“I don’t start with the idea; I start with the process,” says the Los Angeles-based industrial designer Jonathan Olivares. “So I’m always surprised when the idea takes shape. The last thing I want to do is to be sitting at my desk coming up with big ideas.”
This research-based, incremental approach—which brings to mind the Charles Eames directive to “innovate as a last resort”—has made Olivares’s career trajectory different from those of other young designers. (He turns 37 this year.) Rather than producing a steady stream of products, Olivares has designed just a handful.
These include an aluminum stacking chair for Knoll, and a small, versatile steel cart for the iconic Italian company Danese that won the prestigious Compasso d’Oro in 2011.
His three books include A Taxonomy of Office Chairs (which is just what is sounds like); Richard Sapper, based on a series of Hitchcock/Truffaut-style interviews with the late German design master; and Jonathan Olivares Selected Works, a 2017 overview of his work. In it are a number of his essays, both broad and specific, on the nature of design, and projects like the Vitra Workspace, a showroom and learning environment (with the architect Pernilla Ohrstedt) at that company’s headquarters.
The book also includes exhibitions like Source Material—a look at the objects that inspired a broad spectrum of designers—which he co-curated in 2014 with revered industrial designer Jasper Morrison and Apartamento co-founder Marco Velardi.
Olivares’s philosophy made him a perfect match for the 50-year-old Danish textile company Kvadrat, which is known for its forward-thinking approaches to color and sustainability, and which will debut his Twill Weave fabric—the sixth and latest of Olivares’s product designs—during this month’s Milan Furniture Fair.
Anders Byriel, Kvadrat’s CEO, says that although the company has worked with a range of well-known designers, including Raf Simons, “We like to find newer people, not just famous people.” Byriel sees in Olivares “a level of sophistication in how he sees the world. Jonathan is very strong on rigor and method.”
That method was the genesis of Twill Weave. Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design invited Olivares to create a piece of furniture for the Philip Johnson Thesis House in Cambridge, Massachusetts—a compact dwelling that Johnson designed in 1942 as his graduate thesis project, and which the GSD now owns. Olivares was inspired by Johnson’s use of wooden ship masts as structural columns in response to World War II restrictions on steel.
Nowadays, ship masts are made of carbon fiber, so Olivares went to a New England mast maker to help him develop the daybed he had in mind, a contemporary update—its proportions were inspired by those a yoga mat—of the Mies van der Rohe-designed daybed that once occupied the living room. Carbon fiber has a twill weave, which produces a pattern of diagonal lines, and Olivares wanted to mimic that weave in the fabric that covered the daybed’s cushion. So he turned to Kvadrat, which developed a wool textile in the same graphite color as the daybed’s material, per Olivares’s request that daybed and cushion appear “visually homogeneous.”
Similarly, when Kvadrat wanted to develop a range of colors for Twill Weave, Olivares sought an off-the-palette solution. “I was firmly against using RGB or Pantone colors, because they seemed arbitrary,” he says. “It occurred to me that graphite comes from the earth’s crust, and that colors are found within that crust.”
So Olivares soon found himself working with Narayan Khandekar, the director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums, to select a group of naturally-occurring pigments (from the 2,500 in the Straus Center’s collection) that would make up Twill Weave’s range of 19 colors.
These include, to name a few, Alabaster, a pale gray; three different shades of Malachite; and Azurite, a vibrant deep blue. Kandekhar notes that this is the first time these pigments have been used outside the field of art conservation. Playing on Kvadrat’s skill in manufacturing wovens, Olivares used different tones within each mineral sample for the warp and weft of the fabric.
That’s consistent with Olivares’s habit of mining existing materials and technologies for new uses, as in adapting an extrusion developed to underpin contoured building facades for an aluminum bench system (developed with the metal engineering and fabrication company Zahner), or borrowing the technology of skateboard rails (Olivares was a keen skateboarder growing up in Boston) to create cushioning that would protect the seats of the Knoll chairs when stacked.
Olivares’s seventh finished product, a curved-panel folding screen, for Really, a Danish recycled textile company part-owned by Kvadrat will also debut at the Milan fair. There’s also a pop-up skate park for the feminist art collective BRUJAS opening in May at Performance Space 122 in New York; a granite bench system for public outdoor spaces, and a book on the development of office floor plans over the last 50 years.
“I like the journey,” Olivares says. “It’s where you get surprised. To learn something you didn’t know, or discover you were wrong about something, is really great.”