Interview with Jeffrey Matthias of Furnlab

So, Jeffrey, tell us a bit about yourself / how did you first get into design?

During my time at Ohio State (1997-2001) working on a degree in sculpture, I kept finding myself leaning more and more towards furniture design. Sadly, my profs didn’t tell me that there was an entire program geared towards that one building over, and instead just pushed me to refocus on more conceptual and less functional work.

After I graduated, I started getting one-off furniture into galleries, but the prices were always a barrier to entry for the people who really seemed to like my style. I ended up focusing on how to build simpler designs in ways that I could produce multiples relatively quickly and affordably. When I told my sister-in-law that designing for production was way more fun than actually making the stuff, she arranged a tour for me of Fitch, the company where she did copywriting, and introduced me to the world of industrial design.

Alas, I had just finished my 2nd degree, in automotive technology, and didn’t have the money or the drive to jump right back into school. So I continued to work on projects on the side while trying to make a living doing just about everything else.

It wasn’t until 2007 that I was thinking about going back to school for an MBA that my wife asked me if I shouldn’t be thinking about something more creative. That got me to remember my previous dreams of studying industrial design. Going back to school filled in all the gaps between the skills I already had, and introduced me to the world of 3D CAD, which has been a life changer.

Could you describe your approach and philosophy to design?
As far as aesthetics and products, I try to bring something new to everything I do. I want as diverse a portfolio as I can get. If I have designed something, the next project is an opportunity to try something different, within the confines of the client’s desires, of course.

As for work that I do under my own name or my label, FurnLab, I work to make most of what I do open source. I focus heavily on CNC processes, whether 3D printing, laser cutting, or a router. I figure if I can look at other people’s work and cough up my own versions, there certainly isn’t anything preventing someone with access to the same gear from doing the same to my designs. Instead of spending my time obsessed with protecting my idea, I’d rather be working on the next project.

So I make my work available and just restrict commercial use. If someone likes something I’ve made, let them build it. Who knows, maybe they’ll give me some feedback or make some awesome improvements.

What do you love the most about the open source world?
People who understand the concept are very positive and supportive of the work. Open Source implies that you can make changes to your design down the road without implying your previous version is flawed or the the new one is the final iteration. I’m still evolving one of my oldest designs, The Mod, which is about 11 years old now.

I have more ideas than I have time to develop. The open source concept allows me to develop an idea as fully as I can within my budgetary and time constraints and put it out there for the world to see/enjoy without having to make the promise that it is a perfect design, just a worthwhile idea.

I love feeling like a pioneer. There is plenty of open source software, but beyond Thingiverse and its audience, most people have never heard of the idea of an open design for a physical object/product.

What do you hate the most about the open source world?
Ha! Explaining to friends and family that I’m not sinking my career by giving away my best ideas. I restrict commercial reproduction on my designs, but it still seems risky to them. The funny thing is that my brother used to work for the Eclipse Foundation, one of the biggest open source software organizations, and no one seemed to bat an eye. There just isn’t the same kind of precedent for open source product design.

The documentation. Even an 85% developed idea still requires documentation and this is where I am the worst. I have about 4 or 5 fairly complete designs that I haven’t made available simply because I haven’t found the time to provide documentation/instructions and I don’t feel right putting out a DXF without any additional information. My most recent product, Xylotones, are Half-tone images cut on a CNC machine. The individual products are custom and I’m still scratching my head about how to open source the work.

What’s the hardest thing about what you do?
Did I mention the documentation?

As far as consulting work, there is always something the client wants that you either dislike or are pretty sure won’t work but can’t talk them out of.

Getting strangers to understand open source is pretty difficult. I mean, if I can’t get my own family to fully understand, well, a 3 minute introduction typically leads to more questions than understanding.

As I mentioned, sometime I have trouble figuring out how exactly to open up a design.

If you had any advice for young designers, what would it be?
Draw, draw, draw. I don’t care if it is is pen/paper or digitally. There is absolutely no replacement for good drawing skills. Furniture design is one of the few places where you can get away with mediocre drawing skills, but you have to be good at what you do to overcome it. 3D modeling will never be as fast as sketching for throwing out quick ideas. Do no let your equipment be an excuse to no draw. I’ve got friends whose napkin drawings make my best Wacom work look like a kindergartner’s work. Well, that may be an exaggeration, but, you get the point.

If you could instantly change anything about our society, what would you change?
Planned obsolescence and the culture around it. I wish we still designed things to last, be repaired/upgraded, and be treasured. Sadly, people are not willing to pay higher prices for well-built things because they expect to replace them sooner than later. The cost of hitting the prices that they are willing to pay takes an incredible toll on our environment, and on the quality and timelessness of design.

Describe your favorite colour using only nouns.
Yikes! 1st gen Porsche 911, 1970s VWs, clementines, construction cones, discontinued iPad Smart Covers…

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