AERANAUTS Q&A 02

Joshua Skirtich, Industrial Designer

Join us for the latest installment in our Aeranauts series, an exploration of inspirational men and women, from all walks of life, in their own words.

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Joshua Skirtich in his multi-purpose office, design-lab and bedroom.

Joshua Skirtich is an engineer of the possible. He occupies a room in a shared apartment in Williamsburg, the hippest neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York. His room is just 8 feet by 11 feet with massive loft style windows along one side.
      As well as being the place where he sleeps (a bit) it is also his work room, nerve center and design lab. Skirtich, 25, graduated in Industrial Design in 2019 from Pratt, a celebrated Brooklyn college specializing in design, architecture and the fine arts since the late 19th century. Skirtich is an ideas guy, a passionate problem-solver, employing ingenuity, imagination and skill to find clever solutions to life’s minor challenges. Sometimes he finds amusing or inspiring solutions to problems that don’t even exist. Like a watch-shaped Carmex lip-balm dispenser or a cantilevered stopper system for a soy sauce bottle.
      Many of his ideas are concepts that may never actually be made. The real challenge for Skirtich, is to take an idea from thought to viable object. Skirtich approached the layout of his tiny living space in much the same way, hoisting his rigorously streamlined wardrobe up out of the way on a system of ropes and pulleys and turning an entire end wall into a giant peg board, where tools (and even sneakers) become displayed objects of beauty. We spoke to Joshua to find out what makes him tick.

“I'm kind of a workaholic in the sense that I like to work on my own projects as much possible.”

Joshua, what is it about Industrial Design that sucked you in?
      To me, in a nutshell, industrial design means working out how to design things for mass production, using emerging technologies to design better, more efficient, more interesting and more current objects.

Your loft apartment in Williamsburg seems like an ongoing design project, a design for living.
      It is. I share the loft with two roommates. I kind of treat my own room as a design challenge in itself; how much can I do with 88 square feet? It's a problem. It's small but it's fascinating because it's also so tall. It has 12-foot-high ceilings. So, I can go vertically to expand in ways that other people probably wouldn't because they don't have the tools, the know-how or the curiosity.

Is it more an office or more a bedroom?
      I'm kind of a workaholic in the sense that I like to work on my own projects as much possible. So, the desk is the main feature of the room and it spans the entire 11-foot from one wall to the other. That was where I started, everything else was secondary, including the bed. My bed is small – a twin size – because, well, some people might use their room for sleeping, but I really just sleep when I have to; I figure I'll be able to do that more, eventually, when I'm more established.

Essentially, it’s about priorities…
      Yes. Because the desk was so big, I ran out of space for clothing. So, I decided to put them on the ceiling. The clothes are secondary; I spend way more time working than I do getting dressed. So, if getting dressed is slightly impractical, it's really not a big deal to me. A lot of people ask ‘Why would you put your closet on the ceiling, it sounds so impractical?’ Well, it is, but so is having a small room and I'm okay with that. I'm trying to make the best of it. I'm trying to design the room like I would design a product, from start to finish. I built everything in the room except the chair and the bed, though I did switch out the wheels of the office chair for Razor scooter wheels, so it rolls way more smoothly.

What is your favorite tool?
      Apart from my computer, probably the thing I use most often - that i couldn't live with out - is my pair of digital calipers

Often, Joshua's creations are the result of one-liner ideas.

Like a "Carmex watch” that dispenses lip-balm.

Where form equals function.

How does an idea form?
      I'm usually researching a tangential topic and then a connection occurs, where two things that I've been thinking about recently kind of come together. A lot of my designs really start off as one-liners, like the “Carmex Watch” in a long list in my phone, where I just dump anything that comes into my head. So, I have hundreds of one-liner design ideas stored up.

You really go deep down those rabbit holes sometimes. Does time stand still at those moments?
      Yeah, it definitely does. If I'm excited about something I’m working on, I won't know how long I'm doing it and I have to be reminded by my friends to go eat or go outside. In school, I could work all day and night on something. Then, time does really seem to stand still, and I get pretty entrenched in an idea maybe because I get so bored by the majority of things that are happening around me. I'm not really invested in politics or Hollywood.

