“My Life Unpacked” is a recurring series inspired by Pointe Magazine’s “Show and Tell,” which will features leaders from various groups on Penn’s campus. By detailing the items these outstanding students deem worthy of carrying to practice, I’ll try to unpack the passions and activities that have allowed them to grow.
Packing a bag may feel like a mundane activity or even a chore, but there is often more weight in choosing what to carry than some think. I recently sat down with Robert Levine, a creative enthusiast who helped build the headphone company Master & Dynamic, to talk about his experiences and the items that help him express his designs.
Hi, Robert. Thank you so much for meeting with me today. Why don’t we start by talking through some of the items you’ve brought here today.
Robert Levine: I’ll start with the books. I’ve gotten quite into “research,” as I call it. It’s not research in the classic sense, but more just putting many cool thoughts and ideas into my head. My reasoning behind this is that 1) i’m just interested in this stuff and 2) the more diverse my interest and the things that I know, the better my designs will be. In the photo, there was the Harvard Design Review–an excellent quarterly publication–and the other was a Jasper Morrison piece on ordinary objects and their aesthetic properties. So they’re both actually design books, but my reading tends to be more eclectic and certainly constitutes a lot of my free time.
Then there’s my camera, which is this other weird form of research. I kind of just walk around with it, whether it’s traveling to some exotic location or just on the streets of Philadelphia,. It’s a way of documenting these little surprises that peak my interest, which I may want to just throw on Instagram–as superficial as that might sound–or catalogue for a later project. Between books and camera, those are my way of taking in a lot of information about the world and people’s ideas, which is quite vital to my design practice but also just my personality. Just being naturally quite curious and eclectic in that way.
My iPad is a funny story because I was out in SF working at an amazing design firm called IDEO over the summer. I knew that I would be leaving my computer there, so I got the iPad. Ultimately, it became a way for me to force a separation between work and home. When I got home, it was solely like Netflix and NY Times. It’s particularly important for me just because once I get excited about something, I tend to not be able to stop thinking about it. Now, I’ve learned the importance of this iterative and meditative approach, where you think about something long and hard, then let it breathe. And then you do it again.
Oh, there was also a pencil in there. The pencil is made by Muji, a Japanese product brand whose name roughly translates as “no-brand quality goods.” I suppose that’s why I like it so much because it has this innate neutrality to it that makes it enduring and refreshing to use. You actually can’t buy them any more, so I have a stockpile of like 12, just in case. I can either keep them or make a fortune if they become iconic.
Sounds like a great investment! I see you also brought a pair of headphones from your company Master & Dynamic. I’d love to hear about what inspired you to start this project.
RL: It’s a tricky story and one I’ve told many, many times–each time a little bit different. I was at Georgetown touring the school, and the tour was just god awful. We left maybe 20 minutes into the tour and since we were in D.C., my dad and I decided to go to the Holocaust Museum before we hopped on our train back to New York. There happened to be this exhibit on propaganda technology. I had been really into music at the time, as I still am, and so had been familiar with a lot of the brands in the display cases. German audio brands are notoriously amazing. We saw this pair of headphones that was so enduring–really beautiful, simple, and well-crafted that we just had our eyes on them. After that, my dad started just buying up any vintage headphones he could find, from aviation to operator headphones. He kind of amassed this massive collection and blossomed this idea for Master & Dynamic, a headphone company we’ve had for 3 or so years now. What started as this father and son project turned grew into a team close to 50 people.
That’s amazing. What were the synergies between you and your dad when building Master & Dynamic?
RL: I came from a music background and he came from a tech background–he’d always been a sort of tinker and inventor. It was a synthesis of me saying, “I’m really into music, and I know a lot of technicalities, but in many ways I’m frustrated with the technology that’s out there.” For my dad, he wanted to build an amazing product that could sell on Ebay and in 80 years, still be working perfectly. So it grew from there, with the purpose to marry sound and really good design. It was a painstaking process, certainly riddled with hurdles.
