Joey Roth on design

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Joey Roth designed the bizarre, beautiful Sorapot, and recently turned his talents to audio. Out this fall in a limited edition of 200, the Ceramic Speakers are made of porcelain and cork. I asked Joey to tell us a little about himself and his inspiration.

ROB: Why industrial design?

JOEY: I started college at Swarthmore as a creative writing major, but realized that I was never going to be as good as the authors I loved. With design, I think I can contribute to the field as a whole while still constructing narratives and making each product an immersive world for the user.

ROB: Sorapot got a lot of attention; but was it a success?

JOEY: I designed Sorapot as a portfolio piece during my Junior year. I didn't intend to manufacture it until a writer for CoolHunting 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.

ROB: You make it sound easy!

JOEY: I ... 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. About 2,500 Sorapots have been sold to date.

"Irony was the dominant approach a few years ago, and it's still popular. I think it has no place in design, since physical resources are consumed when something is mass-produced, and a joke is only witty for so long."

ROB: What do you see as your competition?

JOEY: I draw a distinction between competitors and enemies, although both motivate me to work harder. My competitors are designers and companies who make products that I respect, and would also earn the respect of my customers, current and potential. I don't want to see these designers/ companies fail, since I believe in what they're doing, but I need to make sure my work never becomes indistinguishable from theirs. This kind of competition keeps me on edge, and helps me make better products. If their products aren't directly competing with mine, I also like to collaborate with likeminded designers.

ROB: Enemies, then?

I see designers and companies whose work represents a disposable, ironic, trend-driven view of product design as my ideological enemies. Irony was the dominant approach a few years ago, and it's still popular. I think it has no place in design, since physical resources are consumed when something is mass-produced, and a joke is only witty for so long. My desire to design objects that represent a more thoughtful, sustainable view grew partially from the ironic, anti-design trend I encountered as I was getting into design. Even though these punchline-driven products don't compete in the same categories as my work, I'm motivated to work harder when I see them receive acclaim or recognition.

I don't see larger companies who make boring products as competition, even if their products are in the same categories as mine. It would be much harder for them to access the customers who actively seek out interesting new designs than for me to make something that appeals to a larger audience. They should be scared of small, blog-emboldened designers though.

ROB: How are new ideas born?

JOEY: When I start to sketch ideas for a new design, I pull from a mental material library that's filled only with sustainable, long-lasting materials. I want my products to become more beautiful as they're used: inevitable scuffs and scratches should make them feel broken-in and seasoned rather than worn out. At the same time, I never want to use a design's sustainable merits as a crutch for lazy or boring design.

ROB: Tell me more about the hardware used for the speakers.

JOEY: The speakers are made from hand-thrown porcelain in a workshop that usually makes vases. Their stands are made from Baltic birch off-cuts (smaller piece) and Paulownia wood (larger piece). Paulownia is a fast-growing tree that's best known for its use in surfboards, guitars, and traditional Japanese pottery boxes. The amplifier is made from stainless steel, and has a raw cast iron base and Paulownia volume slider. My goal was to bring the speakers out of the fast, trendy, disposable consumer electronic/ iPod accessory realm and make them objects that could last a lifetime, but are interesting in the moment.

The drivers are made by Tang Band, and they are a modified version of the W4-1052SD driver. (Specs here: http://www.parts-express.com/pdf/264-828s.pdf)

ROB: What's the worst sort of question you get asked?

JOEY: The worst question a writer can ask a designer is no question. Obscurity and irrelevance are nicely motivating fears that all good designers should have.

Sorapot and Ceramic Speakers are available to order at Joey Roth's website. Catch an early (and favorable) review at Gizmodo.