Fans and the inventor, Joey Roth ’06

Here at Swarthmore we are impressed by Joey Roth, designer par excellence. He recently received the very prestigious “Red Dot Award,” bestowed upon only 50 international design projects each year, and still manages to keep up with Swarthmore coursework (we hope). As for his current design project, Totemo, it eliminates the need for noisy fans in computers as well as enhances tactile navigation, according to the college’s press release. We caught up with Joey Roth via e-mail just back from a trip to Singapore to collect his prize.

Daily Gazette: First, in short, do you think we’ll see the “Totemo” in stores any time soon? What are its benefits over contemporary computers?
Joey Roth: I’ve spoken with some manufacturers, but nothing concrete has come out of that yet. Totemo uses technology that is available today, and could be easily manufactured, so finding a company that would like to license the design is a key factor here. Unlike my teapot, there is no way I could produce and market Totemo myself.

DG: Were you surprised to win? How did you like Singapore?
JR: I was pretty surprised when I got the e-mail saying that I had won. I don’t consider Totemo to be my strongest design, and entered it only because the Red Dot rules specified that the entry had to be a concept, i.e. not ready for production. The teapot that I wanted to enter WAS ready for production, so I had to find something else. But I was definitely surprised- companies like Sony, Intel, and Phillips also won, which is kind of crazy. I loved Singapore, although it took a while to get used to the weather. My favorite neighborhood was Chinatown, where many of the traditional shophouses (first floor is a shop, upper floors are living space) have been converted into artist’s studios. There is a surprisingly vibrant art and design scene there, and I think the idea of Singapore as overly conservative and superficial is outdated. To be fair, I only spent a lot of time with designers and artists there, so my perspective is probably skewed.

DG: I think what’s most interesting about your work is the desire to be simple yet unique. For example, there is the “Shika” bookshelf, carved from a single piece of wood. It’s functional, elegant, and natural. How is “Shika” part of your philosophy?
JR: Simplicity is definitely central to my design philosophy, but all designers say that 🙂 . It’s interesting that you chose Shika as a manifestation of my philosophy. Because it’s based on a unique piece of wood, Shika would be very hard to mass produce, and I try to design for mass production. However, I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of its natural quality. Shika is a modern bookshelf, and it would be out of place in any earlier period in history. It’s made for people who work on computers and need easy access to their books or DVD’s. It’s made by hand out of wood however, and that contrast between spare, modern aesthetics and natural materials is very deliberate on my part.

When people think of consumer products, the proliferation of blob-like, ultra-ergonomic forms, the inclusion of many disparate features in a single device, and molded thermoplastics come to mind. I hate all this, and I think that modern technology and modern patterns of behavior would be better served by a return to natural materials and forms that look like they were made by humans. Most of my inspiration comes from Japanese tea ceremony implements and old wooden boxes.

DG: What are your plans after college? Do you have a job in mind? Would you like to go into private consulting?
JR: I specifically want to avoid design consulting because I think unfortunately it is a dying field. As businesses start to have a greater respect for design, they will form their own design departments and stop using consultants- this is happening already. I have tremendous respect for the work that some of the major consultancies are doing however, and how they are trying to re-invent what they do and find new ways to bring value to their clients.
My goal is to launch my own brand and produce and market my own designs, but there is a lot I have to learn, mainly about manufacturing, before this can happen. After college I’m going to try to get a job with one of the top design firms, mainly as a learning experience.

DG: I thought your design for the new student lounge in Parrish was excellent, especially the clickable LED light on each mailbox, as well as the lycra ceiling. Do you know if the College still plans to go through with those recommendations?
JR: Thank you! I’m pretty sure that they have no intention of implementing anything I or any of the other winners came up with. You could do a whole other article on how I feel about the contest and the lounge 🙂

DG: Is there anywhere to find your products? Or are we too early for that? JR: A bit too early, but I have a number of retailers lined up who want to sell my Sorapot once it’s ready. Yankodesign, one of the most prominent online retailers of “high-design” objects, already has a page ( for it. Hopefully, it will be ready to go by next holiday season.

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