What are your thoughts on the company today and do you continue to work on it while you’re at Penn?
RL: Couldn’t be more proud of what it is now. For the moment, as a student at Penn, I’ve been helping the brand out from a distance. It’s in its baby state now, and I’ve been there to nudge it in different directions. It’s amazing to be involved with something like that with your dad, but more so than that, it’s been great to just have a playground. It’s fostered a lot of creative confidence in me. Some things may work out or not, but it’s the trying that’s the important part.
Absolutely. I see you’ve also done a lot of brand direction for musicians & DJs, such as Soma and Brendan Fallis. How much input do you take from them when coming up with a brand identity and how much of it is self-driven?
RL: So, I used to fall into this trap of designing for myself. You realize eventually though, that that’s a short-sided approach. For design to really be design–and not art–it needs to work for other people. I think I got really pigeon-holed for a time into making something that would look nice on Dribble or Pinterest and not necessarily work for the brand. As I’ve learned to make the design more articulate of the subject, I’ve gotten better at allowing the design to express itself. It was just kind of a natural growth thing. The things I like also tend to be really simple. They tend to be quite understated and modest and humble. Tend to not be so in your face. Those are my design principles, but you have to apply them differently for each project. I’ve come to realize that every new design is a conversation between the client, you, and the people that are ultimately going to see the work. It’s a balancing act for sure.
What’s been your favorite creative project so far?
RL: I may kind of be dodging the question, but to be honest, I have a love/hate relationship with every single project that I do. You kind of go through this process, where for a few days, it feels like nothing’s headed the right direction. All of a sudden, you push through that discomfort, and you’re back on track; it feels amazing and you keep going. And then you realize, “okay maybe this isn’t that great, it’s just my first try,” and you go back to the drawing board. So there’s no project that stands out as my favorite. I think the more and more I appreciate the twist and turns, the more I’m able to appreciate this whole thing we call creativity and design.
What kind of projects are you looking for in the future?
RL: The projects I’m interested most have to do with challenging things. Brand work is amazing and fun but at the moment, I want to do projects that make us challenge the world that we live in or think about it a little differently.
I recently did a t-shirt collaboration called Mitumba with Heron Preston, a Kanye collaborator who’s become a friend of mine. The project was a way of exposing this phenomenon that happens with merchandise. Every year the Superbowl prints t-shirts for both playing teams and sends the losing team’s shirts to less developed countries. So you get all these youth in different countries donning these shirts that are just throwaways of capitalism. So our project was a spin on this. We envisioned concerts that were about to happen, where the merch was printed then scrapped last minute and is now leftover. For example, we made a shirt that was a mock concert between Madonna and N.W.A. I mean that would never happen in real life, but it was just a way of playing on and exposing something that people are conscious of but don’t really reflect on very often.
Do you want to pursue a career in Creative Direction?
RL: Umm…so my head is really right now in the nitty gritty of design, particularly graphic design. I’ve kind of had this weird burning passion for typography over the past 4 months that I’ve just been unable to shake. The stuff that I’m focused on now is type-based, and there’s a couple of agencies I’m very passionate about where I could do that kind of work after graduation. So I ultimately see myself doing something in the design world, what exactly that is–not so clear.
Particularly, at a place like Penn, where careers are very written and linear, it was hard for me to veer from the path of “return offers” and knowing your life for the next 6 years. That’s the right move for a lot of people. It just wasn’t for me, but it took a lot of gut checks to make sure that was the case. The biggest tenet of IDEO, the company I worked for over the summer, was “embrace ambiguity.” So, I guess my thing at the moment is embracing the ambiguity of the next few years, knowing it will take me to some amazing places and not having to have everything figured out.
Check out Robert’s website to learn more about his work and upcoming projects: robertlevine.co
Check out past installments of My Life Unpacked.
Images courtesy of Caroline Gibson