In 2010, TJ O'Keefe (BFA 2004) launched a highly successful furniture design studio that has already earned him recognition from magazines such as FRAME, a feature in The New York Times and invitations to events such as Qubique, a curated exhibition of contemporary design held this past October in Berlin.
TJ sat down with junior Hannah Dow to talk about the journey from A&D graduate to furniture designer.
Hannah Dow: To start with, I was wondering how you would define your views on design – what are your goals with the designs you create?
TJ O'Keefe: I'm an American designer and I want to promote American design and also American manufacturing. All my pieces are produced locally just outside of Chicago. It seems so automatic that designers look overseas for manufacturing and I just don't think it's necessary. I think that we have the manufacturing and the skills to do it here.
Also, first and foremost, the object has to be functional. Once the object is functional, then you're making decisions about its “presence.” I strive for my objects to have a confident, interesting and calming presence. To do this, I’m always trying to pare them down to their absolute essentials. Minimalism can easily be uninspired and bland and boring. But what I like about minimalism is that there isn't any excess. There's very little gesture, application or ornament. With these minimal essential pieces, I then try to push the object as far as I can within these really strict parameters. From there, I try to make something interesting and compelling.
You are a furniture designer now. But after you graduated from A&D, you ended up studying architecture. Why?
When I was finishing up school I had a lot of confidence in my direction and I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do. After graduating from U-M I took a year off and didn't do anything design related. I went to California, just because I had never been there. I got interested in architecture while I was out there and ended up going to architecture school because I felt, within the scales of design, it was the grandest scale. Graphic design is creating in two dimensions. Industrial design is crafting a perfect three dimensional object that can sit in front of you. Architecture is about whole environments. That seemed really powerful to me.
I ended up studying architecture because I didn't want to limit myself later on.
Would you say that your background in architecture has informed your furniture designs?
Yes, definitely. In studying architecture, I began to really understand functionality – that every system had to be reliant on or informed by something else. So I definitely apply that understanding in my work.
Was there a defining moment in your career when you realized you didn't want to do architecture?
During the first year of architecture school, I knew that I was much better at, and enjoyed, working on a smaller scale. But I finished the degree because I wanted to keep my options open, design-wise.
I graduated in 2008 and the economy was terrible. I ended up finding a job at this small, design‑build firm here in Chicago. I worked in their wood shop all day, making things for the company’s various projects.
I had access to all these tools in the wood shop, so I started building my own furniture. That's how the two side tables — the helic tables— first came about.
How would you describe your creative process?
Do you sketch a lot or do you go straight from your head to the computer?
It’s mostly straight from my head to the computer. Sometimes, I'll draw profiles of things, but not always. I'll work out 90 percent of something in my head and then translate it to computer. Sometimes it ends up not being as cool as I thought it was and then I just let it go. Then, other times, I'll put it in the computer, and that’s where all the rigor of the design happens. I'll run through a hundred iterations of one thing, just changing some part an eighth of an inch or a fraction of a degree, working out all the details and deciding which ones work.
Are there things you would have liked to have known when you were just starting out as a young designer?
I wish I’d understood that there will be plenty of time to do everything. I think I was really stressed out, even during school. I had all these ideas and a lot of anxiety that I wouldn't be able to realize every single one of them.
I can relate to that.
It will all work itself out. I'm sure you have a lot of great ideas. In time, you'll refine them. And there will be ideas that stick and others that fade away. If you don't have an opportunity to realize something, hold on to it. If it's a great idea it will always be great.
The other part of that is not to worry about whether or not something makes sense in the beginning. Just because it doesn't seem logical doesn't mean that it's not going to build something for you in the future. Just keep taking steps in the directions that you think are right. Don't succumb to convention or blindly follow someone else’s advice about something.
You might have a better idea than someone else. You may have a different way. So follow your intuition and do what makes you happy. Because if you're not happy and passionate about what you're doing, then you're going to make mediocre things.
Anything in particular that inspires you about design these days?
In general, the design community feels optimistic to me. People are taking pride in their work. It's not so novel to have locally manufactured products and to have integrity in your business. What's great is that it's becoming trendy or popular to have substance.
I think there are a lot of companies gaining recognition right now because their business practices are either sustainable or have inherent integrity. They’re run by good people – so not only are they producing good products, but they are green products or socially conscious products. There is a different standard now and I think that is really great.
To see more of TJ O'Keefe's work, visit http://tjokeefe.com/