19 April 2016
Long is the Way: A Designer's Hard Road to Success
Oluwaseyi “Seyi” Sosanya is a native of Portland, Oregon, and one of the very first employees of Grovemade. He’s a designer and an engineer, an innovator and a creator. His dedication to the pursuit of becoming a maker led him across oceans, from the states to East Asia, to Europe. Currently, Seyi works from the Innovation Center at the Royal College of Art, in London. Seyi's recent creations include: the Gravity Sketch, an intuitive tool designed to allow anyone to sketch in 3D using a visualization aid such as the Oculus Rift; and the 3D Weaver, an automated loom capable of weaving three-dimensional designs that are flexible and incredibly shock absorbent. When he’s not in the design studio, he offers his perspective as a consultant for Jaguar Land Rover’s future interiors division. He’s also been hard at work developing a line of sleepwear.
At just thirty years old, Seyi has achieved an admirable level of success, with his work receiving recognition from his peers and numerous institutions (his sculpture, Floe, was exhibited at London’s Tate Modern). Yet, as it is with many who are called to create, the path to success was not altogether smooth, all but washed out by the rains of rejection. This is the story of how he navigated that bumpy road.

Starting Out

Before Grovemade, before London, Seyi went to school for mechanical engineering. When he graduated, he scored a few job interviews in the field but realized that he did not want to work as a traditional engineer. His lifelong affinity for well-designed objects and the desire to create led him to seek a more expressive line of employment. With a few friends in graphic design in New York City, he decided to try his luck there. While several companies were interested in his computer-assisted design (CAD) skills, without a portfolio and the absence of a formal design education, his job prospects withered to nil.

Seyi weighed his options. Having an interest in manufacturing, Seyi looked to East Asia. After a good deal of research, he figured that going abroad would be a good opportunity to get in on the ground floor. “Before too long, I up and moved to Taiwan to see what opportunities were out there for me,” he recalls.

In Taiwan and Going Nowhere

Once there, Seyi found a job instructing English for a one year term. During his free time, he began to teach himself product design, and compiled a "scrappy little portfolio" with the intention of eventually shopping it around.

In time, he started sending out his resume. Unfortunately, after sixty-four applications and five interviews, Seyi still didn't have a job. Not having any luck with the traditional routes, Seyi began cold calling firms, only to be turned away over and over again.
At the close of his year’s teaching commitment, Seyi headed back home to Portland in hopes of finding an in with a design firm. Yet again, the story was the same. Resumes were sent to firms big and small, corporate and boutique, just to have silence given in return.

Seyi was back to square one. With nothing going, and having worked in construction during his university years, Seyi went back to manual labor. He took this time to hone his crafting skills, putting meticulous care into even the smallest tasks. In the meantime, he continued to build his portfolio with CAD drafts, and sketches for products dreamt up when not on a job.
During a basement remodel, Seyi was inspired anew. The client was a photographer and her eye for detail informed her interior design and complementing furnishings. Sensing an opportunity to make an inroad, Seyi CAD modeled a few alternative options she might consider for the layout of her basement. As they explored his models, they also discussed the client’s home decor - each chair, table, and accessory seemed to have a story - and a designer - behind it. Seyi was captivated by the blend of the austere and complex in each piece and felt that furniture design was something he could sink his teeth into. With several leads from the homeowner, Seyi further researched design companies and individuals he could contact, and set out looking for an apprenticeship. After his prolonged trial of being turned away as a paid employee, and already in his mid-twenties, Seyi was willing to work for free as long as he could finally gain some practical experience in design: “I contacted almost every furniture designer in Portland and again it was the same story: people just didn’t get back. I had not one reply or interview in Portland. After about two months of this, Ken [Tomita] sent me an email.”

