A NEOTENIC DESIGNER

JUMBO CO-FOUNDER JUSTIN DONNELLY

Pop quiz: What does the word “Neoteny” mean? No asking Siri, phoning a friend or Google searching allowed. So, how’d you do? If you’re coming up empty handed, don’t beat yourself up, I struggled when I first read it too. I tried (unsuccessfully) to unpack the etymology of the word, looking for context clues and repeating it to myself out loud in my chair at Restaurant Norman. I got nowhere. I read and reread the brief on JUMBO, “a new Brooklyn-based design studio guided by a deep respect for sculptural form, rich material, and exquisite detail....,” who I was meeting for the first time in approximately 15 minutes.

Then I lost my resolve, and succumbed to a quick Google search of the word, and to my surprise, of the approximately 400,000 results, the top definition read: “Ne-ot-e-ny, borrowed from the German Neotenie. noun, zoology -- the retention of juvenile features in the adult animal.” I stared blankly at my phone screen for a few seconds before the sound of footsteps approaching reminded me to check the time. I looked up just as designer Justin Donnelly, founder of Justin Donnelly Studio and co-founder of JUMBO arrived at my table. We shook hands, exchanged names and for the next hour, I listened intently as Donnelly revealed the equally delicate and unmissable links between the animated cartoons of our childhood,  the contemporary culture of the exhibition, and designing for the pedestrian. And perhaps unbelievably, exactly how neotenic design and “the exaggeration of childlike features”  provide a riotous foundation for this ambitious new project.


I’m curious how long Monling [Lee] and yourself have been working on Jumbo.

The two of us went to architecture school, what feels like a long time ago, and then we collaborated on one of Sight Unseen Presents store activations last year. That was the first time we had worked together after school. We actually probably hadn’t spoken in quite some time, and then after we worked on that project together we were like “we really work well together, let’s see where this goes.” You know, just keep talking about project ideas and see what happens.

And now you have quite a few projects in the works, all under this designation of the Jumbo brand. Can you talk a bit about the real process of working together?

Monling comes up every once in a while, but she works mainly out of Washington, DC. Thus far it has not actually been that tough, working remotely, though. We spend time on the phone every day and it allows each of us to go away and do our own thing for a while, then come back with peer review, basically, and fresh criticism. It’s nice.

It seems that a lot of partnerships or collectives come out of architecture school: working well together and seeing what happens when you keep going.

We have kind of a shared vision about where we want to take the brand, and we’ve both been pretty conscious about that for a while. We collaborated closely with the fabulous Verena Michelitsch on our logo and identity. We’re particularly happy with the JUMBO mark, which was inspired by Jean Arp and is really organic, in a way. For me it’s been an evolutionary process, but with Monling, she has actually been pretty strong with that for years. She has always had a sense for identity. But in terms of looking at other sorts of furniture and design brands, we are pretty clear that we actually don’t want to do architecture, per se.

There is an interior project for a women’s wear line called Argent–out of San Francisco–that we are doing and would be the closest thing to that. They’re doing their first stores in New York and LA now that we are signed up to do it, which is really exciting, but even that’s not really architecture work, you know? It’s very poppy, it’s very colorful, it’s interiors, and it’s very spacey. We’ve written down a lot of words that we want to define the studio, and a lot of those are related to being fun, playful, and whimsical. Those are things that are not always very present in industrial and furniture design. Often they’re very serious and heavy, and in a lot of ways I think our studio is kind of reacting against that, and trying to be more childlike and playful in what we do.


Those terms: fun, playful, whimsical, are also some of the adjectives used to describe neotenic design, which seems to have become a defining style for Jumbo.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a few years now, because I have always been in love with the furniture of Finn Juhl, of Copenhagen, and it’s interesting to me that a lot of his furniture was panned at the time of its release, but has gained huge popularity since having been reissued. That happened in the early 2000s and within a decade, fat, thick, playful, pudgy furniture was appearing all over the world: Japan, Denmark, in the States, and Italy. So I started getting interested in that approach because of what I was seeing in furniture design, and to a lesser extent, in interiors.

In terms of neotenic design, it’s actually an evolutionary biology term that refers to a theory. It’s not yet proven or disproven but it’s the idea that we have a biological response to the young of our species, and of other species too. When you see a cute baby seal or a baby dog, you have a different response to that as to when you see a 16-year-old German shepherd, and that’s a biological response.

