Based in Zurich, rich with ideas
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Charles O. Job achieved his degree in architecture and a master’s degree in urban design at Oxford Brookes University, followed by work experience in various architecture practices in Paris, London, and Zürich. Engaged in the fields of research, temporary architecture, and furniture design for international clients, a constant quest for simplicity is the common thread through his wide repertoire of projects and products. Charles has won numerous international design prizes and has a chair in the permanent collection of Vitra Design Museum. Charles has recently joined the SIT Awards Jury panel and is sharing with us his passion for “the art of making things.”
Could you tell us a little about yourself and your professional journey?
I studied Architecture and teach architecture, but my professional focus for the past decade has been product design. I was born in Lagos, Nigeria. I moved to the UK in my early teens.
Like all children of my generation, and most African children in general, I was always fascinated by the art of “making” things. As children, we “made” our own toys. We appropriated tin cans and embellished them with strings to make the ubiquitous telephone. We added wooden wheels to jerry cans and transformed them into rugged vehicles.
We were not poor. We were rich in ideas. I longed for an avenue to pursue this most satisfying part of my African childhood. I found it in design and now have my small studio in Zurich. My career started with my decision to participate in the 2002 edition of the Salone Satellite at the International Furniture Fair in Milan. I showed 5 prototypes and was awarded a Design Report Award for being one of the top three designers in the show.
Among other objects, I presented an early version of my vis-a-vis bench. The concept of two people seating on the same bench but facing each other was designed as a symbol of the reunification of East and West Germany in an international competition sponsored by the Deutsche Bank in 1999. The bench was spotted at the show by several producers and was eventually put into production by ABES. It has been in production ever since.
Taking part in the show launched my design career and strengthened my belief in the path I had taken to go independent and do my own thing, in my own way!
Can you tell us more about your company “Charles Job Design & Architecture”, when did you open your own studio?
I teach architecture part-time and run a small trans-disciplinary design studio engaged in the fields of temporary architecture, product, furniture, and lighting design for international clients.
Both my academic and professional interests lie between theory and practice, between “thinking” and “doing”, exploring the innate interdependency of both thought and action as active and important elements of the creative process and a useful tool for solving real-life problems that affect real-life people. The products are archetypically simple, formally reduced and often humorous contemporary objects firmly rooted in every day since 2002.
I am interested in teaching, practice, and research. A research project charged with finding usable alternative building materials to wood and cement for the provision of affordable shelter in Northern and Eastern Nigeria bears testimony to this process. It resulted in tannin-bonded composite panels based on agricultural residues that would otherwise have been incinerated causing great ecological damage. The research team, led by myself, was awarded the Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction 2011, and the Gold Award at the Materialica Design & Technology Award 2012.
Apart from working, I am interested in exchanging ideas and connecting to an international network of designers and thinkers. This keeps my design practice competitive and informed. To achieve this goal, I take part in many open competitions and am invited to design Jury panels. I have served on various international design Juries, notably: the IF, in Germany. Turkish Design, Istanbul, and both the D&AD and the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize in London.
You have won numerous International Design Awards; what are your design principles and where do you find your inspiration?
I regularly participate in international design competitions. Many of these I could and did win, but most, of course, are “lost” to others with better ideas. Nevertheless, the lost competitions were not without profit. Open competition on a given topic usually results in very many, very interesting solutions. The designer ponders and questions with pen and paper. Iterations of old ideas are forged and merged with developments of new possibilities. The result is always exhilarating. The new Idea must, in competition with others, be able to stand out and compete within this crowd.
However, success depends not only on the quality of the idea per se but also on its convincing communication. As soon as an idea leaves the studio, the umbilical cord is severed, and the “child” is emancipated. It has to assert itself. It has to evoke emotions in others. It has to convince and be accepted. It does this with the passion imbued by the creator. The passion invested will, in the best case, be transferred to the user. It will evoke a desire to possess and cherish the object. It is this very passion that creates sustainable design. Products that will be cherished and passed on from generation to generation.
Picasso is quoted as having once said that he never looks for ideas, he finds them. The statement is not as pompous as it may first appear: it is an expression of the meekness to admit that we are influenced by anything and everything around us. Ideas are everywhere. We just need to be in a state of mind to receive them. My trusted sketchbook and my mobile phone are my constant companions. I record the ordinary, everyday objects, analogue and digital. I see the gems of ideas in materials, forms, colours, light, and shade. These recordings and annotations form themes, the backbone of any idea.
Since 2008, you have joined the University of Applied Sciences in Bern (Switzerland) as a Professor of Architectural Design Theory. What do you like most about teaching?
My design assignments are aimed at encouraging and allowing a vibrant exchange of ideas between faculty and the student body. I enjoy it most when students actively engage in dialogues with me and with one another. Each exercise is concluded with a review and a discourse that I compere. As a master of ceremony, I am in a position to guide the conversation that would include all the students, propagating their confidence in assuming a personal point of view. Creative sparks fly on such occasions!
What do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities in your career now?
My practice is strangely straddled between architecture and design. Consequently, I don’t really follow one particular market, so I am not in the best position to offer an accurate diagnosis. From my position as an observer, I think the topic of sustainable design will continue to challenge the market and hopefully drive innovation. A sensible and sensitive approach to design acknowledges the finite quality of our resources and demands a reset on the themes of packaging, transportation, and circularity. My plywood Flat-pack chair “sketch” is a contribution to a possible future. A chair, made of one simple profile, transported flat-packed and easily assembled by the user.
What are you working on at the moment? Do you have any upcoming projects or collaborations that you’re able to tell us about?
I have recently joined forces with the “Africa by Design” platform. Initiated by Chrissa Amoah, the organization aims to promote African Design. As well as offering limited editions of products by African designers for sale online, AFRICA BY DESIGN dedicates its platform to exploring and exposing the best of the continent’s diverse design talents.
My plywood armchair “Sketch” was recently acquired by the permanent collection of Vitra Design Museum. I am now developing the chair with Das Konzept. We are hoping to bring it onto the market next year.
Last, what is the advice you give to your students when finishing their Architecture degree?
Find your own voice. It sounds simple because it is. It may take time, but it comes when you do what you love. It will/may change with time. Let it!
Don’t believe in trends. They will pass!
Enjoy what you do!
Keep it simple!