Project Chaboo and Tomita Designs

At the time of Seyi’s email, Ken Tomita (co-founder of Grovemade) was the owner-operator of Tomita Designs, a contemporary furniture design company. As Ken remembers, “Seyi told me he was looking to get into design but had no experience, something I lived through after finishing my undergrad degree. I wrote him back and said he should come down to the office. When he did, we had a chat and he told me about his time in Taiwan and how he couldn’t find any work there, and how he was having the same trouble here. Unfortunately, at that time, I just didn’t have any work. The best I could do was to tell him I’d keep him in mind if something came up.” The two parted ways and Seyi went back to assiduously laying roofing shingles and framing houses.

A few months down the road, Ken spearheaded Project Chaboo, a collaborative design project that brought together fifty artists who each reinterpreted a traditional Chabudai tea table (a collapsible short-legged table used in traditional Japanese homes). In need of a helping hand, Ken thought of Seyi. Even though the position was unpaid, Seyi jumped at the opportunity. Despite the lack of a paycheck, Seyi showed up early every day and worked hard. It was his first concrete experience in the design community and it left a lasting impression:

“Project Chaboo was my first real design project. At first I was just excited to design and build my own piece of furniture. The thing that stood out most was how the venture was designed in a way that managed to create a community around it. People were eager to jump on board and help out with the project. For me this feeling of teamwork outside of the traditional team setting was really fantastic. I often look to this experience to help inform some of the projects I have going today.”
When Project Chaboo came to an end, Tomita Designs had several projects lined up and ready to go. With the surplus of jobs, Ken was able to hire Seyi as a paid employee. His first tasks were unglamorous: sanding, sanding, and more sanding. But eventually, the sanding gave way to building, and together they went about constructing Ken’s designs. Using traditional woodworking techniques, they fabricated contemporary Japanese-inspired tables, bookshelves, sideboards, and cabinets. As they continued to work, Tomita Designs won a number of large contracts: one to revamp the interior of the Portland’s Jupiter hotel, the other to construct collapsible teak cabanas for the common area of a Los Angeles condominium development.

During this time, Seyi became Ken’s right hand man, and gained valuable insight into the process of taking a concept and making it real. When Ken cofounded Grovemade a year and a half into his tenure, Seyi became an integral part of the new business.

Grovemade and Beyond

Being on the ground floor with Grovemade presented Seyi with the opportunity to make an impact on the fledgling enterprise and contribute to the design of their first bamboo iPhone case. With a background in CAD modeling, he led the building of the computer model of the case, and helped program the milling machine that would make it. Being part of the new business was a whirlwind, and Seyi assisted in nearly all the steps required to bring their first product to fruition (including plenty of sanding, of course). The clouds of frustration that had marred Seyi's previous years were finally beginning to lift.

Throughout this frenzied period, Seyi began to think seriously about the prospect of continuing his education. It was something he’d considered in the past but those he went to for advice suggested that he focus on perfecting his skill set, that he should “take on his own master’s in life.” But his experience from the previous years said otherwise. His lack of a design degree had been a roadblock haunting him every step of the way. After several months of soul-searching and numerous discussions with his mentor Ken, he decided it was time to take that last lingering hurdle and return to school.
Seyi’s return to school brought him back across the ocean, this time the Atlantic, to The Royal College of Art’s Innovation Design Engineering Program in London, England. There, he was exposed to a community of designers, engineers, and researchers. During his time there he was challenged to think differently, to go into projects with confidence, regardless of its complexity or unconventional approach or application, and to be unafraid to be daring. With his skillset further refined, he’s forged a path that is uniquely his own, and continues to look forward to new ideas, innovations, and designs.
Sometimes, the way is long, it is difficult. Often, it has nothing to do with a superior set of skills. What it does have to do with is the simple desire to achieve, the ability to be steadfast in your pursuit no matter the cost, the time, the setbacks. As Seyi puts it, “I don’t see myself as a necessarily talented person but I am extremely driven. Maybe that is the talent.”

Seyi’s journey is one that exemplifies the potential of drive, of seeking one’s dreams no matter the number of setbacks. He has demonstrated that one is not defined by his background but by his willingness to pursue, his belief in his own ability. Seyi’s initiative and moxie are inspiration to us all, and we’re glad we got to be part of his journey.

Further Reading