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The Process Of Design: An Interview With Joey Roth

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Joey Roth is carrying on a tradition. The product designer is known for rethinking common objects, things like compasses, teapots, and speakers. He gives them a cool, Modern twist which–when you think about it–is continuing down a very Los Angeles pathway paved by that of the Eames, Gehry, Irwin, Maloof, and more. It’s a part of the city’s history that is frequently forgotten but is always present: LA is a city of innovative and forward thinking creators.

“LA manages to be a center for modern architecture, design, photography, all of these things I love,” Joey says, “without the overriding narrative of moving here to participate in a specific culture or aesthetic–unless you’re in film. For designers and artists, it’s open to interpretation.”

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He sits on a couch in his living room, a space that includes one entire wall made of glass. It looks over the hills of Highland Park and Pasadena and includes a very linear sloped garden peppered with his brilliant, succulent friendly clay pots. He and his wife have lived in this house for one year and have lived in Los Angeles for two. The city is a surprise for them: they never thought they’d live here, they didn’t really know about the city, but they knew they wanted a change.

“Growing up, I didn’t know what Pasadena was aside from the Rose Bowl! I never had a dream of moving here or anywhere really. Most of my dreams are about work and projects. After living in Southern California for about two years though, there’s nowhere else I’d like to be.”

Roth is very much an East coaster. He’s from suburban New Jersey, a place called Montclair that is a little less than twenty miles from New York City proper. “I used to beg my parents to move us to New York, which I thought was way cooler than Montclair. In retrospect, I loved the open space and large garage/ workshop that the suburbs afforded. I’d spend days building things in the backyard, first with Legos and later with wood and metal. I’d also take apart and rebuild computers and speakers, eventually creating my own designs from scratch. At the same time, I’d pour over my mom’s furniture and house ware catalogs, thinking of what I could do differently.”

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He attended Swarthmore College near Philadelphia with the intention of becoming a writer, but his connection to design pushed him in another direction. “For my first two years at Swarthmore I focused on creative writing, and then switched to design. Through my classes and workshops, I found the limit of my writing talent, and it wasn’t even close to other authors I was reading. I haven’t yet found the limit with design, and I hope to never reach it.”

He refocused his educational track in his Junior year, changing his major to Engineering and Psychology because that was the closest thing to design that he could do without transferring. “My coursework had a more theoretical focus than they typical undergraduate ID program, which gave me a solid basis for understanding the context around designing and producing products.”

“After graduating, I got a job as a copywriter, then quit after six months so I could devote all of my time to design. I was singularly focused on bringing the Sorapot, my modern teapot, to market. After a year of revising prototypes, emailing manufacturers and visiting them in Asia, the Sorapot, and my company, had a successful launch.”

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Around the time he was getting his business going, he met his now-wife. He was living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and they came to a bit of a turning point: she was going to be attending California College of the Arts in San Francisco–does he move with her or stay in New York? He decided to make the move and it ended up being very good for him and his work.

“We lived in San Francisco for two years while Jana was in grad school. At that time, startups were almost entirely focused on games and software–this was pre-Kickstarter, and it was rare to find entrepreneurs doing hardware. When I would discuss designing and prototyping and engineering, people would assume I was using common metaphors for app development. That said, I met some very smart people while living there, and the city’s culture profoundly influenced my approach to design and business. Technology is a material that I learned to design with, and it continues to play a growing role in my work.”

After two years, they decided they wanted a change and moved even further north to Portland. “If it weren’t for the gray winters, we would still be there. We loved Portland’s landscape, the closeness of urban areas to the Cascadian wilderness. We spent so much time exploring outside. Nature became and remains a primary influence on my work. We were unprepared for the months without sun though.”

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“Seeking sun and diversity, we started to consider LA. My wife is from New York City, and growing up on the East Coast, there’s an inbuilt bias against Southern California. It’s full of cars and celebrities and people who don’t read, everything that NY is not. We discovered that the stereotype is a tiny slice of a physically and culturally immense region.”

“LA, particularly in the Northeast where we live, shares Portland’s proximity to nature. It’s not known as an outdoor city, but I run on a new trail almost every day, in generally perfect weather. I also love the culture of intense ambition that’s mediated by the amazing weather and outdoor access.”

Joey and Los Angeles also have a great design connection that is kind of unexplainable.  He is one of what feels like only a handful of successful designers making new, innovative products from Los Angeles. “In terms of LA influencing me aesthetically, I’m drawn to Neutra architecture and the mid-century movement that grew here. The entire California modern design show at LACMA last year could have been a mood board for me. Southern California is a study in contradictions. The desert combined with what grows here, the mixture of the lush and the desolate, the juxtaposition of the culture of health and fitness with the self-destructive party atmosphere the city is known for: all of the contrasts are inspiring.”

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The contrast between creative isolation and immersion is integral to Joey’s work as a designer. His job is to find objects that, while great, could always be better. He rethinks them and places them back into the world, a process that goes from creative, isolated meditation to offering something for the world to consume. The decision for him to make a product is a big one too because he commits years at a time to seeing it through.

“A big part of what I do is deciding which project I’m going to pursue for manufacturing. I can only do one or two major products a year on my own. I have to be interested and passionate about the project because I only design for the first two months of the year and then my work switches to managing production, planning the launch, and driving sales.”

“My decision to bring a design to production is a combination of my interests and abilities. I try to identify a category in which the other players are all making and competing on the same assumptions- assumptions that might not make for the best product. The Ceramic Speakers are a good example. When I released them, everyone was trying to come out with a monolithic wireless speaker system since the Jambox was doing so well. These systems competed on connectivity, portability and price, and many were good products. However, they resulted from design choices very different from mine. They trade sound quality, build quality and beauty for convenience, features, and popular appeal. They’re designed to be disposable, whereas I intended the Ceramic Speakers to be the last system my customers need to buy. I take a similar approach with all my designs.”

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This is always how Joey figures out what he’s going to pursue next. His current and next product is a perfect example of this. “Digital cameras are similar to speakers in that manufacturers are competing on the same set of assumptions and features. I’m working on a camera that’s stripped of everything not directly related to capturing an image or video. Eliminating all extraneous features allows me to focus on build and image quality.”

Joey has gained terrific momentum with his products and wants to continue growing what he’s built. He’s going to be expanding the scope of what he’s doing, too. “I definitely want to keep building my line,” he says. “For the foreseeable future, that’s my primary focus. This year I’m collaborating with some larger companies, and I’m excited to see the results. My first collaboration was a compass with with Shwood in Portland, and it sold out quickly.”

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In addition to pursing fine art sculpture (“I want to take that more seriously: it’s difficult to find the time!”), he sees no sign of slowing down his work or going anywhere else. He’s pretty set with everything he needs to work and Los Angeles provides an excellent source of inspiration for him, too.

“We’re so happy here,” he says. “We have no plans for moving. We’re never going to write off that possibility but for now were very happy in Los Angeles and Pasadena.”

For more on Joey, be sure to follow him on Twitter, Like him on Facebook, and check out his Tumblr. You can also grab his products by way of his website.

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