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Jonathan Louis x Otis College of Art & Design - Intro to Jonathan Louis

Read our last installation? Go ahead and skip the intro

 

Developing the next generation of talent is a big part of our ethos (see here, and here for our talent development series). We’ve extended our efforts outside of our four walls to Otis College of Art & Design. From installations to trends, Otis students have been active participants in our market-focused endeavors. 

 

This fall, we’ve expanded our collaboration with Otis College to sponsoring a Product Development Studio I class. Open to third-year students, the class is a hands-on, “project-based course bringing consumer products from concept to market.” The goal of class is to better understand how to incorporate practicalities like manufacturing into the design, and “to gain a greater understanding of how to translate a concept into a product for sale in the market.”

 

Projects include individual home decor and the Jonathan Louis sectional group project. At the end of the semester, we will select one team’s concept, and work with them to build a final piece to display at Spring 2023’s High Point Furniture Market. Follow this blog to see the progress of these students as they deconstruct, explore, play, ideate, and create.

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Jonathan Louis Tour and Q&A

Students of Product Development Studio I class took a field trip to Jonathan Louis HQ and LA factories. In an up-close and personal tour, students had the opportunity to chat with class sponsors, Javier Sanchez (CEO) and Heidi Gonzalez (Director of Product Development) and the chance to tour our LA facilities.

Introduction to Jonathan Louis

Javier kicked off the afternoon session with a quick introduction to Jonathan Louis, and provided the reasoning behind a Jonathan Louis-sponsored course. He emphasized the importance of developing new talent and growing the next generation of leaders.

Segueing into the history of JL, Javier briefly touched on how China’s inexpensive goods put pressure on the furniture market, and it was during this period of tumult that JL identified an untapped market, one of mid-priced furniture that featured high-end design and craftsmanship. Focusing on this void allowed Jonathan Louis to carve out a distinct berth in the market; now shipping over a million pieces a year, the focus on product design and development is unparalleled at this price point. 

 

Javier then talked about the development process, emphasizing the importance of not being hindered by outside considerations. “A conscience is sometimes a pest,” he quoted U2’s “The Fly,” noting that too much influence from sales goals, the market, and other external influences can hinder creativity. He did note, however, that once design has taken shape, bringing in other voices to provide commercial and brand insight is necessary, as creative and business need to co-exist and find a balance. 

 

He then goes on to explain the thought process behind the final project set before the students: what does the future look like for furniture? What iteration of furniture will be in demand in 10, 15 years? Will it be purely functional, as all of our lives are conducted via VR or in the metaverse? Or will there be a retreat to the familiar, the nostalgic?

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Factory Tour

Next stop was to one of our two factories in LA. Just a short stroll away, the visit to 130th gave students insight to each stage of the production process (though not necessarily in order of production). Starting with fabric cutting, Javier explained about patterns, and how pieces are stacked and cut for efficiency. 

 

The students also stopped by upholstery, and then moved on to watch as the foam and inserts of cushions were made. Next up on the tour was wood frame assembly–which led to a vigorous conversation on parts like webbing and sinuous springs–then to framing, and then to wood finishes. The walkabout wrapped up with Heidi and CJ Sierra (Product Design Specialist) talking about market samples in the staging area. CJ walked the students through the design process of Kayden and Midas, two new frames for Market, from inspiration to conception to design execution. One of the trends that CJ noted was that every part of the piece was upholstered, removing all wood or metal elements, and that the arm seamlessly segues into the leg (editor’s note: a trend that Javier drily observed was also a trend many years before CJ was born).

Process - Inspiration

After a quick tour in HQ, the students gathered in the Design area where Heidi, CJ, and Princess Collazo (Product Development Specialist) walked them through the design process.

 

Step 1, Research + Brain Dump: There’s no limit or guidelines or editing at this stage (mirroring Javier’s approach to unbridled creativity). This is a time for gathering inspiration, throwing out ideas (good or bad), and research, looking at both where we are going as well as where we have been. Future + trends resources include Pantone, Fashion Snoops, and international and domestic magazines. Historical research is featured on the “war wall,” where sales are broken down by style category, seating type, and price point. From there the team identifies gaps in the assortment, as well as what styles might be on their way out. 

 

Step 2, Editing: All research is pulled together and areas of overlap are identified, while outliers are thrown out. Strongest of the images and colors are pinned on the wall. The focus at this point becomes identifying the why (social and cultural connections) and the who (who is this consumer).

 

Step 3, Identify Key Trends: With the acknowledgement that trends in the purest form is generally a little too much for the average person, the trends are diluted to be retail-friendly, and to fit everyday needs. 

 

Step 4, Pairing: Now the team sets about matching fabrics to the identified trends, and matching fabric to frames. CJ provided insight to his sketching, which is with a focus on developing for others; Princess provided insight into her fabric selection thought process, which was selection by lifestyle.

 

Step 5, Sample Cards: This is the point at which the baton is handed to Engineering to start developing prototypes and samples via detailed sample cards.

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Process - Engineering

Moving to the Engineering Department, Paul Vasquez (Engineering Manager) explained in-depth the prototyping process. Not only did he walk the students through all the steps of developing a prototype in the Sample Room, but he also talked them through the market cards, the cards for specific retailers and special orders, and how each is treated differently. 

 

In response to the question, “What happens between markets?”, Paul explained how they’re busy all the time: while Market is a high-volume event that happens twice a year, the team is engineering new pieces and working on special requests and projects sent in by private label customers year-round. And while pre-Market's focus is getting samples ready, post-Market is about remaking the same piece so that it’s production-ready, saving as much time, labor, and material as possible on the production floor. He points out there’s also a lot of administrative work that’s involved in setting up a new style. 

 

Eli Lopez (Product Design Engineer) and Silvia Zentino (CAD Pattern Maker) showed 2D views for frame and fabric cuts, respectively, printing out the example on paper to show three views of the same piece. Eli explained what the lines on the paper meant (where the frame is, how much space is allocated for foam, fabric) in this full-scale orthographic projection.

Q & A

Wrapping the day off was a Q&A, where Javier was asked questions like:

“How did you get into the industry?” 

 

A: Johnny was working for the previous owner, and brought Javier on. He started as a janitor, sweeping up floors. The owner (David Harrow) paid for him to go to college while working at Jonathan Louis. When he graduated, he returned to JL full-time, and worked his way up through the ranks. Javier was asked by the previous owner to start taking on tasks outside of his purview, like go to a top customer and ask them what they need (be a rep in essence), which was an eye-opening moment as to how to service clients. When the owner passed away, Javier and Johnny bought the place. 

 

“How important is it to have a mentor to help guide you?”

A: David Harrow was an amazing mentor, and that's why Javier is where he is today–because he had such a good mentor. David was preparing him to take over without obvious or overt indication that he was being groomed.

Next Steps

The students are now charged with creating sectional concepts in teams, to suit the brief as set forth by JL, with this deeper understanding of the company and of its product development process. Stay tuned to see what the students come up with in terms of designs!