Dialogue: Jesse Thorn - Design Bureau

Put This On, Episode 7: Personal Style

The dapper compère at Build. Photo by Nichola McCrea.

Dialogue: Jesse Thorn

Monday, November 14th, 2011

by Sarah Handelman
photos by Noe Montes

For someone who calls himself "America’s Radio Sweetheart," Jesse Thorn has certainly won the hearts of the design world. Last week, the host of The Sound of Young America compèred Build, a week-long web-design festival and conference in Ireland. “My attention was piqued in part because it was such a distinctive request for me to fly 6,000 miles to Europe to host this,” he says. “I had never heard of a conference having a host, much less had ever considered attending or hosting a design conference.” Still, Thorn is no design luddite. In fact, like any good designer, he’s a bit of a problem solver himself. To demystify the necktie and other men’s fashion foibles, Thorn created Put This On. As the modern gentleman prepared for his foray into the world of design via Build, we spoke about the conference, design, storytelling and the value of objects.

First let’s talk about Put This On, a men’s fashion project you started in addition to your work at MaximumFun.org. How do you see storytelling and design intersecting within this venue?

It's funny — I’ve never thought of myself as having a foot in the design world with Put This On, but that’s absolutely true. I mean, the world of men’s style is a really wonderful example. Like many design problems, it’s a combination of aesthetics and usability or function. Men’s style sits within a long, aesthetic tradition, which is a big part of what Put This On is about. We try to be about something that’s broader than just “fashion” and fits more comfortably under the heading style. Put This On focuses less on the fashion — the abstract or vague forms of creativity — and instead tries to situate what men’s style is doing in the context of an historical tradition and within in the context of real lives, while retaining the aesthetic perspective.

A lot of Put this On is about the stories behind the physical things, and that includes secondhand things. For me, buying a jacket at the Salvation Army is more appealing than buying a jacket at Bergdorf Goodman. In part because this jacket’s life is a fantasy you can indulge in. The jacket I’m wearing right now is much older than I am. It might even have a date inside.

Checks jacket.

No. But this jacket probably had several lives before I got my hands on it. I don’t know what those are, but it’s a wonderful added value to me. Sometimes I get an e-mail that says, “How can you stand to wear a dead man’s shoes?” But I like the idea that things have had other lives. I like the idea of the story behind things, even in the context of new stuff. I want to be able to buy a pair of moccasins and know the guy who made them. I’m interested in the life that objects bring to your life.

How do you see craft playing a role in the Build conference, and in design?

I think the idea of craft is really interesting. Take code. Some of the designers at Build are purely digital designers. They’re there to talk about code. I like the idea of looking at craft and thinking about how it relates to code. It’s a wonderful notion of something that’s so incorporeal and also on its face so much about engineering. Essentially, code is a craft that’s about finding the finest, most beautiful way to solve a problem.

That is the whole story of code, actually. The guys who were the original hackers, who wrote the first computer games, and who wrote the first significant computer programs in the '60s — they started out just wanting to find elegant, modern solutions to model train layouts. We are now at a point where beauty and problem-solving streams have merged. You can find beauty out of both of those streams in one piece of code.

How does working through the medium of sound play into your understanding of permanence and value on the web?

One of the things that the medium of audio has at its core is human intimacy. There is really no way to hear someone’s voice in your ear, unadorned, and not feel directly connected to it. It is audio’s unique strength. Podcasting, specifically, is the first time that the spoken word (a connection other than music) has been something you can truly share. This medium is not like video, where people pass it around to a thousand people. Audio requires a much deeper connection. When I hear about someone connecting with someone else over audio, it’s about creating a much deeper relationship. I host meet-ups in various cities, and often people will say, “I feel like I know you (and not in a creepy way).” That is a connection I don’t get from even the more information-dense work I’ve done in television or video. That depth of connection is what the web is trying to figure out how to generate. People have realized, especially with the blog revolution, that you can have a blog that gets millions of page views and doesn’t really matter. It’s just stuff that flashes in front of us. But finding a way to make a connection real is important because, of course, we want those connections in our lives. And also, my main business is listener-supported. A connection is what allows me to eat. What I do has to matter to people. It can’t just flash by like an episode of Jerry Springer, because it’s what pays my rent. I hope that we are moving towards a world where online media is designed to deepen connection rather than broaden it.

