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Jonah Takagi of Field

The D.C. musician turned designer curates and collaborates at Field, an online shop of homewares that are built to age well.

Interview By John Dugan, March 5, 2013

Jonah Takagi's studio. This photo and cover photo: Yoo Jean Han

If one keeps an ear to the ground, the connections between independent design and making music are everywhere. The music obsessive and the visual creative are often one in the same person. Take Jonah Takagi for example. The D.C. designer works fulltime in design these days but paid his dues on the road with Washington D.C. indie bands. 

His Atelier Takagi stocks his coffee tables and pendant lights and the online shop he founded Field carries manly, minimal home accessories from Takagi and design buddies such as Hallgeir Homstvedt, Jonathan Nesci, Daniel Emma, and Oscar Diaz. The shop/brand sells small-batch, limited edition pieces at prices that won’t shock.

Inspired by Field’s offerings and curious about Takagi’s route to a multifaceted design career, we got in touch for an interview.

Jonah Takagi in his studio. Photo: Yoo Jean Han

Tell us about your background in design and music?
My first love is music, and while Field and my own studio keep me extremely busy, it is still a very big part of my life. When I was a kid, I played Suzuki violin and migrated to cello through the tenth grade and then started playing in bands. In parallel, I had dreams of becoming an architect and it had everything to do with my dad. I was born in Tokyo and after my parents split up he stayed in Japan. When I was a kid, I imagined him making intricate models, smoking cigarettes and listening to sappy Japanese ballads.

I ended up going to Rhode Island School of Design for college and when it was time to choose a major, I was torn between architecture and sculpture. Fortunately there was a middle road in the furniture design department. I was able to learn some of the technical engineering side of architecture with the more hands on approach of sculpture.

Were you designing while you were making music in bands?
When I moved to D.C. in 2003, I found work building theater sets and props. In the warehouse where the shop was located, a guy moved downstairs and needed some help putting a studio and practice space together. It happened to be Brendan Canty from Fugazi. While helping him with the construction, I fell in with some of his friends and not long after I was playing music again and design was on the back burner.

In 2005, I started playing with Benjy Ferree right before he signed to Domino. After that, I was on the road a lot. Driving to the venue, waiting for sound check, waiting at a gas station while your buddy has a smoke, waiting to play…you spend a lot of your time waiting for things to happen. I used this down time to teach myself CAD and some 3D modeling. I launched my studio in 2009 and first exhibited work that spring during ICFF in New York City. Since then, my studio has kept me extremely busy and with the founding of Field last fall, things are moving really fast.

 Photo: Yoo Jean Han

What was the inspiration for Field?
When I started Atelier Takagi, I was focused on self-producing my own designs. At the same time, I was meeting a lot of other designers through my travels and different design fairs, and I started getting excited and inspired by what many of my peers were doing. I saw Field as an opportunity to collaborate with other interesting young designers, while also producing a broader spectrum of work than I could on my own.

Hex by Jonah Takagi

How has being based in Washington, D.C. influenced the brand/shop? I noticed you're based on Beecher St, the original address for Dischord Records.
My experience in D.C. has most definitely informed my approach to design and Field. The design community here is virtually non-existent. There are lots of interior designers and architects, but when it comes to product/industrial design, there are not many opportunities. You either do it yourself or you move to New York or San Francisco. People seem to be born here or they end up here—it's an outpost. I haven’t met many people that came here to thrive as an artist or designer.

Because of this, when I started my own studio, I was either building the work myself or collaborating with highly specialized local workshops to achieve my designs. It has been a natural extension to continue this type of collaboration with Field, and we’ve found that the geographic proximity to a lot of small manufacturers in Maryland and Pennsylvania has been an advantage for us.

In regards to Dischord and the D.C. music scene… While in many ways, its heyday in the '80s and '90s (Rites of Spring, Minor Threat, Nation of Ulysses, Slant 6…) has passed, the energy of empowerment and self reliance is still very much a part of the D.C. creative community. The DIY mentality—putting on your own shows, pressing your own records, booking tours—is inspiring and especially when getting a new project off the ground, knowing that no one is going to care about your work as much you do, it helps to know that you can do it.

Bookends by Daniel Emma are machined from solid soapstone.

How have you curated the Collection? Do designers approach you or the reverse?
Our curatorial mission begins and ends with our desire to create timeless objects. These are objects that age well and whose purpose will never be diminished. Memory and emotion are also components of timeless objects, and often the memories associated with an object are just as essential as its effectiveness.

The process starts with a brief that outlines our goals for a specific product. These goals can be functional, emotional or aesthetic; ideally, an object will embody all three. We share this brief with a small group of designers and, as we move forward with a product, the design and engineering process is tailored to suit each designer’s style and personal approach.

Field Approved Japanese tool box

What is Field Approved about? What are your best sellers?
It started with a tool box that I found in Tokyo. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find a sturdy metal tool box. You either go vintage, or you’re stuck with huge mechanic's tool chests. I thought that this would be a great product to share with our customers, even though we did not design or produce it. This started the Field Approved category of products, and it has proven to be the most popular item in that collection.

The tool box is amazing. How did you happen upon it?
I was in Tokyo last spring and stumbled upon the toolbox in a hardware store. I bought one for myself and when I got home we tracked down the manufacturer and have been importing them since the fall. It’s the perfect size for apartment living, art supplies, electronics, etc.

The Loop Bottle Opener by Oscar Diaz is made in Milawukee, WI

Are there any particular designers or design movements you look to for inspiration? That can speak to our time?
To name a few, lately I have been reading up on the Pre-Raphaelites, studying early American industrial design and lusting after Braun appliances on eBay. In one way or another, these capture a lot of what we are looking to create.

PenPot by Daniel Emma is made from reclaimed yellow pine from antique vinegar barrels and hand-turned in Baltimore, MD.

What do you look for in design? Is it great balance of form and function?
Balance is essential, but I would include emotion and memory in the equation. I am a collector, although my girlfriend might call me a hoarder, and most of the objects that populate my life are “useless,” as in they don’t require a practical function to have value. After you create something, you have little to no control over the emotional content that people will attribute to the object, so your best bet is to make it sturdy, make it last, and, if you say it is going to do something, make sure it does it well.

Anything coming up on Field you can tell us about?
We are presenting an exhibition in New York during design week in May and developing our second collection, which will be announced this fall.

Shop field-online.com for designs by Takagi and friends.