ICON. Jonathan Ward.
On Style and Bespoke Utility.
Derek Galkin: There are very few people whom I've met on my journey who can identify, understand, and appreciate functional, clean, timeless industrial design. The catalyst of our friendship.
Jonathan Ward (of ICON) and I have been friends for over seven years, and not once had he ever invited me to his house. Our usual preferred meeting spot has always been ICON HQ, a space I’ve always found fun and malleable, the local watering hole for a casual drink or an event where we were mutually invited. What would his house be like—what style of architecture? What furniture? What influence does Jamie (his better half, and my personal favorite of the two) have in the house, and does it spar with Jonathan’s style? What I found instead did not disappoint. To the contrary, it lived up to every detail of my imagination: everything detailed with a purpose, in true ICON style.
Jonathan Ward: I call it ‘bespoke utility.’ To me, design should reflect an opinion: if a radius exists, if a material is utilized, if a surface has certain character to it—even if it's not a design I love personally—it should evoke an opinion. Look at Raymond Loewy. Loewy was coming into something that already provided utility. The industry was creating enough scale, therefore enough competitors and competition by price point, so design became a differentiator. People like Loewy would come in and make something like a space-age, badass, coolest-looking-toaster-you've-ever-seen so that, even if you already had a toaster that had the same cuts and provided the same utility, this new, considerate aesthetic had a romantic flare to it that gave it value beyond solely its function. But I feel like that exists less and less in modern product design.
Why do you think that is?
JW: I think Wall Street has really corrupted design. With design firms now, it’s a firm before it’s a design art. Firms are relying on focus groups and external agencies to tell them what's cool now; it’s more about "the customer’s always right.” Design is becoming more and more of an afterthought; or, things are being designed for a shorter lifespan—and to distract you from its crap quality—because of the shareholder interest. So, every year, they can stand up and say they made more this year than they did the year before, and next year they're going to make even more. I mean, look at modern cars.
Who then, in your mind’s eye, is doing it right, right now?
JW: Well, I mean, tons of brands but for different reasons. For example, Eames are doing it right because they never bought into the, “Let’s make a Target version and let's go for more and more volume and points and distribution channels.” They did what they respected. Bugatti used to, back in the day, which was to say, “No we're not for everyone, and that's okay. But we're special and we're legitimate, and we have story. We have true DNA. We're not a veneer of a fuckin' ad.” That's what kept it timeless and preserved the ethereal value of the brand.
Lucchese Boots is another really good example. They stuck to their strengths. They didn't diversify if they went in and out of vogue over time. They didn't try and make a tennis shoe because the investors thought they needed diversification to survive. They didn't partner with Wrangler to make a $200 boot to make a nice and quick new market share.
Well, we've kind of touched on this, but what is the impetus behind good design? What makes good design?
JW: Functionality, functionality, functionality. And tactile value — something that's lovely and works well to the touch. If it doesn't have that right feel then it jumps the shark for me. Brand DNA being clear in a product. I think any brands that have a good, solid manifesto, so that when an opportunity arises for them, the answer from leadership has to be “fuck yeah” or “no.” It has to be emphatic and unanimous. That way, leadership knows it’s meeting that core.
So, given that the importance of design to our future seems to be degrading because of stock market commodity, building business, going public with IPO, etc., what do you think we should instill in our youth today with regards to design?
JW: Oh, I have a very clear answer to that because it's literally a mantra for me: respect your perspective. Empowering leaders of our future, even beyond design, to understand that they showed up on this planet with a unique way of seeing the world—of seeing people, nature, opportunities, travel, culture. Unfortunately, in my experience with the top design schools, that's not part of the curriculum as much as I think it should be, and I hope that's changing.
It’s worth reminding [youth] that at no time in design or product history has it been easier to not only get something manufactured, but to also tell your story and reach your audience. You don't have to go work for The Man anymore. We've seen just in the last two decades that there are absolutely no guarantees—whether you're a doctor, a lawyer, designer, or a teacher—that those who’ve had the most control over their success or failures are the independent ones. So, don't be afraid to follow your own visions. That’s what’s being rewarded by consumers right now, and at a level that we've never seen before. And all the techniques of manufacturing make such incredible things that even five years ago weren't possible to do, at what they cost five years ago to do. They actually cost, maybe,10% of that in many cases today, so it’s really the Wild, Wild West.
So, Autotype is going to be the only online outlet to sell an ICON, a new ICON outside of the corporate umbrella. What excites you about Autotype, and why?
JW: Independence, enabling students that are very passionate and have great potential who, through traditional channels, perhaps, would not have the same opportunity. Being a part of a collective of others within Autotype who share that idea and who exhibit the range of creative outlets that are possible for young designers as they enter the space.
Awesome. Last question: what's the one most meaningful, designed object you own?
JW: I have an axe set from the Stone Age. I got it in Sweden. Thirty years ago, for a short window of time in which I serendipitously happened to be there, they were selling off excess inventory from the national museum's archives. What it did was pretty damn clear, but the simple combination of shapes applied to the design gave it impressive versatility. It was made with what you can find in the ground, and here it is today, still partying on.