With his boxy tweed jacket, baggy pants, and scruffy beard, industrial designer Jonathan Olivares looks more like a college professor than an aesthete. In fact, Google recognizes him first as an author (he has three books to his name, with others on the way), and when he speaks—in a husky yet high-pitched monotone—it’s in an avalanche of information. So it was fitting that I met him at Harvard University, the Platonic ideal of studiousness and the place that kicked off the 36-year-old designer’s new collaboration with forward-looking Danish textile manufacturer Kvadrat. Launching next week during Salone del Mobile and titled Twill Weave, the collection is a series of 19 multicolored wool textiles, and the first in the brand’s history by an American designer. “Jonathan is one of the people defining his generation,” says Kvadrat CEO Anders Byriel, who told me he sees Olivares as a diamond in the rough, the next in a line of thoughtful collaborators that includes Raf Simons, Peter Saville, and Olafur Eliasson. “He is a true intellectual—a guy who’s extremely conceptual, in a positive sense.” In other words, a guy who’s uniquely equipped for the art of object-making.
Selected in part for his unusual approach, Olivares blends writing, research, and design as core elements of his discipline, resulting in practical, multifaceted objects with fully realized identities. His backstory is just as protean. A native Bostonian now based in Los Angeles, Olivares founded his practice, Jonathan Olivares Design Research, out of his mother’s garage in 2006. Before that, he’d graduated from the industrial design program at Pratt Institute and spent a year apprenticing for Konstantin Grcic, contributing to projects for Muji and Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Grcic introduced Olivares to editors at the Italian design publication Domus, encouraging his research and writing on the field. (Such projects financed, in large part, the opening of his practice). In the years that followed, Olivares developed a body of work that spans industrial, spatial, and communication design. Among his achievements are the showroom and educational space Vitra Workplace (2015); the 2014 exhibition “Source Material,” which he curated with Jasper Morrison and Marco Velardi; and the Olivares Aluminum Chair for Knoll (2012). The Art Institute of Chicago, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art all have his work in their permanent collections.
Despite these accomplishments, Olivares flies under the radar as a kind of anti-designer, by his own accord. When our conversation turned to furniture design in New York, he waxed apathetic. “I couldn’t tell you who’s doing furniture in the States. It’s so boring,” he said. “Design kind of stays inside design, normally, and that’s always my biggest annoyance with it: designers talking to designers.” He’d rather work with architects or artists, and do things in the formal, exacting way that drives him. Witness Twill Weave’s accompanying booklet of essays: it details the history of synthetic pigment and modern textile manufacturing, and is peppered with quotations from the likes of Bruce Nauman, Charles Eames, and the rapper Ice T.
Twill Weave’s beginnings reflect this rigorous approach. In 2015, Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, asked Olivares to make a piece of furniture for Philip Johnson’s Thesis House, built in 1942 and now used for the school’s residency programs. Archival photos depicted a Mies van der Rohe daybed, which played a prominent role in the living room when Johnson lived there, as well as defining columns made by New England mast-makers using wood due to wartime restrictions on steel. Upon seeing the building in person, Olivares paid homage to modern-day mast-makers with a daybed in his material of choice: twill weave carbon fiber. The mandrels used to produce the masts provided an ideal material for the daybed frame. For the cushion, Olivares mimicked the twill weave color and pattern in a textile, which he produced in collaboration with Kvadrat. The result, once applied to the daybed, was a visually homogeneous piece of graphite-colored furniture—an inadvertent fusing of Eero Saarinen’s design concept of “one piece, one material” and Charles Eames’s desire to celebrate different materials. (Ironically, the difference of opinion, which ultimately put an end to the pair’s iconic collaborations, exists in harmony in Olivares’s work, a fact that greatly pleases the designer.)
Once work on the daybed was completed, Kvadrat asked Olivares to expand the textile into multiple colors. Wanting to continue the earthen theme of the initial fabric, he searched for ways to get similarly pure hues akin to those existing in nature and found himself studying the rocks and minerals at Harvard Art Museum’s Strauss Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. Its collection—materials the center studies to understand the raw sources of pigments used by artists—offered precisely the raw, unprocessed color he was looking for. Working with the center’s director, Narayan Khandekar, Olivares selected 19 naturally occurring pigments to inform the warp and weft of what would become the Twill Weave collection. Each piece in the series is made of two different colors of thick woolen yarn, simulating the complexity and dimension of each pigment. “I think what it comes down to is rebellion against color standards,” Olivares says, referencing synthetic pigments. “Rebellion against Pantone, RGB. So it starts to stand for this more humble, less-human-intervention kind of color.”
Rejecting artificial materials while embracing design history and technology, the Twill Weave collection is quintessential Olivares. But it also offers a different approach to textile design, where the fusion of new and old, nature and tech, results in fabric with veritable depth. Class dismissed.