Published in the Philadelphia Daily News, February 23, 2001.
IT WAS NEARLY THREE years in development, but now Josh Owen is ready to turn up the volume.
Owen, principal of owenlogikdesign, will introduce his Tone Knob Lamp at New York’s annual International Contemporary Furniture Fair in May. The Candadian maunfacturer Umbra will sell it in its fall 2001 line.
Inspired by the tone knob of Owen’s electric guitar, the lamp’s brightness increases as you turn it clockwise. The Tone Knob is only one of the many witty ideas that pop from Owen’s closely cropped skull.
Birth of an object
Owen says that many of his pieces are one-offs, things he’s experimenting with and won’t necessarily repeat. Others are things he’s working on for mass production. His Old City loft is like a very clearn, minimally designed toy factory. There’s a bowling-pin-shaped lamp that turns off when you knock it over; there’s an innovative “top secret” chair he’s working on for Umbra; there’s a line of children’s playthings in development that’s also hush-hush.
A length of fiber-optic cable coiled around what looked like a garden hose caddy is a flexible lighting source that pulses through a spectrum of pink, yellow, green and blue.
“It steps over the line into sculpture,” said Owen, who has undergraduate degrees in sculpture and visual studies from Cornell University. “I like to do this work because it generates other work. It’s possible this design will inspire some other utilization of fiber-optic material.” He paused. “It hasn’t yet …” he said, his eyes crinkling in faint self-mockery.
His Tone Knob Lamp, however, inspired the admiration of Umbra VP and designer Paul Rowan. During the 1998 International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, Owen held an underground show in a funeral parlor with three other industrial designers. Rowan attended the show.
“That’s a fantastic time to see young and new talent that doesn’t neessarily have the budget to go into the mainstream show,” Rowan said. “Josh’s work really stood out. The Tone Knob Lamp seemed very Umbra to us — it was fun and we could execute it at a reasonable cost. It looked like something we could do with injection-molded plastics, which we’re good at.”
Though the design seems deceptively simple, several engineering, manufacturing and marketing considerations had to be worked out before it could go to production.
The design changed somewhat from Owen’s original prototype, which was made of cast resin. Umbra found the material too heavy and difficult to control, so the company used an injection-molded-polycarbonate production process, by which heated plastic is injected into a steel mold (things like plastic toys and sunglasses are mass=produced this way).
Also, in the original model, Owen had used eight internal low-voltage lamps arranged in a circular pattern. It was, Rowan remembered, “very complicated. You could do it, but it would be very expensive.” So Owen worked with in-house designers and engineers to use a single bulb.
“Josh is great,” Rowan said. “he’s very strategic about his design, but at the same time, he has a very unique style. But he’s not a prima donna. He’s willing to work with the manufacturere to make his idea work.
Philadelphia object relations
On a recent afternoon, in his airy loft (which serves as both home and office), the 30-year-old looked as streamlined as one of his products — but a tad more serious. Dressed in a gray wool turtleneck, black pants and black shoes, he had the air of a somewhat academic-minded New York designer.
Which he very nearly was.
After earning a graduate degree in furniture design at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design in 1997, Owen “assumed I would move to New York.” But he didn’t find full-time work there, though he did get many freelance jobs. Since his wife, Martha Wittlink, was in medical school in Philadelphia, he decided he would commute.
These days, he uses email to communicate and send graphic files to clients in Canada or Holland or New York. He’s able to spend most of his time at his home base, overseeing the crew of five interns who help him on his projects — from corporate logos to furniture design to lighting.
This is Owen’t second time around in Philly. He was born and lived here until he was 2, when his family moved to Ithaca, New York, where his father was a professor of Near Eastern studies at Cornell.
Owen has found that as a design market, Philly has its difficulties. The Old City store Minima sells his made-to-order Faucet Lamp, which is an acrylic box with a real faucet mounted to it. To turn the light on, you pull a chain that “drips” from the faucet. It’s fun, it attracts attention in the store, but does it sell?
“Philadelphia is a tough city to sell $1,500 lamps in,” Owen admitted. But he does think the city is “up and coming” both as a market and place to be a designer.
The “cult of objects”
It was Owen’s archeologist father who introduced him into “the cult of objects,” as he likes to put it. As a boy, he would go on archeological digs in Israel with his dad.
“I was very curious about the objects we uncovered and what their uses may hae been in cultural context,” Owen said.
As might be expected, the budding industrial designer liked to plaly with Legos and Erector sets as a kid, “making insane objects.”
Today, Owen’s work, besides being fun and functional, also shows his fascination with new technologies and inventive ways of applying them. For example, Owen shaped electroluminescent film (used commonly in the Timex Indiglo watch face) into a lamp shade and put it on a stand. When you plug it in, the shade itself glows a delicate green — no light bulb needed.
“That night light is typical of Josh,” said Gotz Unger, the program director of Philadelphia University’s industrial designer department, where Owen is an adjunct professor. “It takes technology used in another situation — in this case electroluminescent panels used for wristwatches and instrument panels — and transforms it and makes us look at it in another way.”
Unger cites another favorite — Owen’s Occasionally Remarkable Table, which has thermochromatic liquid crystals in the surface of the table (the same stuff used in mood rings). Minima also sells this $300 piece. “It’s nothing but a cube,” said Unger with obvious delight, “but the surface changes color with temperature.”
Both the night light (which Owen calls the EL Lamp) and the O.R. Table will be on view at the Salon del Mobile in Milan in March. And both will be produced by the Dutch company DMD, which manufactures some of the work of the Dutch Droog Design group, with whom Owen shares certain sensibilities — a sense of whimsy and interest in cutting-edge materials.
Objects on parade
Like others who have worked with him, Beverley Pattenden, owner of the Lambertville, New Jersey, gallery In Rare Form, finds Owen not only talented but also professional and market savvy.
“As a gallery owner, to work with someone as motivated and professional is just such a treat, because you don’t always get that,” Pattenden said. The year-old gallery, which recently put on a Droog Design show that “definitely rocked” the antique-shop-filled Lambertville, will be exhibiting Owen’s designs in a show running through April. Pattenden is letting Owen set up his own show.
“I’m literally giving him the key and leaving town, and when I get back it’s going to be done.”
She sees in his work “pure design, conceptual design, but it really is for the ordinary man. But let’s have a good time with it as well. Design doesn’t have to be so damn serious.”
Owen promises that his show at Pattenden’s gallery will have the same interactivity and sense of play that his designs do.
“It will be a nontraditional display,” Owen said mysteriously, not wanting to give away the surprise. “Objects won’t simply be sitting on pedestals.”