This Design Professor Makes Products With No Labels On Them

Less might not be more, but it can be better says RIT’s Josh Owen

Brand Free: How Minimalist Design Connects People

"Design is a virus for me, so it sort of infects everything that you do, in a positive way." 

Josh Owen is settled into a cush Togo sofa in his upstate New York home, schooling me gently on his theories of design, which seem more like helpful suggestions than mandates. His soft-spoken demeanor makes him immediately approachable, more so than you'd expect the chair of the Industrial Design program at the Rochester Institute of Technology to be. Although he certainly looks the part: There's his drapey white T-shirt, black pants, and black Converse All-Stars that have been customized to remove an errant racing stripe.

That last detail is the important one. 

Minimalism is a distinct thread in his life, from his classroom at the university to the clean walls of his bonsai-accented studio, and, when followed far enough, to his views on the cult of personality and today's overemphasis on branding. Put Philippe Starck and Karim Rashid products on one end of the spectrum—bold designs often sold on outsize names—and then you find Owen's design objects on the other, no less modern in their purposeful namelessness. Like those Converse kicks, still stylish and, more important, still functional, even without that stripe, it's not about the brand, but the object. 

"I don't feel that my authorship should change the way people perceive the object," said Owen as we looked at a rubber-and-glass mirror he designed. "I think they should all speak clearly and honestly from their formal attributes, without the need of brand identity."

Josh Owen at work in his home studio.
Josh Owen at work in his home studio.
Photographer: Zach Goldstein/Bloomberg Business

In the Studio

This might sound like a pretty ego-free attitude coming from a person whose job is literally to shape the way people go about everyday activities, but it doesn't mean Owen is any less concerned with creating things people desire (and will continue to desire) than a designer who slaps his name on every visible surface. He's after what he calls an "iconic sensibility," the impressive way something feels in your hand or is otherwise interacted with instead of just the pattern on its surface.

In the sleek white studio attached to his home, Owen has created everything from stools to adding machines to lamps for the likes of Kikkerland and Areaware. (One of my favorites is a lamp shaped like a bowling pin that turns off when knocked over.) Black, white, and red dominate his color palette. Materials tend to have a tactile quality to them, and there's almost no visible branding on any of his work. When there is, it's limited to a tiny, usually tonal signature instead of oversize monograms or gaudy logos—small compromises with commercial reality.

Some of Owen's minimalist creations.
Some of Owen's minimalist creations.
Photographer: Zach Goldstein/Bloomberg Business

"Now, they need to be branded," says Owen of his creations. "As a designer, as a businessman, clearly we have to attach those identity pieces; but when I can get away with it, I make them pretty tiny."

His main goal—his purist ideal—is to create objects that display their purpose outright in an unobtrusive way. Objects should facilitate better relationships between people instead of drawing all the attention to themselves. 

A Room for Living

Stepping through the blond wood doorway and past a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf filled with reference materials, you can see that philosophy in action in his home: Branding and excess ornamentation have either been stripped away or left out entirely.

In the kitchen, for instance, Owen has removed the logos and metal name badges from the espresso machine, refrigerator, and other assorted appliances. Screwdrivers and hammers weren't always sufficient. More than once he had to call the manufacturers and subtly ask questions to make sure he wouldn't destroy the glass fronts on his dishwasher or oven in the "de-branding" process. Owen has populated the living spaces with only the things he, his wife, and his two children need to enjoy each other's company. There's no TV, everything is neatly arranged, and any tchotchkes are behind doors and out of sight.

Many of the objects in Owen's home are things of his own design.
Many of the objects in Owen's home are things of his own design.
Photographer: Zach Goldstein/Bloomberg Business

It sounds stark and cold—Owen's living room could easily double as a showroom with its collection of Eames chairs and black leather sofa—but when you see his personal spaces in action, it's anything but alienating. It's staunchly humanist. With his family crowded around a fireplace and a dog flitting between the hearth and the kitchen, that academic pretension falls away, and you see the furniture isn't there for decoration, it's there to give Owen and his family the right environment for their needs.

What all of this amounts to is a simple, if initially counterintuitive, theory of good design.

The curve of a chair's arm, the precise height of a table, and the feel of a bottle opener's handle might not even be noticed by the end user if the designer's done his job well. If done poorly, they'll be noticed immediately. The countless hours spent thinking about the tiniest details are all made worthwhile when the final product lets you focus on what actually matters: the people, not the things, around you. 

"I'm a pluralist," Owen demurs, exercising restraint even in his proselytizing. "I'm not out there delivering a message I expect everyone to follow, but I do think for me this is important."

Join us on April 28 in San Francisco for Bloomberg Businessweek Design 2015

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.