Furniture and Lighting Designer TJ O’Keefe Just Wants You To Keep Talking To Your Neighbors

person with beard and long hair wearing jean jacket standing in front of grey brick wall

We like meeting new people. People who upend expectation and will mix their florals, their decor, their friends, their cocktails, anyway they like. You know them by what they wear and how they wear it, the disparate genres on their bookshelves, and you know as soon as you walk into their space. They’re the anti-curators, embracing life with a clairvoyant eye, a soft touch and a knack for making it all work together. Lauren McGrady is one of those people, and we feel lucky to partner with her and Rider for Life — her independent West Loop-based boutique — to showcase a few of the artists she features at her space in the Gallery.

Last month, she brought in furniture and lighting designer TJ O’Keefe, a Chicago-based maker investigating line, light and functionality. She sat down to talk with him about the evolution of ideas, the difference between “art” and “design” and what he’d want his super power to be. (Spoiler alert, it’s the nicest one we’ve heard in a while.)

Read on and catch next month’s show which features artist Peter Manion, on display Jan 19–Mar 19.

Lauren McGrady:
Industrial design can take a lot of different forms. Why did you decide to employ your skillset to make artful, functional objects as oppose to say, the latest and greatest blow dryer or audio speaker?

TJ O’Keefe:
I think there’s merit in lots of forms of design — although I’m not sure we need more blow dryers — but I always gravitated towards abstraction and simplicity. Early on, I also was a very self-centered designer; I just made things that made me feel good, and I didn’t have much interest in talking to people, let alone meeting the needs of consumers. Simplicity moved me, so I let that lead.

When did you decide to make light part of your work and why?

I think I loved James Turrell’s early work so much, I had to figure out a way to make something like it. I wanted to make a Turrell you could have in your home, without putting a projector on a stand. A Turrell to-go; no controlled environment, and nothing hidden from view. That was my 45 light. It was also good timing with the advent of LED strip. A new form of light! Great opportunity for a designer.

In a more fundamental way, light has such a powerful intrinsic value; we’re like flies to a zapper. Just looking at light makes me feel good. Must be something about how none of this could exist without light? It’s pure manifestation of life, and is such a powerful medium, it feels like cheating. So I cheat sometimes.

I wish I had a super ability to let people know how much they mean to me in a zap.

How has the way people, including yourself, react to your work changed over the years?

I think people are slowly warming up to my work. But it’s limiting. Minimalism is an extreme, so it either excites people, or they hate it. But my nightmare would be to design things that make people feel “pretty good.” I used to only sell things to architects and engineers and other designers — I guess that’s still kind of my niche — but it seems the general public is starting to get on board. It’s understandable. Most people didn’t grow up with looped steel rod chairs in their living room, so it takes time and effort to warm up to it; especially when it’s in the context of furniture. As art, I think people are more warmed. My work is intended to feel foreign and without connotation — it’s intended to be an escape from reality — and this can be challenging to a person. But I’d rather confuse someone than bore them.

To me, through time, my intent is much more clear. I used to just be compelled to try to make cool things, and now I understand a greater value in what I’m trying to do, so I can tighten my parameters and be more exacting with my work. I’ve recently let go of silly constraints like ‘function’ in lieu of effect. I want people to feel something. I’m trying to help people feel human.

I tried really hard to not be “an artist,” because I had some weird latent judgment of art, as if it lacked rigor or discipline. I wanted to make “necessary” things. I realize now that semantics can be stupid, and it’s all the same shit. Some of my work is “designed” because you can put a cup on it, but if it loses a flat surface it’s “art?” Same shit, just shifted. Feeling joy is no less a necessity than setting a cup down. And both are privilege.

I also used to try to make perfect things for a perfect world. My Dip stool was designed to embrace the imperfections by making an object that begins with a rough surface, so any dings will just be an enhancement. Signs of life are now beautiful. Perfection is creepy.

What in your mind would be one of the greatest misfortunes?

Not being able to see the beauty in the mundane and going through life like it’s a checklist would be a shame to me. (And by beauty I mean smells, tastes, touches, sights, sounds, love, humor etc.) I feel really fortunate to see and experience the world the way I do.

Or having to go to one of those self-service, touchscreen, beer bars for the rest of my life.

Life without music?

A greater humanity, first-world misfortune would be that we stop talking to each other (irl). We’re able to supplement so much life experience with technology now, but it drives us further apart as humans and citizens. I hope we keep talking to our neighbors, and stay open in our thinking, and stop sacrificing life for efficiency and order.

What is your dream of happiness?

Whoa, heavy. Short answer, freedom to keep living a curious life. When I was a young designer, I used to want to be the best. And I thought that that meant living the tortured life of the artist (or architect or whatever). Forsaking humanity (and leisure activities) for the pursuit of creative perfection. Fortunately for my social life — and depression — I’ve become enlightened to the beautiful intricacies of the world, especially the value of human interaction and connection. Happiness is to keep the privilege of living a life full of adventure and beauty and wonder.

If you had a natural super power, what would it be?

TJ: So, like a super-enhanced natural ability… super bench-pressing skills…. I wish I had a super ability to let people know how much they mean to me in a zap….or something. Like to be able to zap my love to people. Don’t tell me to use an Apple Watch.

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