Profile: Josh Jakus

Some creative people just seem to have the knack, don’t they?

They look at some plain material, play around with it, squint at it, play a little more, and hey, presto!, a fabulous product is born. Not just another thing, but something truly ingenious, delightful, smile-inducing. Then comes the luck: store orders follow, along with editorial acclaim. They become design rock stars and get their own show on Bravo.

On good days, this is the stuff of fantasy (yeah, even the Bravo bit. So sad.) On bad ones, well, it’s just damned irritating.

But does it really ever happen like that? Oh you know it’s never quite that simple.

Meet Josh Jakus (pronounced Yakus). Architect turned designer of everything from lighting to iconic, revolutionary accessories (UM Bags…and yes, guys, purses can be revolutionary.)

He DOES have the knack. He’s had all that good editorial stuff (like this week’s shout out in Daily Candy…not to mention all the pieces in Dwell, Apartment Therapy, etc.) His work sells in stores around the world. (He also sells through his own online store, FUZ.) Still waiting for Bravo, but…you never know.

You do want to find him a little irritating. But you can’t.

Part of it’s his work: smart, joyful, surprising, useful, sustainable materials, and locally made (in the Bay Area). We love the fact that he’s able to look at simple, banal materials, and bring out its essence to take it to another level. The through line? For the most part: movement, transformation, twist. Complete and utter lack of fuss.

There’s Josh himself, a sports-loving guy with a combination of coolness, smarts, irony, warmth, humor, and a small curmudgeonly streak that’s incredibly refreshing.

And his smart business model: local small-batch manufacturing, smart outsourced distribution, efficient design that minimizes waste, lots of products that pack flat, and a commitment to responsible, excess, or recycled materials.

Then there’s his story….a blend of resourcefulness, hard work, grit, persistence, an ability to see what others can’t see, and of course, talent. And that’s what takes this out of the realm of fantasy, and into that of inspiration.

We hang out a little in his Berkeley workroom/office/storeroom/design studio–all cinderblock and tall racks (it’s a restored garage.) Down the hall are a quilt restorer, a couple of ceramicists, a graphics design firm. And a chiropractor.

His space is stark (with the exception of some wonky cool flowers behind the computer monitor). None of the inspiration and mood boards you see with some other designers. It’s a pragmatic, streamlined space, and not what you’d call romantic.

You immediately get the sense that design is about solving problems. And that running a design business is bloody hard work. (Oh that.)

Talk about your movement from architecture to product design. I actually didn’t make a decision. I would love to design buildings…but it’s really not a great way to make a living. And I just wanted to be creative…but in architecture it’s incredibly hard to stay creative: there are always people telling you what you can’t do, whether it’s the building department or clients, or whomever.

Anyway, I really got into all this by accident. I started out trying to design baskets for the home….then it turned into the purse…then a basket. I started doing the bags as a sideline, and they were successful.  The product design stuff just took it over.

Your work is so incredibly unusual. Do you think the architecture training helps? Hurts? Maybe because my education is in architecture and not product design it helps me think about things differently. People with an education in product design tend to focus on a conventional set of things. Being an architect, you look at the site and the materials and get inspiration in that. Now, I think most of my inspiration comes from the material….I just look at a material and wonder, “what I can make with this?”

Did you grow up knowing you wanted to be an architect, or in the design world? Kind of.  People always told me I could design. But before I went to architecture school, I was a database programmer.

A lot of your work incorporates felt. Why felt? I’d been doing furniture work, found it hard to break into…and since I wanted to do something for the home I decided to get into soft goods (because it’s easier to find people to produce it.) A friend had used felt, had some samples and I started playing around. It’s non-woven and doesn’t pucker, wrinkle, etc.  And I like the structural quality of it. And the depth of color can be amazing.

You’re mostly a designer, not a maker per se. Is that something you defaulted to, or by design? Oh, by design. I’m very clear about that. I never wanted to produce anything myself….I was never a crafter. That’s just not me. But I was always about prototyping. I drew obsessively as a kid.

But honestly, I can’t concentrate on the details! I forget things…You know how they say, “measure twice, cut once”? Well, I’m one of those people that measures once and cuts three times. (So familiar!) So I knew I was never going to make things myself. From the very beginning, I was doing prototypes and having other people do things. But that doesn’t make it easy.

It’s a real skill to tell people what to do, isn’t it? Oh yeah. It’s tough particularly if you’re asking them to do something different–which is what I’m always doing.

So what makes it work? It’s all about finding the right people and building a relationship, and you have to be comfortable working with people who are totally different from you.

Your partnerships are important to what you do. Yeah. For example, my sewing contractor, Joanna, came here from China. She has 2 years in high school, comes from a completely different world…but we have some of the same values. I have a great deal of respect for what she and her team do. It’s been four years now, but there was trial and error before I met her, though. (You get the sense there are some great stories….)

