Jonah Takagi. (Photo: Erik Benjamins. Courtesy Marta)
Jonah Takagi. (Photo: Erik Benjamins. Courtesy Marta)

Jonah Takagi on Media as the Place Where the Practical Meets the Personal

The furniture designer’s content intake includes Japanese tube amplifier magazines, Charles Gwathmey architecture books, and the Starz sitcom “Party Down.”
By Emily Jiang
March 10, 2023
13 minute read

Jonah Takagi comes across as laid-back and casual, but the truth is, he keeps pretty busy. The bulk of his time is split between New York City, where he runs his namesake design studio, and Providence, Rhode Island, where he teaches a Herman Miller–inspired furniture design course at the Rhode Island School of Design. When he’s not designing or teaching, he’s up in the foothills of Vermont’s Green Mountains, developing a newly acquired plot of land, or back at home in Brooklyn, engineering his own tube amplifiers and other hi-fi audio equipment.

Brimming as his schedule is, none of what he does truly feels like work to him. In fact, Takagi has never really bought into the work/play dichotomy; instead, by his very nature, he has always spent his time oscillating between the realms of music and design. Born in Tokyo and raised in the suburbs of Hartford, Connecticut, Takagi grew up playing bass guitar in a local third wave ska band before going on to earn his B.F.A. in furniture design at RISD in 2002. Hearing the music scene calling his name again, he began playing with indie rock bands upon graduating and devoted himself to the touring life for the following seven years. In a joint stroke of practicality and renewed passion, Takagi returned to furniture design in 2009, establishing his own brand, and has since gained international recognition for his furniture pieces and homewares. This Saturday, March 11, in his first-ever gallery exhibition, “Brut Vessels,” Takagi will debut Brutalist-inspired glass objects, along with other work he designed during a recent residency in the south of France, at Los Angeles’s Marta Gallery.

Takagi’s media habits don’t stray far from this work-as-play M.O. He largely consumes content that informs his smorgasbord of life pursuits and interests, whether it be residential architecture books that inspire the house he’s designing on his land or Japanese tube amplifier magazines that teach him new configurations for the equipment he’s tinkering with. Like the work he does, none of this material is dry or tedious to him. “It’s all very practical, but it’s also immensely personal,” he says. “The [things I consume] are all things that I’m very passionate about, and they take a lot of energy and reflection.”

Here, we speak with Takagi about what this outlook means for the content he reads, watches, and listens to.

Pieces from Takagi’s “Brut Vessels” exhibition at Marta Gallery in Los Angeles. (Photo: Erik Benjamins. Courtesy Marta)
Pieces from Takagi’s “Brut Vessels” exhibition at Marta Gallery in Los Angeles. (Photo: Erik Benjamins. Courtesy Marta)

How do you start your mornings?

Well, I wake up, and typically, I’ll look at my phone. I dive into The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal apps. I’ve always read the Times, especially T magazine. The Wall Street Journal’s been pretty interesting to me lately, although I tend to avoid the whole opinion section.

Then, usually, it’s coffee. I recently got into the AeroPress. I’ve struggled in my adult life trying to find the best way to make coffee in the most effective way. I’ve tried everything—French press and Moka pots and pour-overs—and I’m now into the Aeropress. There’s a bit of a ritual aspect to it, the grinding and the filter and waiting and plunging and the whole thing.

Then, I just get right to work. Sometimes I’ll turn the radio on. I listen to NPR in the morning. It helps to fill the space and get my brain moving. I work from home, and it’s been that way for most of my career as an independent designer, punctuated by moments when I have a studio. But more often than not, I’m just here.

Where do you get your news?

I don’t know if this is embarrassing, but I used to love Gawker—rest in peace. It’s this thing that I read that was sort of irreverent and snarky, and even though it’s been years since I was relevant, I feel like I’m constantly looking for something to scratch that itch. I also was a rabid reader of The New Yorker, but I moved around a lot in the pandemic, and I don’t have a subscription anymore. I read it religiously for years.

I’ve never gotten on board with Twitter or any of those other platforms. I do engage in social media, but at this point, it seems like more of a professional tool.

Which social media platforms do you use?

I’m on Instagram [@jonahtakagi], and I do interact with it. It’s a really great source of inspiration for me, just consuming visual culture. And of course, as a promotional tool for my own work, I think it’s really great. For whatever reason, the algorithm really gets me. It’s a mix of bikes and stereo stuff and small houses, and the occasional furniture or hardware moment.

Do you listen to any podcasts?

On occasion, but I tend to listen to more music. Podcasts are difficult for me, because I have a hard time figuring out how they fit into my life. When I’m working, I really need to focus. I even have a hard time listening to music with words. I have to listen to something ambient, or jazz. Even just hearing people sing is a little bit distracting, let alone an engrossing story.

But my parents live up in Vermont, and I also have some land up there that I’m slowly working on developing. So my drives back and forth are moments when I dabble in podcasts. There’s this podcast Bandsplain, where the host, Yasi Salek, talks about these bands that are kind of culty or maybe mainstream, and just explains why they are the way they are. It’s everything from Phish to Dave Matthews Band, and I find that pretty entertaining, coming from a musical background. There’s also How I Built This, that NPR show. I find it a little redundant or repetitive—I always feel like it’s the same version of the same story over and over again—but it’s really fascinating for me to look at this broad context.

