Caine Heintzman interviews Jason Miller, the founder of Brooklyn based lighting company Roll & Hill, to discuss his company’s inspiration, processes and its bright future.
(All photos courtesy of Jennilee Marigomen)
Caine: Where did you grow up?
Jason: I grew up in Connecticut in the suburbs of New York. I moved to New York to go to graduate school when I was 22.
So you went to school outside of New York city for the earlier part of your education.
Yeah, for my undergraduate degree I went to university in Indiana.
What was the focus of your study when you went there?
Art and Art History.
And for your graduate degree in New York, same thing?
Yes, I got an art degree where I focused on painting.
It’s interesting that you come from that background. In a sense it’s a bit different than what you are doing right now.
There are a lot of correlations you know. Its true that art is not the same as design but at the end of the day you are still painting.
True true… Did you have a lot of family support to help pursue artistic endeavors as a possible career path?
I am certainly different from my family members in that way, but they have always been very supportive in my decisions. There wasn’t any sort of fight about it or anything like that.
Was there one thing that initiated you towards painting or were you always creative and it was just a natural progression for you to pursue your art career?
Yeah, when I was looking into going to school I realized that art was the ‘thing’ for me. Art allowed me to make things and be creative. So it was a natural pursuit by default. I learned after college I could take the same processes and utilize these ideas into design.
I can definitely relate to you in that same sense as I also come from an art school background. Going to business school was an option that I could not see for myself personally. Did you pursue any other exploits creatively outside of ‘making’?
No I was always more traditional in my pursuits artistically.
Any particular artists you were inspired by through your development that stood out and gave you motivation?
I have always been interested in a lot of different things over the course of the years. But somehow I always come back to landscape painting.
In the traditional sense as opposed to abstract painting?
No I was more interested in repetition.
Do you think that translates into your current work as well?
Yeah, absolutely I mean i think I’ve always been interested in the two dimensional aspect of things. There are some parts of paintings that is directed by that.
Is music something that’s important in your life? Anything particular playing in your studio?
Yeah I think it’s important. Depending on what you are listening to it can help change the mood in an environment or help you feel a certain way. When I’m at work I don’t actually control the music. The guys outside from my office do. Right now they are listening to the ‘Back To The Future’ soundtrack. I kind of really hate DJing actually (laughing). On occasion you have to suffer through other peoples choices. There are a couple people that I don’t like to DJ.
You have several things going on right now, you have ‘Jason Miller Studio ‘ and then you have ‘Roll & Hill’ as well. Do they operate under the same roof at the moment? Are they two separate operations?
They are two separate entities but we do share a space. As far as the operation goes they are different from one another. I started my personal studio in 2001 and Roll & Hill in 2010, there are about 20 employes for Roll & Hill right now, and my studio is 1 or 2 people that come and go. Things are going well, but it does take up a lot of time.
Was it important to invest more energy into your own brand, outside the lighting world after you got Roll & Hill up and running?
I have always wanted to do both. Now that Roll & Hill has been up and running for 3 years I have a little more time to work on the studio. It’s a nice balance.
With ‘Jason Miller Studio’ are you focusing on creating a line of catalogue pieces or do you have limitations regarding the project?
It’s much less structured. I have no interest in creating a line of products at all. The studio is really just about projects I feel strongly about and want to spend more time on.
Is there any exciting projects you are working on right now that you would like to share?
The biggest thing right now that I have been working on is the mirrors. They are getting a real expansion in the studio. it’s a project I designed 10 years ago but I only found a company that could produce them last year. So I have launched this product in May after 10 years. It definitely feels good to have it out there.
It must be nice to have something like that realized after conceptualizing the idea for so long and investing so much time into it.
It’s definitely nice to have something out there and also being able to come up with new versions of the ideas, which is fun.
What type of vehicle do you use as far as selling? How has a small studio business adapted to the current economy?