But one of the things that many DesignCrafters have told us is that a lot of design happens during the making. How do you deal with that when you’re not heavily engaged in the making? Oh you absolutely have to be able to see what they can do and can’t do and have that inform your design. Otherwise you’re beating your head against the wall. At the same time, you have to push them out of their comfort zone. It’s that fine balance.

The sewing company I’ve been working with (Bailey Sewing Company in Oakland) had never seen anything like my designs (we can imagine) and we really needed to work together see what was possible. That’s why you have to have a relationship with the people making your product. They had to take a leap of faith, and I had to do the same.  Some places don’t want to do that: they just want to do what they’re used to doing. That’s fine…but it doesn’t work for me.

Are you a control freak? Architects tend to have that reputation. (He laughs.) I’m a perfectionist but not a control freak. Over 10 years I have learned the difference. As a perfectionist, it doesn’t have to be MY idea that makes something perfect. If others have a better idea, we’ll do it their way. Control freaks….they have to have everything their way.

Not that your work doesn’t warrant it, but you have had some lucky breaks. I had designed the bag in the fall of 2005. I had no sense of where it would sell. I knew someone who worked at the Gardener and Propeller, so I cold-called. They just got it and the bags did well. But I really had no idea what I was doing: the minute you get into a store you learn SO much. People kept saying net 30. I had no idea what that meant.

Then there was press. A friend forwarded my site to DesignSponge. It just took off in the blogosphere. I started getting calls…and from that point on till the big economic crash, I just followed the success of the bags.  I feel lucky. Really lucky.

Do you feel like you’ve made it? No! I’m not there yet. What’s hard about that is that the economy is changing so much. The whole wholesale market is getting so much tougher. We’re definitely looking at expanding our online presence with Fuz.

I guess this begs the issue of what making it means. Yeah. And that’s changed too. I don’t want to just be a name on a product. I love being in my studio working. I don’t want to fly around and do face time–that’s exhausting to me. Bottom line, though, I’d just like to be able to design whatever I want.  I would love my work to be known by huge numbers of people.

Would you like to do commissioned design? Absolutely and I do some already. I have a good collaboration going with Teroforma. (We love them.)

So what are you excited about now? Well, people like my chalkboards, and there are the lamps made out of recycled milk jugs (so cool!) And I’m working on making a luminary that can be used at wedding. (It’s a very cool piece, completely unlike anything we’ve ever seen at a wedding or on any dining room table, for that matter.) And there’s a computer bag. (It ain’t your traditional computer bag, not by a long shot.) And extensions on the purse.

What five things define you? I don’t know that people who know me associate me with stuff. But if you had to pick a few things…

My orange crocs (LOVE them. The only color of Crocs that should be worn.)

Volvo station wagon

My puffy jacket. I wear a down jacket because it’s always cold. It’s huge. Black.  For some reason, people find it shocking! I may switch to something sleeker by Patagonia.

Can’t think of anything else.

OK. So who would play you in the movie of your life? Oh God. I don’t know. (He considers.) Woody Allen. Um, really? I don’t look like him but I feel like him. Seriously? (No apparent nervous tics, no baleful stare…) Yeah, I do have the angst, and the discomfort. OK. I don’t always feel like that but there is something about his struggle. (Huh.)

(Hard to recover from the Woody Allen comment but….) What inspires? I’m a designer but I don’t have a lot of external inspirations. I have a process that leads to things. It’s kind of an architectural process.  If I have a material, that’s what inspires me. I always keep asking…”what else?” That’s tough because I can develop a bunch of prototypes but don’t really have the time to develop everything.

Other than designing (and sports,) what makes you happy? Small things…like packing boxes….comforting….tangible. Getting things done. That’s just satisfying.

What’s the best thing about what you do? Don’t get me wrong, what I do is really hard, and I’m still not sure what the future will bring. But I love doing what I do. And I’m free to fail but no one’s telling me I can’t do it before I even try.

Oh yeah. Woody Allen. Orange Crocs. Great design. And words to live by.



Product photography credits:  Josh Jakus.

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3 Responses to Profile: Josh Jakus

  1. Dane says:

    I know and have worked with Josh and the one detail I missed in this interview is Josh’s musicianship. He’s a talented multi-instrumentalist and plays violin, mandolin, and guitar. I’m just waiting for him to design my next fiddle case!

  2. Marianne Jakus says:

    Thank you so much for your wondeful article, the profile and the photos. Your insight and understanding of what you are seeing is a wonderful gift. Marianne

  3. Marianne Jakus says:

    Thanks so much for adding the comment about the music! Marianne