Jonah Takagi tinkers away in the converted attic of a Depression-era row house in Washington’s Glover Park. He sketches ideas, builds models and refines 3D drawings of objects ranging from furniture and lighting to desk accessories—and even a sculptural shaving brush that wobbles.
Though the Japanese-born Takagi travels under the radar in DC design circles, he has created pieces for Design Within Reach, Kvadrat, Umbra Shift and Matter, among others. Just back from showing his new work at the 2017 Salone del Mobile in Milan, he caught up with Home & Design in early May.
Pausing first in the dining room of the house he shares with girlfriend Mary Timony, who fronts the indie band Ex Hex, he pointed out unfinished wooden boxes scattered across the table. “I moved my studio to the attic, but it’s a pain to get stuff up there. Much to Mary’s chagrin, there are constantly things on the table.” Nearby, a rare, self-produced table awaits a final coat of lacquer, while an upturned bicycle under construction also vies for attention.
But with only a couple of weeks to go before his boxes, pendant lights, shaving brush and other “half-done” creations would be on view at NYCxDesign, New York’s annual design-a-palooza, Takagi had more pressing projects on his plate.
Up a “treacherous” stairway, one end of his attic studio houses a photography station where he shoots his work; a desk at the other end is topped with computer monitors. Paper and clay models and finished designs, from candleholders to measuring instruments, cover shelves along the walls.
Sketches on a center table trace the trajectory of Takagi’s shaving brush—one of 13 designs commissioned by the online shaving brand Harry’s as a modern spin on nostalgia. “I was doing all this math to make it work,” said Takagi of the weighted steel sphere that counterbalances his brush. “It seems simple, but there was no room for error.” After completing a mass study and models made of plastic Easter eggs and clay-like plasticine, Takagi sent his drawings off to a 3D printer in Europe and hoped for the best. “Luckily,” he sighed, “it worked.”
Whether he’s conceiving a lamp or sculptural pieces for the summer residency he’s accepted at a glass-blowing studio in France, the lanky, laid-back Rhode Island School of Design grad embraces challenges with a disciplined eye and a fresh, modern aesthetic. In addition to solo work for his own Atelier Takagi, he contributes to Field, a brand he co-founded in 2012 that creates made-in-America tabletop and desk accessories. And he frequently collaborates with Hallgeir Homstvedt, an Oslo-based friend and colleague, on pieces ranging from pendant lights for Roll & Hill to a forthcoming, four-piece upholstered-chair collection for a major client that remains under wraps.
“Chairs are the ‘holy grail’ of furniture,” Takagi asserted with some trepidation, noting that often in collections, one piece is a standout while the others merely “force a typology on an existing design. They all need to be great,” he insisted.
The process takes years. After extensive research and planning, Takagi and Homstvedt have finally entered the design phase where they are refining the lines, joinery and stance of each piece via screen-sharing apps and daily phone calls.
“Right now, there’s a lot of sketching and computer models. These were all over the floor yesterday,” said Takagi, rifling through a heap of sketches on tracing paper. “My work starts in my sketchbook then slowly moves onto the computer.”
A plasticine model on his side table approximates one of the chairs—sleek, with a Scandinavian-style profile—but he and Homstvedt won’t see an actual prototype until later this year. The chairs should hit the market by 2019.
When work gets overwhelming, Takagi heads to the basement, which doubles as a recording studio, to play the drums. A long-time musician who started with the cello in high school, he has played bass guitar and drums for various rock bands over the years. “Music is a good foil because design work can be tedious when you’re butting your head for a while,” he said.
Born in Tokyo, Takagi moved to Connecticut with his mother at the age of 18 months, after his parents split. As a boy, he loved to build things with Legos and Lincoln Logs—and received encouragement from art teachers. His father, an architect in Japan, was also an inspiration. “I like the technical side of architecture and the way spaces can make you feel,” Takagi said. “But I also like making stuff myself.”
He earned a degree in fine arts at RISD and in 2003 moved to DC with a former girlfriend. He started out building sets for the Folger Theatre and the Kennedy Center, playing in bands and designing furniture on the side. Then he exhibited his American Gothic table at the 2009 ICFF in New York and his design career took off. Soon, he was showing at the big furniture fairs in Cologne and Milan. “There was a lot of press surrounding my work, and two products I showed in Milan were picked up by an American manufacturer,” recalled the designer, who’s focused on product design full-time ever since.
Frequent visits to Japan have no doubt influenced Takagi’s spare style, which emphasizes simple, geometric forms. “There’s so much appreciation for craft, form, proportion and detailing there,” he marveled. “Everything’s very considered. I think that’s really stuck with me and is a big source of inspiration.”
Though he’s lived in DC for 13 years, most of Takagi’s clients are elsewhere. “I never applied myself here, but I’d like to,” he said. One exception: The Line hotel, opening soon in Adams Morgan, has tapped Takagi to design guest-room accessories, a large coffee table and a glass-enclosed deejay booth for the lobby.
“I’ll really design anything,” said Takagi. “If someone asked me to design a car or a missile, I’d do it.”
For more information, visit ateliertakagi.com.