Jonathan Sabine is a co-founder of MSDS Studio, a Toronto-based design practice that works in furniture, interior and product design. He and Jessica Nakanishi are recognized internationally for distinctive yet minimal designs that synthesize the duo’s Scandinavian and Japanese sensibilities. We caught up with Jonathan recently, and this is what he had to say.
RE: WHAT HE’S READING NOW
I’m reading the autobiography of this anarchist, Emma Goldman. She was active in the first half of the 20th century. She was a radical, anarchist, feminist, pacifist — all of those things. Just an incredible woman. What I find really interesting is how many people in her generation were willing to sacrifice for their beliefs. They were jailed, they were persecuted, they were marginalized. But they worked non-stop.
It was never clear that they were going to change things over time. But they still fought.
These days, I think people are just like, “Well, you know, we’re stuck in this system.” We don’t really understand that this is a system that we can affect profoundly, beyond just voting. We can change things. But to most people, it seems like the end of history. And that’s probably not true.
RE: THE BEST ADVICE HE EVER GOT
I had an instructor who told me something when I was about two years out of school. My partner at the time and I were struggling to pay the bills, and I was still paying my student loans off. And so I always had a day job or a night job, or both. And this instructor of mine, she asked, a bit ironically, “Do you want to be a designer or do you want to be a good citizen?”
I didn’t really take those two things as dichotomous previously. Her being this sort of sardonic, funny person, I think what she was saying was —
If you’re going to be serious about this, you have to put your needs first.
Put your student loan payments on hold. You’re never going to make it if you worry about everything at once. Just focus on what you’re doing. Essentially, be a bit selfish. That was super good advice.
RE: SPARKING JOY
Just the other day, we got a table — a table of our own design — that was handmade by a friend. It’s a nine foot long, solid oak table and it’s just incredible. It’s super heavy, it’s perfectly crafted and it’s going to be with us forever. And yeah, it’s just making us really happy.
This is an ongoing lesson for us. We’re learning that we need to always try to speak our language when doing design work. And that means sometimes walking away from projects that we don’t think will allow us to do that. And it means trying to not conform to expectations or conditions, and trying to — without being dogmatic about it — make every expression true to ourselves.
RE: A GO-TO DESIGN PRINCIPLE
This one’s easy. Achille Castiglioni has this concept of Principle Design Component and basically it’s the thought that every project has a central question that it revolves around. It might be a technique or material or a condition or problem you are trying to solve, or an aesthetic. But once you isolate that thing, all the components and design revolve around it. And once you’ve identified it, it can help you make better decisions more quickly. It’s a process of winnowing away everything that doesn’t highlight this central idea.
RE: THE CONFIDENCE TO CO-FOUND A STUDIO
I think, an objective assessment of my ability compared to others. I looked at other people’s work, and I was like, “I think I can do that. I think I can do as well as that, or better.”
And that’s not true of everybody. There’s still a ton of designers who I look up to and I aspire to be as good as. But in general, I think I’m good enough to do that. In the end, that was what gave me the abiding confidence that I could make it happen.
RE: OVERCOMING CREATIVE BLOCK
The most reliable trick I have is procrastination. You have to sometimes be willing to walk away from it and be willing to approach the problem tangentially.
If you get locked into one mode, you start taking a brute force approach. It’s very linear, and it rarely — I mean, in what we do — it rarely sees results. So I think you take a step back, you let your mind wander, you think about other things.
Say, if you’re working on a dining table, you might instead start drawing a coat hook. Or something that’s immediately interesting to you. And through that process, get back into the original brief.
You have to set up the parameters for an organic breakthrough.
RE: HIS IDEAL ENVIRONMENT
I like to feel a bit apart from the world. During weekdays, the client work takes over and there are conversations, distractions and stuff like that. The only time I can get that feeling of being apart is the weekend or in the evenings. That’s when I get the sense that time pressure is relieved. I’m not like, “It’s 2 pm and I gotta get this done before 5.” Instead, it’s Saturday morning, I have 13 hours today, I can get into it.
RE: HIS PERSONAL MAXIM
One of my personal mottos is “Not even rocket science is rocket science.” That’s mine — I made it up.
Really, how many things could you not learn if you had to?
And how many of the 10,000 people who work on a rocket are actually geniuses? Most of them are just bright people who work hard and they each add their components to the project.
RE: HOW TO USE EAVE
I would set Eave up for reading and sketching. When I get one, I plan to have it in a very secluded corner and not hook up a computer anywhere near it. I’ll leave my phone away from it. I’ll just use it as a place for contemplation and ideation.
For more on Jonathan and MSDS Studio, head here.