You play a lot with rethinking the purpose of things, and you’ve done a lot of fun ideas with wristwatches. Why?
      I see watches as sculptural forms. I respect watches for their ability to tell time, of course, but for the most part, the reason I buy a new watch is down to the look and the feel of it. I decided to try and push that as far as I could and make a watch that is sculptural and functional in a different way than telling the time, like it may hold lip balm. To me that's no odder than having a mechanical device on your wrist to tell the time.

Or odder than a weed grinder that looks like a flower?
      Totally! I recently made a marijuana grinder watch, shaped like a flower. Weed is legal in New York now - I wouldn't do it if it were for an illegal substance. I looked at every flower illustration that I could find in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and on Pinterest. I categorized all the flowers. I was looking for the flower that can fit best around a grinder. I actually spent three days looking at flowers. It didn't seem like that long because I was thoroughly enjoying it. I think that what I like about designing useful products is when they are motivated by curiosity; they really open the doors to more ideas.

But many of the things you dream up and then create don’t end up as actual products. Is that frustrating?
      I never really approached anything with a view to it being an actual product at the end, unless, of course, it's to a brief from clients. But for me, like the stuff you see on my Instagram, it's always just me designing to satisfy my urge to realise things that I have imagined. I have to make them real; the feeling is compulsive and relentless. But I find people respond to these things too; sometimes there's a real demand. I've had people ask me, ‘Are you going to make this?’ But I’m not always sure that these things should exist in the real world just because I’ve made them possible; I think companies are often too quick to mass-produce things that they know will make them money, even if it's possibly bad for the environment.

Artist's impression: Joshua's plan for his workspace and bedroom.

Skirtich's “Do Nothing” Machine.

Do you ever wonder if some company will take your idea and make it real?
      A company isn't going to take a risk making the sort of stuff that I’m just putting on Instagram for fun. Often the people with the know-how around these 3D printers don't have the aesthetic taste to design something cool. So, I feel like I'm luckily in this in-between place where I can explore like an engineer and also as an artist and an entrepreneur, and do things that almost make sense, but not quite. It's just a fun place to be messing around.

What inspires you about design?
      I'm really inspired by what’s becoming possible right now. Because of new technologies, like 3D printing, anyone with an idea can viably create something very quickly. The old gatekeepers of production, whether it be manufacturing minimums or the people who own the factories, all of these constraints are being removed. And that's so exciting to me. I'm just able to think what is the most interesting thing I can create? What is the most head-scratching thing I can make to pull someone out of their daily routine?

A lot of your ideas emerge in a palette of white and primary colours. Is there a reason for that?
      I just choose white usually for the base to keep it as clean as possible. It lets the dry humor of the idea be the loudest aspect of it. Often a product becomes colorful because I add elements taken from toys or because the objects that I choose to add are just colorful by nature because they are also commercial products, things packaged to get your attention, like Carmex lip-balm, which is made yellow to be noticeable.

Your “do-nothing” machine combines bits of toys and a 3D printed chassis. What inspired it?
      I love the outdoors and I love biking and camping. I designed it because I sit in that bedroom pretty often and in the winter, it can get somewhat depressing when I'm stuck inside all day, and it’s bleak outside. So, I designed this spinning object that I could attach to my window that would add some color and interest to the outdoors even if the outdoors is gray. Getting this thing moving reminds me that time is passing, and it forces me to take a deep breath to engage with it. It calms me down in a way that I wouldn't have imagined at all.

Skirtich's rendering of an imaginary, Self-Driving toy car

You also work in CGI for things too big to print on a 3D Printer
      Yeah. I designed a toy remote-control self-driving car. It's kind of a joke. You just put it on the ground, and it drives itself around – it wouldn't be that fun after a few minutes; it's a joke on the idea that self-driving vehicles – or by extension automation in general - is going to solve all of the problems of society.