Any favorite TV shows?

I feel like everyone’s watching The Last of Us, and that’s been sort of indulging all of my prepper tendencies. At the root of it, it’s about a fungus that spreads throughout the world and turns people into things that resemble zombies. And it’s a story of a man who’s a father and in law school, and—no spoiler alert—this girl, and their trek across the United States. I’m only three or four episodes in, and they’re currently in Wyoming. I like it because the zombies are just backdrop to all of this other stuff going on.

I heard Party Down is coming back, which is one of my favorite shows, on Starz. I will watch that religiously. It’s about a catering company, and each episode is a discrete event that they’re catering. One will be somebody’s sweet sixteen birthday party. The next will be a funeral. And the next one will be the Adult Video News Awards. It’s pretty entertaining.

What books are you currently reading?

I think there are three versions of me reading, and they’re all very different. It’s all kind of goal-oriented reading. Certainly, my first area of interest at this moment is getting readings together for my course at RISD. The one book that I keep on going back to is a newish book about Herman Miller, called Herman Miller: A Way of Living. It’s hard to believe, once you open it and look at it, that something like this hasn’t existed, because it’s just this amazing document that talks about the pre–Herman Miller days when it was Michigan Star, all the way up through their merger with Knoll last year. It’s a coffee table book—it’s hundreds of pages long. It’s the type of thing where you can open up to a given page and have your mind blown, and you can close it and come back to it two weeks later.

The second version of me reading—which, I don’t even know if it’s considered reading—but I have some winter hobbies, like I make tube amplifiers for myself for listening to music. Some of them are behind me over here. So I have all of these Japanese magazines [about tube amplifiers]. I’m half Japanese, but I don’t read Japanese. So, again, I don’t know if you’d call it reading. This one, which is called something like Enchanting Vacuum Tube Amplifier—History, Design and Production: Volume 1—that’s probably a bad translation, but close enough—is from the nineties I think, or maybe from the mid-seventies. The author’s name is Isamu Asano, and he’s sort of the godfather of Japanese D.I.Y. hi-fi. He contributed all of these articles to the magazine MJ Audio Technology. It’s not quite reading, but I look at this, and point my phone at it, and Google Translate does its best to describe what it’s saying. It’s not the most pleasant experience of reading, but it’s interesting. I’m learning a lot and working on some new projects based on what I find.

The last version of the books I’ve been consuming is that I have some land in southern Vermont that I’m working on. My dad is an architect, and it’s something that I always aspired to be, but I didn’t have the bandwidth or the focus to be an architect specifically. Now I have this land, and I’m going to try to design a house. So I’ve been buying a lot of used books and some new books on architects that I admire. One of my pastimes is low-grade trespassing to see architecturally significant buildings. One time, I was out near the beach with some friends, and we saw a bunch of the work of this architect Charles Gwathmey, who is just really amazing. This book, Charles Gwathmey & Robert Siegel: Residential Works 1966–1977, is his best, or at least it’s my favorite Gwathmey book. I also have this book Houses and Drawings by the Japanese architect Kazuo Shinohara, who’s probably my favorite Japanese architect. So I have a pile of these books, and I keep them around for inspiration as I imagine this future home for myself in the woods.

What artists or albums do you listen to most?

I’ve been pretty busy lately, so, as I was saying, I have to listen to instrumental music. For the most part, that’s been a lot of jazz, like the German label ECM, which is pretty jazz-centric. You can’t really go wrong with an ECM release, whether it’s a classic Eberhard Weber or something more contemporary. Bill Evans’s Explorations, I was listening to that the other day. When I’m outside of that work environment, it’s a little bit of everything, often contemporary music. I have a pretty big record collection. I like having people over and cooking dinner while we listen to records.

Music is just a huge part of my life. I play drums and guitar and bass. If I’m not listening to music, I’m wiring an amplifier, and if I’m not doing that, I’m maybe playing guitar. I have a friend, Jill Singer, who also did a Media Diet with you, and she mentioned in it that every night, for about a year of the pandemic, we spent ninety minutes a night doing this group-listening thing. It was four of us, from 7:30 until 9:00, every single night. We had this master playlist with tens of thousands of songs.

Any guilty pleasures?

I don’t know if it’s a guilty pleasure—I don’t really feel that bad about it—but a while back, I started paying for YouTube Premium, which has changed my life. I feel like I was wasting years of my life looking at targeted ads. I found these Japanese cooking channels, and you don’t even know who’s hosting it. One’s called Japanese Noodles [Udon Soba Osaka Nara] and the other is Mogu Mogu. There’s not that much information, but they just go to some restaurant—and these aren’t restaurants I’ve heard of—just some noodle place in a suburb outside of Osaka, and they go there and follow the owner as they roll up the metal grate. I enjoy cooking, so it’s entertaining to learn something, but it’s also coupled with A.S.M.R. vibes. I mean, there’s no music playing. It’s just the sound of kitchenware clinking and things bubbling, and it’s real work in kitchens. It’s not produced. The lighting is always a little strange. I’ve been watching those when I’m stressed out, or if I just need to relax.