It’s a pretty simple business model and its really kind of meant to work. We get an order and we make it, or we make something and then we sell it, it’s really one to one relationship. We will make another one if there is a customer and if there isn’t, we wont; so we are not really dealing with inventory and things like that. Our company works on what is on demand. We usually operate in a high end market so their is a lot of customization. a lot of one on one contact. Our business concerns are different then others.
Have you stumbled upon some challenges when running Roll & Hill?
Yeah absolutely. We never had to worry about sales at all. Sales went really well right from the beginning. Any issues we had was with production. I would say it took us 2 and a half to 3 years really, to get our production sorted.
It’s a higher end market that you are usually dealing with in your lighting business. Do you think however that design can be accessible to a larger market scale?
I wouldn’t want to categorize it as the whole of design in one particular way. There are certainly lots of different niches within design and certainly the high end decorative lighting business is one of them which is where Roll & Hill tends to operate. That market is good, I’m not gonna lie, it’s a very robust market regardless of the economy. The Jason Miller studio runs with the same formula in mind but is not restricted to just lighting.
Are there any other brands out there that motivate you to make your work at all or are you operating with your own drive?
There are certainly other companies and people that we admire. We do have a bit of a niche but there are companies out there that are making things that are more expensive, specialized that are more broad based. We dissect both aspects and try pull the best ideas from both .
How do you work in terms of collaborations? With Roll & Hill you have collaborations with people like Lindsey Adams Adelman. Who initiates these relationships? Do people contact you all the time?
People sometimes cold call or send in something via email, but the people that we work with I would say -with one or 2 exceptions- were all friends of mine prior from working together. I think there are a strong group of people working around New York and the United States even in Canada that by virtue of geography I’ve built close relationships, I’ve been working with them and its been great.
Do you travel to places like Milan for design shows ?
Have you met people at these shows that are doing interesting things in Europe?
Yeah there are great designers all over the world, but the focus of Roll & Hill has very much been the American market . That has always ben the goal from the beginning and so it makes sense for us to work with American designers. We do not limit ourselves to working entirely with American designers, but we do want to develop products that we feel will do well in America and Canada so we aim specifically to target that. I do admire a lot of great stuff out there. There is great Japanese design, great Scandinavian design, great Italian design, but at the same time I think that it’s not what were going for.
Does Roll & Hill fall under a category of an American aesthetic? Are you trying to add that vocabulary to what you’re doing, or is that something that naturally occurs by working with people based in America and Canada that the designs are influenced by their taste?
I think the second way you said it is a better definition on the aesthetic. It’s not something we are trying to force onto anyone but we are simply trying to make products that appeal to the American market. So if a style becomes apparent in the collection then it’s sort of an after effect. I think it’s there to some degree but its not so intentional. We are just trying to make things that we think will sell and be appreciated here.
When you’re conceptualizing products, do you sometimes see something that is great but the design wont fly here but maybe will work somewhere else? Do you see an opportunity down the road where you want to try to market outside of North America?
We sure. We do sell our product outside the United States and we do well with sales but I don’t think that we will change our focus. I think our focus will always remain American, because, we’re here so it just seems practical The flip side of that is that aesthetic will also have appeal outside of the US. But because we reside here, it’s what we know, and what we do best. I mean Italian design has great appeal in the US. We do think our design has appeal outside the US but, I don’t think it makes sense for us to try to specifically target the Italian market.
Coming from an non American, what’s a great place to see in the US? A city? An experience? Something or some place that communicates a great American feeling?
I think New York city is one of the best cities in the world so for someone who hasn’t been there I think it would be a great place to visit.
Would you say that New york epitomizes the spirit of America?
I don’t think it speaks for all of American but there is certainly an American sensibility in it. There is commonality with the city that you will get compared to the rest of the US.
What about the projects for the future, what can we expect from Jason Miller or Roll & Hill..anything outside industrial design per say?
We do a lot of architectural scale lighting and we did an installation in California that was a light for about 100 people. The lighs snaked throughout an entire restaurant. Even though the projects are becoming bigger and bigger we are still a lighting company making lighting fixtures so we are not going to veer away from that…and as for my studio…who knows!