A lot of the challenge of product design is to work with familiar objects, but to come at them from a new angle. In one project you reinvented a soy sauce bottle with a cantilevered stopper. How did that come about?
      We were tasked at college to design tabletop goods for an imaginary, foreign-themed, restaurant in America, but from an American perspective and also to respect that foreign culture. I’m an extremely American American; I grew up in the Midwest, in Ohio, where people don't know the difference between China and Japan, but I’m very interested in Japan. So, I figure I'm a good candidate to design something to appeal to both America and Japan. When you pour the soy, the stopper stays level. It's a very technical thing that’s also really simple. I have a love of engineering and that drives me in a lot of my designs to play with gravity and let the physics work in my favor.

What’s the hardest part of the design process for you?
      I guess the most laborious part is deciding the aesthetics of what you’re doing. With that soy sauce pourer, for example, a lot of the form is sculptural, you know, it's like this conical shape and there are these proportions that are totally subjective; to me that's a very stressful moment in the design process making an educated guess as to what something should look like. The rest of the process is dictated by physics and production capabilities, but when you're trying to find the proportions, it can be hard work.

Joshua's cantilevered Soy sauce bottle.

Joshua demonstrates the cantilever action of his Soy sauce bottle.

“I just get really excited by every new problem that space travel might give us and it's a far-reaching goal to solve them and connect technology to people.”

Some of the newest technology in 3D printing is working in metals rather than resin or plastics. Are you there yet?
      I'm still workshopping it, but I'm prototyping some 3D-printed metal objects that are, in a way, inspired by aircraft parts. The aircraft and automotive industries always get the first crack at all the best new materials. I've been looking at what's emerging there and how I can apply it to something more domestic. Right now, I’m making a 3D-printed metal hammer where the inside of it has a structure that is incredibly light but incredibly strong and you can displace the weight in a way that hammering becomes extremely comfortable. It's an ergonomics thing and a visual design study. I’m also thinking how can I package this to where it looks and feels like the future?

3D printers are integral to your work. And now they have become affordable even for the home. Where do you see 3D printing going?
      3D printing with metals is already here though the machines are very expensive. Stone composites, for laying down foundations, are now being developed in architecture. I think this technology is going to be used heavily in space for creating buildings, because you can, in theory, essentially print an entire building out of material that's actually in the ground beneath it. Then there’s a scientist at MIT named Neri Oxman. She's been developing 3D-printed materials that are sustainable and built on biology. Insect wings are waterproof and they're incredibly light and they're incredibly strong. They're made from a biological material called Chitin. If we can actually harness materials from nature, like the coating on a leaf that allows it to shed water - versus a plastic that we currently use on a raincoat – and then replicate it with a 3D printer, then it's eminently possible the entire world, and the way it's built, will change.

Technological advances bring new ideas, but they also mean that experiences once thought beyond the reach of ordinary people are changing the way we look at the future. Missions to Mars, privately-funded space programs, subspace joy rides.
      Absolutely. I really feel like we're not very far away from personal space travel. I love in my little room that I can put things on the ceiling and the walls. But I can't walk around them. It feels like space is opening up and it seems very close to me in time that regular people will go there, maybe even when I’m in my 30s or 40s. I'm just fascinated by the constraints and how they work differently there. Like how do you pour soy sauce in space? I just get really excited by every new problem that space travel might give us and it's a far-reaching goal to solve them and connect technology to people. I feel people are going to have issues in space just due to the lack of normality around them and I think that's where creative people who deal with nurturing the human spirit are going to be key. Hypothetically, I'd love to be a kind of liaison in space between engineering and the humans who will be travelling there, and come up with ways to make them feel comfortable and connected.

Huge thanks to Joshua for taking part in this interview. Learn more about his work at joshua.xxx

Joshua’s Watercolour Watch.

Six colours, a well in the center for water and a brush that pulls out from the crown.

Wear your art on your sleeve.

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