21 Questions With Industrial Designer Joseph Guerra

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Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo: Courtesy of Airsign

New York’s “21 Questions” is back with an eye on creative New Yorkers. Joseph Guerra, the founder of the studio Guerra Office, is an industrial designer frequently tapped by millennial-friendly direct-to-consumer brands such as Misen, Lalo, Dims, and Cleancult. In March, he launched his own DTC company, Airsign, which makes a HEPA-filter vacuum now available at the MoMA Design Store.

Name: Joseph Guerra
Age: 32
Neighborhood: Clinton Hill
Occupation: Industrial designer

What’s hanging above your couch?

An Enzo Mari print of an apple and a pear. I’ve liked Mari’s work since I was in design school, and whether he was designing a chair or an ashtray, he had really good control of shapes and forms.

What’s the first job you had in New York?

I was an industrial designer at Quirky Inc., where I worked on building out new categories like educational toys, fitness products, and pet accessories.

What color are you always drawn to? 

The Italian red you see on a Vespa or a Ducati or Olivetti Valentine typewriter. It’s an optimistic color from an era of futuristic design, which signified newness and modernity. Your eye is always drawn to it.

What work of art or artifact are you most surprised you own?

I was blown away to find a Dieter Rams table lighter — it’s like a machined stainless-steel cylinder with a giant button on it — at a French flea market, in perfect condition, for 30 euros. It still works, but I’ve never used it.

Which New Yorker would you want to hang out with?

Miles Davis. He was the quintessential New Yorker: a frustrated creative force who was obsessed with everything the city had to offer.

What’s the last thing you made with your hands?

We mock up a lot of the products we design out of cardboard and foam, and I made a foam model of a muscle roller that you’d use after a workout.

Is there one thing you own multiple versions of?

I have multiple Eames Aluminum Group Management chairs. As we need to add seats to the office, we always buy these, and they have subtle variations. Most of them have five legs, but the one I have at home has four, and they’re in different colors. I like the silhouette and think the cast-aluminum pieces are all really well engineered.

What New York City museum do you always go back to?

I go to the Noguchi Museum often. It’s like half-museum, half-garden, and you don’t feel like you’re in New York when you’re there.

What do you always have next to your computer? 

I keep a lot of objects around my desk. One is a granite stone I found in Alaska that’s a perfect, smooth little ellipse. I use it as a paperweight.

Where is the best view of the city?

The best one I’ve personally experienced is at the Artsy headquarters at 401 Broadway. I was there a lot because it was one of our first clients; we made standing desks and bookshelves for them. There’s a 360 view and you can see what I call the “hills of Manhattan” where it drops into Chinatown and Soho and picks up toward midtown.

What building or object do you want to redesign every time you see it?

A printer because it’s a widely used piece of hardware that hasn’t been perfected. There’s a universal frustration with a product that doesn’t get any better. We print a lot of things out in the office and feel like we’re always fighting with these machines. I was talking to an engineer about it one day and he told me the reason printers don’t work is because paper is a chaotic material. It’s organic and is just constantly releasing dust into the machine.

What’s one thing you would change about your field? 

I’d like industrial design to be reprioritized in the world of brands and start-ups. Every company has a moment when it puts out a product that’s less than perfect. Usually it’s because of a reduced budget or shortened timelines or the need for a release to happen now. It leads to products that don’t fully serve the user and uglier products. If industrial design was invested in a little bit more in the beginning, you’d get better results.

If you could live anywhere in New York City, where would it be?

The West Village. It’s a beautiful neighborhood and looks like what you want New York to look like: small streets lined with trees and brownstones that always end in a really great café, restaurant, or bar.

What would you hoard if it stopped being produced?

Glue-gun sticks. For me, there’s no replacement for a glue gun when I’m making a cardboard mock-up.

What do you do to get out of a creative rut? 

I travel to reset and receive a different kind of visual stimulation. I like to look at the details of a city I’m visiting: the bollards, fences, railings, and doorknobs. All those things are different in every country, which is fascinating. They’re not even “designed”; they’ve always just existed that way because of the thinking in the culture. I went to Japan a few years ago for a reset and admired these water weights that were used everywhere. They were big rectangular jugs, and I adapted them into a doorstop.

Where was your first NYC apartment, and how much was the rent? 

It was in Bushwick for $700 a month. I shared it with a roommate who never left his room, smoked cigarettes all day, and had a cat he never took care of, so I would. It was a sort of sad New York experience that I kind of loved.

Where in the city do you go to be alone?

I run in Prospect Park. You can find yourself alone on some of the paths that crisscross the park in the early morning.

What’s the worst piece of career advice you’ve ever gotten? 

To become a commercial success, people advised me to become more corporate, to go bigger, expand into a branding studio, and broaden to do all types of design work, no questions asked. I’ve pushed against that and always wanted a middle path where I can be choosier about the projects I work on.

What have you given away to someone that you wish you could get back? 

I used to have a small print from James Rosenquist that I got at a wedding. I’m friends with his daughters, and it had her wedding details on it and a figurative watercolor. I lent it to someone so they could decorate their apartment with the caveat that I’d want it back at a certain point, but it hasn’t been returned.

What’s your favorite NYC restaurant and regular order? 

Cafe Gitane, which is beautiful inside and has a French New Wave look. It’s one of the only restaurants where I’m comfortable eating alone. I get the Moroccan couscous, which is big and generous.

What descriptive phrase do you want on your obit headline?

“Artful designer behind some of your favorite products.”

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