Behind the Design: Jonathan Rowell of Yonsei 

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There is something very precise about the designs created by Jonathan Rowell, founder of Yonsei. Every piece, from the ‘Ahoy’ wall hook to the ‘Uki’ bench, is meticulous in its form and presentation. Rowell’s designs are truly poetic, and offer a harmonious blend of traditional and modern elements. Combining a hard minimalist aesthetic with soft, graceful shapes, Rowell’s approach seeks to balance physicality and emotion.

Based in New York City, industrial designer Jonathan Rowell established Yonsei in 2016. Rowell’s design concepts are an expression of his Japanese heritage, and emphasize the importance of rituals, surroundings and memories.

Gessato gets behind the design with Jonathan Rowell.

What is the story behind the name Yonsei?

Yonsei is the word used to describe the fourth generation of Japanese immigrants. My great grandparents immigrated to the US from Tottori and Kumamoto in Japan. Naming the brand Yonsei was my way of making it personal, without being outwardly specific to one person. It’s for me without being about me—I think that’s a nice distinction.

The logo is designed as a ‘mon’—a traditional Japanese family crest. The four circles represent the four generations of my heritage, while also being an abstraction of the four legs of a chair.

Yonsei was founded in 2016 and you have a number of design concepts. What connects each piece?

Simplicity, beauty and maybe a bit of fun. Yonsei views the world with optimism and positivity, and I try to convey this with each design.

You refer to the idea of ‘bringing form to the abstract’. Can you expand further on this?

New products for new industries, such as consumer tech, have a unique challenge. You often find yourself making use of design to reduce the learning curve as much as possible, and using simplicity and existing archetypes to communicate function. Mature industries, like furniture, face a different challenge. Since function is already understood, then meaning becomes of greater importance. Poeticism and the abstract can come into play.

Our perception and understanding of things is quite sophisticated, yet often in describing things with words with keep coming up short. I find it a great challenge and considerably satisfying to create designs that connect us with something greater: designs that remind us of some old memory or aspect of our culture, or bring physicality to an idea we’ve had. That’s how design can convey things that words can’t—in bringing form to the abstract.

On your website, each design is accompanied by a short, poetic narrative. What was the inspiration for this?

It’s a bit of a mix really. Usually, the narratives are there to round out the design object’s conveyance of meaning. However, for the Naoshima side table and coffee table, the narrative came from visiting the island of Naoshima in Japan. It’s a beautiful place, with coarse, white sand, and it’s peppered with art installations and museums. The island is quite surreal.

In your opinion, what qualities make a good designer?

What I’ve discovered in making products are two very important questions that designers often fail to consider: how will this design make money and how will it be marketed? These two questions can really impact your design and the way in which you approach it. By not asking these particular questions, you force them to be asked downstream and inevitably answered in ways you might not agree with.

To the first question’s point, it’s important to be cognizant of the cost and manufacturing implications of your designs. It doesn’t mean you need to design something in a cheap way. Rather, it’s about having potential answers at the ready. To the second question’s point, you can make the best design, but if it’s not communicable in a way that people will easily connect with and love, you have given yourself, and those around you, an uphill battle. An easy test for this is to spend a little time coming up with ad concepts for your design. A good design will market itself.

Describe your design aesthetic.

I don’t think too much about it. I tend to be drawn towards soft forms with hard lines. It’s a nice juxtaposition and one that feels human.

What drives you—what are you curious about?

As silly as it sounds, I’ve always been curious about why things are the way they are. When you think about it, every item made was once just a figment of someone’s imagination. It helps me sit a little more comfortably within my own imagination.

I think my curiosity grants me a lot of ideas. But it also means some mental housecleaning is regularly in order. Designing is a way to organize and express those ideas. For me, it’s not really about a particular drive, but more about getting out there and letting others see what, up to this time, only I have seen.

Your works have a beautiful simplicity. They appear solid, strong and meticulously crafted. How can we champion honest, long-lasting design in a world that is besotted with fast and now?

Quality has a unique impact on our perception of beauty. I think Leica [the German camera manufacturer] is a good case study for this. Leica cameras have impeccable craftsmanship and build quality, yet some of the brand’s cameras have visual elements that on any other product would not be desired—it’s been a matter of function over form. Yet Leica is a trendsetter for aesthetics because of its craftsmanship and build quality. In contrast, a poorly made but aesthetically pleasing design, will lose its appeal once the initial hype and sheen has worn away. We should design things to be well crafted and then craft them well.

Who or what has influenced you as a designer and why?

My creativity well needs constant refilling. I’ve found it challenging to stay in one place and expect to be inspired. Traveling has been a great (albeit sometimes expensive) way to find inspiration. It’s very easy to become complacent in your environment and you end up seeing the same things every day. Experiencing another culture and how they approach similar problems in a different manner, is very enlightening.

What is your vision for Yonsei?

It’s my dream to have a brick-and-mortar store, with small signage on the outside (or maybe nothing at all), and furniture and home goods on the inside—well-crafted things. In the back is a barista, serving pour over coffee and roasted sweet potatoes. Simply take your drink and try out a chair for a while. I think that’d be nice.

Gerard McGuickin

Gerard

I’m a design writer, lover and aficionado, living in a modish neighbourhood in south Belfast. My writing is studied and yet uninhibited, and my perspective on design is typically punctilious and urbane. My thinking is often guided by Dieter Rams’ ten principles for good design. I have an educational background in psychology (MSc + BSc) and believe in the potential for design to improve our daily quality of life. And without affectation, I value that which is aesthetically pleasing and inspiring (great design excites my imagination). Find out more at Walnut Grey Design.

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