Designer to Know: James Dieter

Designer to Know: James Dieter

By Dwell
Lighting designer James Dieter’s work is bred from a desire for material and technical exploration—with inspiration sourced from fine art, fashion, toys, mechanics, and quotidian industrial parts.

Lighting designer James Dieter grew up a tinkerer. Born and raised in Indiana, his parents encouraged him to create, for fun and for what Dieter describes as a practical, Midwestern "why buy it if you can make it" mentality. That affinity for making and a degree in industrial design from RISD led him to first establish a lighting company, dform, in 2001 that specialized in paper-thin, wood veneer lanterns.

Five years ago, however, Dieter opted to return to his mechanically-inclined roots by establishing a spinoff design studio devoted to his more experimental work. Under this eponymous brand, Dieter creates intricate aluminum lights, which seem to fold and hinge upon themselves, tricking the eye by appearing nearly flat at one glance, only to expand into space at another.

Mobi by James Dieter is a positionable "mobile of light" that can take various forms.

Occasionally, like in his Cross fixtures the sleek geometry of the metal frame is softened through pastel-colored felt and porcelain diffusers. Dieter reflects, "The pandemic gave me the sense that a slower pace can accommodate more creative thinking by making space for new ideas, material encounters, and design visions."

Learn why a hand-scratched screwdriver from his grandfather is one of Dieter's most treasured possessions in our Q&A below.

Hometown: Brooklyn, NY 

Describe what you make in 140 characters. I make decorative lighting fixtures that are sculptural and adhere to an experimental design vernacular in both form and technical structure.

What's the last thing you designed? Last week, I designed a tool to slice a gasket material—which we use in some of the fixture designs—down to a more accurate size and profile. Because we do so much of the production process in-house, there’s a lot of innovation that ensues. To me, problem solving is the most enjoyable part of fabrication—figuring out solutions in creative ways through sometimes minute, sometimes grand, manufacturing or technical gestures.

A tetrahedon-based light fixture in the ketta collection by James Dieter.

Another piece in the ketta collection by James Dieter.

Do you have a daily creative ritual? I draw regularly using an app on my phone. During idle time or when the impulse arises, it’s an easy way to get some unimagined creative thinking down in visual form. These drawings are very often what inform my actual collections down the line. It’s playful, but it ends up translating to the industrial side of the design process.

How do you procrastinate? In countless ways—including reading the news, looking at Instagram, and looking for the most efficient way to do a thing, rather than just doing the thing.

What everyday object would you like to redesign? Why? Who knew this would become an everyday object, but after spending a lot of time wearing a face mask—and even though there are countless designs already available—I’d like to make one I don’t mind wearing for hours and hours. I don’t know exactly what it would look like yet, but hopefully something more ergonomic.

Dieter's elbo collection unites anodized or plated aluminum with porcelain or glass diffusers.

Another piece in the elbo collection.

Who are your heroes (in design, in life, in both)? I appreciate the example of anyone whose love of their interests has brought them into a deeper understanding of some aspect of our world—people who actively use their passion as a point of exploration. I spent years admiring the painter Richard Diebenkorn. I also like the work of the Bouroullec brothers, and Ronan’s drawing habit. I’ve cited Rei Kawakubo as a big inspiration, and I think she’s a real genius. She’s certainly in the hero ilk.

What skill would you most like to learn? A few years ago I tried to learn German. Though I'd need to start over, I’d like to finish.

What is your most treasured possession? Tools from my grandfather’s shop are highly valued by everyone in the extended Dieter family. He was a packaging machine inventor, and a creative re-purposer of kinds of household materials. He also wrote the acquisition date on most everything in his shop and, if it was given to him, who it was from. The hand-scratched date on my screwdriver makes it something I would never part with.

What's your earliest memory of an encounter with design? When I was a child my brother and I would design and sew camping gear, and for me a little later, climbing gear. We got inspiration from the early Patagonia catalogs and sensed that we could design our own solutions to "problems," or create any of the things we felt we needed.

The disco chandelier by James Dieter

What contemporary design trend do you despise? I don’t despise any work that offers originality. I feel like trends in general, when they’re reflected in design, rely too much on received ideas, rather than found ones. But if trending ideas are interpreted with an original eye, I think that’s interesting.

Finish this statement: All design should... begin by leaving assumptions behind.

What’s in your dream house? A Saarinen Womb chair.

Did you pick up any new hobbies or learn a new skill while in quarantine? What was it? If you can count it as a hobby, I started walking and observing more: circulating the same areas of Brooklyn while taking note of how many people are out and for what purpose, what businesses are open, and what looks "different" in general. It has been a way to catalog the city’s changes, I guess.

A wall sconce designed by Dieter.

How do you think the pandemic will affect residential design in the future? What about workplace or commercial design? I heard that copper, though pricier than other metals, may be used more in future commercial interiors because, compared to other materials, it doesn’t transmit surface germs. It’s also now evident that the world can respond with urgency when it chooses. The effects of climate change are on track to be worse than COVID-19 and will affect everything. Serious initiatives are needed to prepare us, and design has a large responsibility in that.

How can the design world be more inclusive? I reflect here on my design education at RISD, which was of course not the provenance of my access to design or privilege within that, but it was certainly my first truly formative moment. And it was relatively homogenous, in terms of the kind of people learning and teaching. It’s something I wasn’t aware of at the time, but I see it now, and I envision that proactive inclusivity in terms of access to design education can also create a radically more diverse industry.

What do you wish non-designers understood about the design industry? Selfishly, I wish non-designers understood how much work goes into design. It would help people conceive why our work is priced the way it is, and its value as a part of the visceral, even emotional, sensibility of its setting. In the grander scheme, everything we look at in the built world is designed to some extent, so it’s important to realize that someone’s design choices—and biases—were behind it.

You can learn more about Dieter by visiting his website or Instagram.  

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