I love contemporary design: furniture, home and business accessories, architecture, motorcycles—you name it. Anyone visiting our office has seen my collection of (some would say obsession with) modern clocks. So it is a treat for me to be able to interview the very talented designer Joey Roth. I am not the only one who has noticed Roth. He has gotten press in magazines like Forbes and Wired and design blogs such as MocoLoco, Josh Spear, Apartment Therapy and DesignSpotter.
Let’s find out a bit about what it takes to conceptualize, design and manufacture everyday consumer products that are functional, environmentally friendly and also beautiful to behold.
Hile Design: Hi, Joey. You have an interesting background in that you started out in college pursuing creative writing. Writing is a medium that depends on people forming their own mental images based on the imaginary world the author creates. Industrial design, on the other hand, reveals a physical object interpreted and designed solely by the designer and presented to the consumer. Do you see a parallel between these two different creative processes?
Joey Roth: Hi, Dave. The two processes actually aren’t that different to me. I think that the meaning of a teapot, a short story, or any creative piece comes from a conversation between the creator’s intention and the reader’s interpretation. Once people start using something I designed, I lose the final say on what it means—and that’s part of why I love design. An object, like a piece of writing, means something different to each person who uses it because of the person’s unique memories, associations and expectations. These mediate any encounter with something new.
HD: Sorapot, your take on the modern teapot, made it into the marketplace in a big way. I’ve seen it all over the Internet and in catalogs such as Veer. Can you share with us the background story of how you conceived the pot and how you went about designing it?
JR: Before I loved design, I loved tea, and making a teapot for my first independent product was an easy choice. I wanted to emphasize the beauty of leaves unfurling as they steep, and use materials in their most raw form. The glass tube that bisects the steel arch flowed naturally from these parameters. Figuring out how to make such a simple shape function as a teapot took a lot longer.
HD: Tell us what kinds of considerations and challenges went into finding a manufacturer for the Sorapot, and how you went about marketing the product?
JR: I designed Sorapot as a portfolio piece during my junior year. I didn’t intend to manufacture it until a writer for Cool Hunting somehow discovered it and posted on it. The same day, I received a ton of emails from individuals and stores asking about price, availability and minimum order quantities. They thought it was a real product, so I decided to make it one.
I eventually finalized the design and found the right manufacturer through a great referral. I began to take pre-orders through my site, and was able to fund the first production run largely from these sales. Not coming from a design school background, there’s a ton I’m still learning about manufacturing, ergonomics, SolidWorks and all the other things that industrial design students master by the time they graduate. Luckily I’ve made some friends who are design school alums, and they’ve been an invaluable resource. The same goes for wrangling incorporation, fulfillment, insurance and forecasting into a viable business—I couldn’t do it without help from friends who’ve done it already. In general, I try to see all the day-to-day frustrations as map markers that force me to find a better way as I shape my business. The process is a lot like designing a product.
HD: You have a strong commitment to to the environment. How does that get expressed in your products and packaging?
JR: Most products that harm the environment are made from permanent materials, but are designed for short lifespans. I make sure that my designs either become more beautiful with use or disappear as cleanly as possible. My dream is to see a well-used and well-loved Sorapot in an antique shop in a few decades. The raw stainless steel will record the user’s daily tea making, becoming shinier where it’s held, revealing where it was scrubbed, and changing color gradually as tea tannins are deposited on its surface. It will look far better than when it comes out of its box, which will have decomposed long ago.
HD: What inspires your design work?
JR: I’m inspired by everyday rituals like swiping a card at a train turnstile, talking on the phone, and of course, making tea. I think each of these rituals has the potential to become an oasis in modern overcomplicated life, but people tend to ignore them, largely because of ease-of-use advances that designers have made. The less thought a product requires to use, the less the user will think about the task. This is great in most circumstances, because it allows people to accomplish more in a shorter amount of time. Some tasks reveal tremendous beauty if they’re given some thought, however, and I try to design products for these tasks. For example, the easiest way to make tea is to nuke some water in a mug and stir in powdered Lipton, but the point of making tea isn’t the tea itself. I designed Sorapot to encourage its user to attend to the details, while still making a delicious cup.
HD: Could you share a bit about your daily work routine and environment?
JR: I like to wake up early and make oatmeal for breakfast. I use the daytime to call people, meet with people, find new customers, make sure my existing customers are delighted. In the afternoon I usually take a break to explore San Francisco. After dinner I do creative work—designing new products and planning for the future.
HD: Are there any projects you are working on currently that you are excited about?
JR: I’ve been spending a lot of time designing shoes, trying to channel elegance through humble materials like cork, felt and steel. I’m also working on cardboard furniture that’s designed to last about a year, and then decompose in your yard. I’m starting to get into interiors as well.
The next design that’s actually ready for production is an optical mouse made from felt and teak. Mice are in constant contact with your hand, but for some reason they use the same materials and design language as computers, which are in constant contact with your desk. I re-imagined the mouse as a personal accessory, using materials that feel good against the skin and will change over a break-in period to fit your hand. Felt also allows me to maintain the boxy aesthetic I love while ensuring that the mouse is comfortable. I hope to have it ready this fall.
HD: You are a young guy with a whole career ahead of you. Envision yourself at retirement age. What would have been your greatest achievement?
JR: If I ever feel like my greatest design achievement is behind me, I’ll go back to writing.