The idea of that theory has been well documented in cartoon design since the 1930s, with Walt Disney, and you can see it in industrial design too.

Yes, I was just thinking about the evolution of early cartoons.

Totally. There is actually an amazing article from the late 1970s in which Stephen Jay Gould actually measures Mickey Mouse’s eyes, and hands, and brain, you know, and basically shows that over the course of a 50-year period, Walt Disney Studios made him more childlike, and more adorable. Monling and I want to do work that’s adorable, but I should say that we don’t always necessarily want to do work that is neotenic. Our studio will not always be doing fat, pudgy furniture and interiors. We’re doing that now, but, you know the next stuff that we release, in six months, might be skinny and not of that sort of style or aesthetic.

That having been said, I do think the idea is really interesting, and I do want to push that and see where we can go.


But I think, even though you say you may not stick with this singular aesthetic forever, to begin by thinking about this human response to design work is a provocative focal point for a practice.

And this isn’t just like an adage, there are studies that show these reactions, and folks in various design industries definitely know this, and I think, frankly, it has taken a while for furniture designers to catch up.

Which is fascinating, because it makes a lot of sense to seek that kind of response–of comfort or familiarity–when you're talking about interiors and and furniture...

100%. Another thing we think about is actually wanting to catalog our work as being feminine, as opposed to masculine. That's one of the bywords for the work that we're trying to do.

And what about exhibiting this work?

I’m interested in your thoughts on interior and industrial design exhibition: store, versus gallery, versus fair. You know, with the proliferation of the style that you are talking about, I feel like we have seen that having a moment in the typical gallery space, despite the fact that usability and how people are going to interact with it is ostensibly priority number one.

I think, in some ways, we tend to sort of elevate our ideas to the point that we think of them as these objects that want to be displayed, you know, in a white box in a gallery. That they have enough weight and seriousness, and presence that they can sort of hold the floor, in an otherwise abstract blank space.

And I definitely think that's a great goal. It's definitely something that Monling and I strive for, also. But we also strive for telling a larger story through the introduction of surface, and depth, and color, when we're exhibiting work: creating an environment and creating a place where you can understand a sense of scale. That’s something we talk about a lot, in that even when we show an image, it’s sometimes hard to understand it’s scale, right? [In the images for Jumbo] we introduced a couple of colors, and there's a little bit of depth there, you know that the chair, for example, is kind of fat, but you don’t necessarily understand what a human being would look like in there. And generally speaking, we're actually kind of opposed to that.

So, what you'll be seeing from us in the next few months is a lot more scale elements. You’ll see plants, and human hands; cell phones and wall chargers; some books and magazines. Those are the real things that we live with, that help us understand our spaces. And they’re not abstract! They are very concrete and pedestrian, and they’re the things that we come to have affection for. And by depressing or excluding that from our image making, I think that design and architecture have really missed an opportunity.


Much visual art doesn’t necessarily have the capability for what you are describing. Design almost innately creates an environment or a new reality, and questioning how that functions in an exhibition space presents an interesting challenge.

I’m going to get a bit “architectural” on you here. You know, since Mies did those amazing drawings that show, you know, the grid of the floor and the ceiling, then with windows and other objects in that voided, abstract, space, architects and designers have always kind of lusted after that that complete abstraction. Superstudio did the same thing but basically much bigger.

And in contrast, we actually want to see things in very discrete, concrete places. In terms of the renderings we do, and the sort of image making that we engage in, we want you to see the ephemera of real life. You could see that really clearly Dogma’s work at the Chicago Architecture Biennial last year, which Monling and I were crazy for, and I think is a real indication of how architecture and interiors are moving away from monolithically striving for this perfect, abstract space. We're engaging and embracing the messy reality of day-to-day life, which I think is wonderful.

A “missed opportunity,” is a really nice way of putting it, because what you are describing as your interest is also, quite simply, what design does best.

I think that's the best part, when, back to your question about exhibition, you can have a crowd in one of these spaces really interacting with the objects. That to me is the most fun.

Words by Emma Macdonald. Photos by Justin Ryan Kim. 

Justin Donnelly is an A/D/O Workspace Member. Jumbo's Neotenic Collection is on view at The A/D/O Shop.