Profile: Joey Ruiter

The US industrial designer has had a life-long fascination with taking things apart and putting them back together. Anna Norman talks to him about his impulse to deconstruct and recreate anything from tools and bicycles to boats

When Joey Ruiter was nine years old, his dad brought home an old lawnmower, which they took apart and reassembled together. The next day, the third-grade student rode this lawnmower to school – getting into plenty of trouble as a result. The episode marked a fascination with deconstructing and recreating machines that has become a mainstay of Ruiter’s life, circuitously leading him to a career as an industrial designer – a job he didn’t even know existed until he reached adulthood. ’I was always messing around in the garage. My three brothers, one sister and I had full access to tools and we were always building things and taking things apart. But I never knew it was possible to work in a field like that,’ says Ruiter.

Coming from a small town by Lake Michigan, Ruiter felt as a child that his options were either to became an artist (and be poor) or an engineer. At the Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan – the town where he still lives and works today – Ruiter realised that he could combine these two disciplines in industrial design, selling his first office chair design to Steelcase while still a student, which paid for the final year of his degree. It was at Kendall that Ruiter learned one of the cornerstone rules of becoming a successful designer, which is ’to have the confidence to fail in front of people’. After graduating, he designed for office furniture company Turnstone for three years, earning a Neocon Gold Award for alternative office solutions – until the slow pace got to him. ’I like things to move really quickly,’ he explains. Setting up his own group was the next natural step.

J Ruiter & Studio pushes boundaries with its free-thinking, cross-disciplinary approach. Today Ruiter is the owner of more than 25 patents for designs ranging from office furniture, homewares and tools to an urban bike and several boats. His back-to-basics approach is still one of the driving forces in his work. ’Stripping machines down to their core essence and rebuilding them leads me to new discoveries, thoughts and inspiration,’ he says. Ruiter’s deconstructing impulse can be seen in its purest form in the Inner City Bike he designed in 2010 as a studio project, a challenge to himself to apply his design principles to the everyday. ’If I could strip away an object that was already very simple, utilitarian and mainstream, then that would show that there is definitely opportunity in other areas,’ he says.

The various boats he has designed, including the 3 Rms Lk Vu (which translates as three rooms, lake view), are characterised by ease of use and low-cost manufacturing. Ruiter finds that by focusing primarily on people’s relationships with the product, he often achieves the most satisfactory result. ’We are never aware of the best-designed products around us – they blend into our lives seamlessly.’

Ruiter’s democratic approach extends to the designer’s ethics. He eschews the term ’Green designer’, seeing it as simplistic and potentially misleading. ’How things are made is just as important as the materials used. Being recyclable is only a very small part,’ he says. Ruiter believes the Green tag often obscures the whole story, making a product sound ethical even if it’s manufactured in a sweatshop. Working for big companies makes it difficult to adhere to his principles, forcing him to be creative to solve ethical dilemmas. ’I once designed a cabinet just a little bit too big to fit into a shipping container, so that it had to be made locally,’ he says with a grin.

But despite his misgivings about the disposable nature of many modern products, Ruiter believes it is an exciting time to be a designer. ’There is now a global language for design that didn’t exist just a few years ago,’ he says. ’This is partly because we can now access products all around the world via the Internet. Yet, that hundreds of companies are now able to offer similar, high-quality products has to some extent created laziness within design.’

Ruiter believes that the recent global economic challenges might create new opportunities. ’We’ve been too fat and happy for too long,’ he says. ’It’s going to be the smaller, grass-roots efforts that create great products in the future.’

All work by Joey Ruiter

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