When did you decide that you wanted to be a designer? As a kid I drew constantly, collected discarded items and built things out of them—but I did not know that these were design foundations. My father is an archaeologist and an historian. When I was growing up and he was engaged in fieldwork, I accompanied him on many of his archaeological excavations. I was always fascinated by the artifacts we unearthed and by the process of re-assigning meaning through materiality and context. In university I studied the fine arts and anthropology. Over time I came to realize that design was the combination of all of my interests.
Education: I have two undergraduate degrees from Cornell University: a BFA in sculpture and a BA in visual studies. The second degree was not an official major at the time but an independently designed area of study I created with a focus on anthropology and visual culture. After the above realization—that design is an amalgamation of aspects of anthropology, craft, technology and art—I went back to school to receive an MFA in furniture design from the Rhode Island School of Design in an effort to begin my career as an industrial designer.
First design job: I think my first paid design job was working as a freelancer in Aldo Rossi's New York studio with Morris Adjmi and Lisa Mahar.
Who is your design hero? There are many designers whom I greatly admire. That said, design by any definition has occurred since prehistoric times, leaving many of its greatest creators unnamed. To me, the true heroes are those whose products provided the archetypes we continue to build upon today.
Inside Owen's studio in Rochester
Describe your workspace: My office is filled with natural light and surrounded by the woods on the exterior. It is compact, clean and efficient. For me this allows for a deep level of focus. It is mostly white to amplify the lightness that permeates the space and to silhouette the objects I must be attentive to.
Other than the computer, what is your most important tool? My pencil
What is the best part of your job? Empowering people to succeed—as a designer, by crafting objects and systems that make life better; and as an educator, by training individuals to make decisions that make their own lives better as well as the lives of others.
What is the worst part of your job? I have a word for it: "Administrivia."
The SOS Stool (left) features two elements that can be used as hooks, handles or cup or wineglass holders. The XOX Table assembles without tools or hardware.
What time do you get up and go to bed? I wake up around 6:00 a.m. and after breakfast with the family and getting the kids off to school, I run for about four miles before beginning work. I tend to go to sleep around midnight most nights.
How do you procrastinate? To be honest, I don't have much time to procrastinate. As the chair of the industrial design program at RIT, I have many responsibilities. Balancing that role while attempting to have a productive design practice and a family leaves little room for playing hooky. Besides, I am lucky that my work is also my passion, so if I was procrastinating it would be doing more of the same.
What is your favorite productivity tip or trick? There are no tricks for me, just interrelated practices. I run regularly, eat many healthy foods, keep my calendar full, make lots of lists and surround myself with good people. I also enjoy several espressos each day.
What is the most important quality in a designer? Empathy and the ability to communicate solutions across different mediums and platforms
What is the most widespread misunderstanding about design or designers? That designers are primarily aestheticians and design is mainly about aesthetics.
For the Corning Museum of Glass's GlassLab project, Owen designed three prototype vessels for domestic use: a shallow bowl for beside technology (above left), a combination drinking cup and toothbrush holder (above right) and a container for tubeless toilet-paper rolls (below).
What is your most prized design possession? That's hard to say, as every object I possess has a story. One "design" item that is meaningful to me is a splint designed by Charles and Ray Eames. Besides having obvious historical, cultural, social and technological value, it has personal value because my wife is a physician and I am a designer. Because of our paths in life, this product objectifies the point in which our professions and passions cross over.
What is exciting you in design right now? Those who are capable of practicing informed restraint
If you could redesign anything, what would you choose? Honestly, I find so many areas of interest—I do not think I would have a preference. The truth is that the gap between our ability to dream and our ability to do is closing faster than ever before in history, so I think my work is laid out for me.
What do you hope to be doing in ten years? More designing, more educating, more learning
Lastly, who's more fun to have a drink with: architects, industrial designers or graphic designers? I have many friends in each of these professions (and many others). As my friend Massimo Vignelli would have said: "Design is One." For me it depends on the individual far more than the vocation.
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