! It’s less than I would’ve thought, but it’s still something!” And I told her, no, the band got paid $250 and there were 5 of us. There was a Costco deli platter and as much as you could drink, but in that moment, maybe the look in my mom’s eyes plus just turning 30, I told myself that it was probably time to be a designer. That’s a little romanticized, but that’s more or less exactly what happened.
RE: A WORKING FRENDSHIP
Personality-wise, Hallgeir is very laid-back, and I’m sort of similar, in some capacity. There was a moment in about 2016, or maybe earlier, where Norwegian design brands seemed super insular, and a bunch of American brands seemed similarly insular — the Scandinavian ones typically worked with Scandinavian designers, and companies like Roll & Hill in New York were all about championing American design. I wanted to work with Scandinavian companies and he wanted to work with American ones, so we started to make that practical calculation: if we work together, maybe we can pitch to both. Our first commercial collaboration was for Design Within Reach. They sent me a brief for a lighting design and they sent him a brief for a chair, and so we just figured we’d collaborate on both of those things. We ended up designing a lighting family and a chair family for them.
For the project that became Alfa, it initially started with a conversation that I was having with Dims. I had never designed a sofa before, but Hal had. We had just come off this DWR collaboration and I thought this would be a great opportunity for us to work with an American company, a company that was new. From my point of view, it was also an opportunity to learn something from Hal because he had more experience with it.
RE: WFH, WITH A FRIEND
It really helps not to work in a total vacuum. But I will say, I feel uniquely equipped to deal with the pandemic stuff. I can work well on my own and alone, but if you get stuck or frustrated it’s nice to have someone to work with on projects. Especially ones that are bigger, more ambitious, or outside your comfort zone. Even with our own respective work, Hallgeir and I bounce ideas off each other.
“I can work well on my own and alone, but if you get stuck or frustrated it’s nice to have someone to work with on projects.”
Jonah on Skype with his studio partner Hallgeir, who’s located on the other side of the world.
RE: A DESIGN HERO WITH A LANDLINE
My dad is a very, very talented architect. He’s also very eccentric. Aren’t most architects eccentric? If I was living with him, maybe I wouldn’t have felt that way. I would’ve been exposed to capital-D Design and maybe I would’ve found some other architect that I liked, but he was just far enough removed and just mysterious enough and talented enough that I was always in awe of him… He lives in Tokyo. He’s totally in character and has not embraced technology at all. He doesn’t check email, doesn’t own a computer. He just has a landline and you have to call it until somebody picks up. I wouldn’t say he’s a Luddite, but he never got onboard with modern life.
Another might be Stefan Diez, a German designer. He’s doing some of the best work today. It’s all relatively industrial, but he’s extremely thoughtful. He has a way of working that seems very intentional.
I think just by doing, I’m able to post-rationalize some sort of style. Looking back at the work that I’ve done, there’s a thread linking everything, but it’s not obvious when I start off. I don’t know if that’s a result of my method or lack thereof. One of the things I’ve been self-conscious of is that, despite the fact that I studied furniture design at RISD, as far as professional practice goes, I just figured it out on my own. I didn’t have an internship or a mentorship. It’s made me self-conscious about my approach, and I think a lot about how that relates to style. Still, I really do feel like every brief, every project is a different animal and should yield different results.
I don’t know who the admissions people are, but they get a certain kind of people in there and whether they end up being a baker or a filmmaker, they have something in common, even across generations. There’s just a common way of communicating that is really easy.
RE: ENDURING OBJECTS, OR, ONE VERY WONDERFUL AMP
Generally, I like to buy something once and hopefully never buy it again. I spend a lot of time thinking about any purchase. It might be a function of the way I’ve lived for the past few years, and it bleeds into my design practice — I don’t own a lot of stuff, including furniture or “design objects,” which is maybe a bit of a disconnect. I don’t know that I’d ever spend $700 on a single dining chair. I’d rather go on a trip or buy another bike or something, you know? Maybe it’s just also because I haven’t really settled down and at some point I’ll have to find something to sit on! I do have an amplifier that I really like, it’s an Ampeg B15N flip top Portaflex. It was designed by this guy Jess Oliver in, I think, 1964. He worked for Ampeg in New Jersey and made this bass amplifier. It’s just a really nice design. Everybody’s used it, like James Jamerson, the Motown bass player, and it’s a really good-sounding amp, too. When I got it, there was some issue with the speaker, and Jess Oliver was still alive at that point, in about 2007, and so I sent the speaker up to him and he fixed it and sent it back with a nice note. I put it into the amplifier that he designed 50 or 60 years prior… I just love enduring things like that, things that last forever, things that can be fixed. I stopped drying my clothes in the dryer and now my clothes last forever.
RE: MY OWN ESTATE SALE
I just want to have a dope estate sale. I want to price everything while I’m alive. I don’t want somebody to come in and be just like, “OK, this random thing is $5.” I’ll say in advance, “No, actually, that’s an important object worth $555.”
RE: THE COLOR, OR PERHAPS MORE PRESSINGLY, THE CLASS, OF DESIGN
I don’t know how I feel about these words, but you hear a lot about “decolonizing” this sphere and that sphere. But, truly, it needs to be done in some way and it’ll require work on many fronts. I think, truly, the way this works is mostly due to generational wealth. Think about it this way: say you’re the first person in your family to go to college — going to art school and paying $70,000 a year is a big leap. If I were that person’s parent, I don’t know how I’d feel about it. Is it really wise to go into debt for this stuff? This whole system of unpaid internships means you need to have money and a support network in order to even enter the pipeline in a given profession — it’s a matter of accessibility, and it’s completely limited to the people with a certain type of stability and wealth and comfort. They can try this career with the full knowledge that even if they fail, they won’t end up on the street. There are just a lot of structural reasons this world looks the way that it does. Rich kids are rich kids the world over. There are exceptions, of course, but art school students typically tend to be fairly affluent no matter where they’re from, whether it’s the East Coast of the U.S. or China or anywhere. It’s just a certain view on the world.
On the road, on a trail
RIDING RIGHT NOW
A Waterford Precision Cycles Gunnar and a Crust Bombora
His future estate sale