What’s Your Function?
14 October 2008 |
One gray morning two weeks ago, Josh Owen was sitting in an intimate corner of the vast contemporary space now occupied by Philadelphia University’s industrial design program. It’s a 1950s building on the university’s East Falls campus originally designed to accustom students to working in a factory. Owen, who holds the university’s first endowed professorship, was surrounded by a small handful of students; his colleague, streetscape designer Tod Corlett; and Hilary Jay, who runs the university’s Design Center and by consequence DesignPhiladelphia, the weeklong celebration that begins today.
The point of the meeting that morning was to engage students in a broad-mannered brainstorming session to help DesignPhiladelphia — already the largest event of its kind in the U.S. — grow into something of international stature. Owen’s experience in Milan, where he coordinates the university’s program at the Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti, was the basis of the discussion. Corlett reminded the morning’s participants that Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile, a circus of furniture, architecture and fashion, had begun as a rather provincial trade show and then “exploded.” Now, almost 350,000 people attend. Owen called it “transformation on a civic scale.” Everyone imagined something similar happening here.
Another thing piqued Owen’s rationale that morning. He is known in design circles as exhaustively honest in his approach to problem-solving; his thinking attempts, as he said, “multiple harmonies,” and his products, including a new multifunctional stool, “SOS,” reflect his ability to integrate economics, material engineering and design. A week earlier, in Philadelphia Magazine, he was quoted as saying of DesignPhiladelphia, “As an intellectual event, it’s great. The open question now is how to turn this into something that’s also driven by commerce. That’s the only way to get people outside of Philadelphia interested in seeing what’s here. Design is not art. People want to sell.” Regretting the brusque, under-nuanced nature of the last two sentences of the quote, he also felt it didn’t adequately capture the problem at hand. Philadelphia is not a center for the design industry, as is Milan with its scores of furniture and home-product firms; DesignPhiladelphia, therefore, won’t ever be, in a conventional sense, a sales show.
But Owen thinks it can trade on Philadelphia’s strength in design education. “Philadelphia itself is a brand already associated with education. Design education could very well be the point” of the event, he explained. DesignPhiladelphia, then, becomes a place that draws recruiters from around the country who wish to encounter the best student designers — and their presentations of avant-garde work in everything from landscape architecture to fashion. Jay, for her part, seemed open to a bold move to put the event, which now runs by force of her own determination, on firmer footing.
The idea to marry educational and economic rationales has already paid off for Owen’s Philadelphia University students. Build02, a project on display this week at 222 Gallery, is sponsored by Wilsonart International. The students in Owen and colleague Jason Lempieri’s studio designed chairs based on the laminate-maker’s “chip,” or product sample. The results, a dozen or so incisive pieces of functional art, half of which were accepted into New York’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair, will be exhibited there in May 2009. “I promise them,” he declared to me later, referring to his students, “if they work up to my standards, they will win, they will get in, they will do it.”
It’s a high standard Owen, 38, grasped early. His father, Cornell University archaeologist David Owen, is an expert in the languages of the ancient Middle East. Josh spent a dozen summers, starting at age 6, digging with his father’s students in the Israeli desert, ultimately learning how people ascribe meaning to everyday objects. That genuine — and carefully studied — interest in practical objects moved him rather quickly beyond an early career studying to be a sculptor and into product design. Now he’s routinely included among the names of the world’s best young designers.
A few days before the DesignPhiladelphia meeting, Owen and I walked down to the Delaware River, then through Old City and Society Hill. Owen, wearing his habitual white T-shirt, jeans and black Chuck Taylors, is warm, self-assured and modest. His voice is gravelly, his eyes gleam. During our walk, he explained to me his design philosophy, to “harmonize material, cultural context and manufacturing process, to find clarity in an object.”
“I make an effort to pare away all that’s unnecessary,” he explained. What’s left should, as a practical matter, feel like “pure poetry.” His strong-selling flyswatter, made by Kikkerland, for example, was a reaction of sorts to one by French designer Philippe Starck. Starck’s flyswatter is meant to stand up, and “always be there when needed.” Though he understood the designer’s poetic intent, Owen found it “imperfectly balanced” — it would often fall over. His, in contrast, doesn’t need to stand up; it has a large doorknob hook and a magnet — and on the top, in the webbing, is a flat graphic image of a fly.
Owen clearly enjoys grappling with meanings embedded in archetypal objects. The SOS stool, which he designed last year for his Casamania furniture collection, is the result of an exploration of the stool’s role in the world. “It’s an interesting typology, an object that has a temporary use, is transient and often overlooked,” he said, wishing to enable all the stool’s possibilities. Though the SOS is “first and foremost a good stool,” it also performs — as a table, plant stand and, with curls on either side, a cupholder. Owen explained that this sort of “fuzzy design” can be dangerous. But the SOS feels economical, and flawlessly reveals its usefulness. The curls form an “S,” and, with the circle shape of the seat, together make the “SOS,” a reference, of course, to the stool’s heroic practical nature. All this serious play has landed his work in the permanent collection of the Pompidou Center for Contemporary Art in Paris: The SOS was accepted there this July. Kathryn Hiesinger, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s curator for European decorative arts, said the Pompidou acquisition is an indication that Owen “is receiving the international recognition that he deserves, with what in my opinion is the best work he has produced.”
Despite, or perhaps due to, the success, Owen told me that, approaching mid-career, he’s feeling sober. In part, he means he’s becoming a wiser, less self-conscious designer, and probably more receptive to the nuances of a market already filled with smart objects. But this doesn’t mean he’s getting conservative. He’s gained clarity, he says, which he calls “flexibility,” a willingness — stronger still, a need — to engage in a process that allows practical concerns like economics and manufacturing technology to inform design.
By saying he’s feeling sober, Owen also means he’s grown tired of distractions. “Too much is too much,” he said as we walked. It’s why Philadelphia, for its scale and feeling of compactness, serves him so well. Though he wishes the city were cleaner (a design problem to Owen, who notes the sheer number and accessibility of trash cans in the tidier Milan), greener and friendlier to the bicycle rider, he feels a tactile connection to the streetscape. On most days he bikes his son, Jasper, to school. “We observe the city together. We talk about what we see. It’s a great joy to feel part of the movement.”