MEET JONAH TAKAGI
Jonah Takagi knew from a young age that he wanted to attend the Rhode Island School of Design—but his path to becoming a full-time furniture designer wasn’t so straightforward.
Toured and recorded with indie rock bands.
Founded Atelier Takagi in 2009.
Co-founder and creative director of Field.
“Japan has had an influence, in the sense that part of who I really am is essentially there.”
Jonah certainly didn’t choose an average route; in fact, nothing about the musician-turned-designer is run of the mill. Born in Tokyo and raised in New England, Jonah grew up spending summers in Japan where he learned about his father’s career as a Tokyo architect. In high school, when he wasn’t playing in various bands with friends, he was taking AP art courses and working on a design portfolio. He knew attending RISD was a lofty ambition. Once he was accepted, the decision to attend was an easy one.
Several years and a stint in music later, he opened his own studio, Atelier Takagi. He also subsequently co-founded Field, a brand centered around the concept of creating timeless, conscientiously made objects. (The shop sells Jonah’s own line of goods, as well as pieces from fellow designers like Hallgeir Homstvedt, Jonathan Nesci, Oscar Diaz and Daniel Emma.) These days, he’s based out of Washington DC, where he’s lived for the past dozen years. At home on a sunny morning, he discusses music, existential crises and his winding path into the world of design.
You’ve lived in many different places. Tell us a little about your personal history.
I was born in Tokyo. My dad’s Japanese and my mom’s American. I lived there 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 Cincinnati called West Hartford. I actually went to the same high school as my mom and my grandparents.
You were involved in music as a child, and played in bands as a teenager and a young adult. 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.
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 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.
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.
What attracted you to working with OTHR?
I liked the big picture—what they’re doing, what their goals are. I often like to make paper models, because 3D printing is sometimes difficult. But we discussed how it could work, which got me really excited. I started drawing a bunch of stuff and designed a pen holder I really liked. It had a large hole for lots of pens, but then there was one spot for a special pen. Most people have a million pens but only one they like to use all the time. So I designed with the idea of favoritism in mind. I thought about hierarchy and preference. I sent in some ideas for containers, and they ran with it.
JONAH ON THE CREATIVE PROCESS
I designed with the idea of favoritism in mind. I thought about hierarchy and preference. I sent in some ideas for containers, and they ran with it.
What’s the craziest place you’ve come up with an idea? Do you wake up in the night, or come up with things in random places?
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.