How does hosting a conference like Build influence your process as a storyteller and interviewer?

What I admire most about great interviewers is the way that they draw meaning out of conversation rather than emotional moments, which is traditional to television. So someone like Elvis Mitchell, who hosts The Treatment on KCRW, is always looking for theme in people’s work and trying to draw it out of their interviews. I think that aspect of what I do is the reason why I was invited to Build. I’m going to use the little time I have on stage to try to draw some themes and ideas that maybe designers were only beginning to realize — and some that they hadn’t realized they were getting at — and also try to do that across the spectrum of the day.

I’ve done a lot of on-stage Q&As. One of the skills you have to have when you’re taking questions from the audience is the ability to make sense of something small. Part of what you’re doing is taking a factoid a person is asking about (If you watch a Q&A at ComicCon, everyone always wants to know about some little thing), and figuring out how to explode that into something with meaning. That is the skill I’m trying to flex at this conference. The premise of Build is to develop the big picture. There are plenty of conferences where you can learn which snippet of code you can throw into your webpage to make the background into twinkly stars (which I think is the main thing that web designers do, right?). But here, the goal is to have a conversation that is much deeper, which is focused on what’s really important in the work that designers do. And why they do it. I think that’s where I might be able to help.

Outside of the occasional Gary Hustwit or Deyan Sudjic, who have been on the Sound of Young America — or outside of reading Metropolis at my mom’s house — I don’t consider myself a design expert, but I think that that’s fine. A conference like this requires me to be deeply engaged in what’s going on on-stage. And frankly, humble ignorance is the best place to be for someone whose job it is to ask questions.

Anything lately that has made you look twice?

I have a new baby who is now just coming up on three months old. And he just has the broadest, most absurdly huge range of expression, emotion, and physicality. He never stops fascinating me, and he’s always changing me. One of the things that he made me realize is that our control over our bodies is a learned behavior. Babies come out not being able to do anything. They have to just try different stuff until they figure out how to grab something, or look at something. My baby has just learned how to look at things in the past month. He’s only now following things with his eyes. That’s something I would never think about if I weren’t seeing it all happen in front of me.

Best place to get stuff done:

What I do is I go up in my office. I close the door. I try and do things, and I almost invariably fail. I find that it’s when I’m furthest away from home that I’m actually able to accomplish something significant. Alternately, the best place or time is when there’s another more important thing that I’m not doing. I definitely only accomplish things in contexts when I absolutely have to and I’m avoiding something else more important.

Worst place to get stuff done:

Probably exactly the same place where I sit and do all of my work. Unquestionably, there is a better, more efficient way for me to do basically everything that I do.  I really just follow one shiny light after another. I am completely incapable of facing my fears workwise. I have set up my entire career around what I was doing as a receptionist when I was trying to avoid my receptionist work, which is really just reading RSS feeds, looking at eBay, and talking and making jokes. I am probably the least productive person who produces, at least to me, what is an unfathomable volume of crap.

Some people would call that doing what you love, right?

Yes, that’s true! That’s a good point. I guess I should really lose the idea that only unpleasant things are valuable to the world.

Do you have a designer or studio that you watch?

My friend, Noé Montes, is a photographer who is an Angeleno and first-generation immigrant. When he was a kid, he worked with his parents as a seasonal farm worker. His work often engages those themes but not in any boring, clichéd way. His work takes normal people and invests them with the sincere quiet dignity that I think is his personal gift. He does this with objects, as well.

Stefan Lawrence is a designer I got to know from the comedy world. He’s a member of this brilliant sketch comedy group out of New York, called Elephant Larry. I love that he brings the warmth of humor to his work without being jokey, and especially without being cute, which I think is often the shorthand for warmth in modern design worlds. He designed all of the Maximumfun.org logos and the Put This On logo. 

Who is your favorite person to follow on Twitter

The person who strikes me the most is my friend Rob Huebel. Rob is very classically handsome (especially for a comedian). He’s big, he has a very sort of clear, middle English voice. On Twitter, as often in his performances, his tweets are exclusively nightmarish.

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