Robert Johans: On Design

Catching up with Robert Johans, creator and former CEO/Lead Designer of Nest Caravans, which was recently acquired by Airstream.

Robert Johans. Photo Credit: Audrey Colker

Robert Johans.
Photo: Audrey Colker

You have a design background that includes graphic design, building, refurbishing “egg” campers and more. Can you tell us more about your influences?
My father was an advertising agency creative director, but loved to build furniture. He not only taught me early on how to use tools, but how to think and solve problems in three dimensions. Later, while studying at the Otis Art Institute in LA, these hand and head skills were critical in my education as a designer. Eventually, I ran my own studio, creating and producing a wide variety of advertising and marketing material. But throughout my professional life I continued my pursuit of 3D design — furniture, objects, sculpture.

What is it about design that attracts and inspires you?
Obviously, design is all around us. But what attracts me is great design…The function of any design is either to communicate an idea, solve a problem, create some utility, or influence an environment. No matter the “thing,” be it image, object or space, good design displays intelligence, integrity, and often elegance. But in my opinion, it is great design that truly inspires and transforms one’s personal experience.

How do you describe your personal design aesthetic?
I can appreciate quality and craftsmanship anywhere. But personally, I prefer a more formal Modernism — especially when coupled with unexpected elements of whimsy! The greats of Mid-Century design are a huge influence in my daily life.

Audrey and Robert Johans unwind with boxers Buck and Ray—the Nest Caravan is a fitting backdrop. Photo credit: Mike Hauska

Audrey and Robert Johans unwind with boxers Buck and Ray—the Nest Caravan is a fitting backdrop.
Photo: Mike Hauska

In bringing Nest Caravans to life you collaborated with others (such as Bryan Thompson and Composite Approach), can you speak to the role of collaboration in your design?
I understood from the start that bringing an innovative concept like Nest Caravans to market would require expertise and tools I did not possess. So, I sought the help of the best folks I could find, and leaned heavily on their skills and experience. Their contributions were invaluable. Collectively, we developed a product that was aesthetically true to my original vision.

You have said that you are committed to delivering great design, and that this is what drives all decision-making. Can you elaborate on that?
To be perfectly blunt, the aesthetic and quality levels of most product available within the travel trailer segment of the RV industry is horrible. And hasn’t changed significantly in 50 years. I find that bewildering. Other than Airstream, no other manufacturer targets a high-end, design-savvy consumer. Our goal at Nest Caravans was to fill a niche with a product that featured modern, sophisticated styling, did not compromise on quality, and provided true pride of ownership. As I’ve said, design can have a powerful influence on one’s environment. So many folks choose to embrace great design as a lifestyle essential. Consider the market for Dwell Magazine, or Porsche, or iPhone. Perhaps presumptuous, but I designed the Nest to become the Apple of travel trailers…

With Nest Caravans having been recently acquired by Airstream, what are your plans for the future?
Currently, I am working with Airstream, overseeing the production of Nest. Obviously, they too appreciate the integrity of the design and wish to maintain it as much as possible. Otherwise, Audrey and I will soon be building a new home on the Westside of Bend. The design is modest, but we think spectacularly modern!

Audrey Johans and the Nest Caravan. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Tim Koester

Audrey Johans and the Nest Caravan.
Photo: Tim Koester

You and Audrey have owned property in Tumalo since 2001, and became full-time residents in 2006. Why Central Oregon?
Audrey and I had lived in and enjoyed the vitality and diversity of Los Angeles for most of our lives. But the time came for, not so much a change of pace or lifestyle, but rather a change of environment and experience. Since we both had friends or family living in Bend, we were already aware of the obvious beauty of the area. When my son finished high school and set off for college, we decided to pull up stakes there in LA and replant them here in Bend.

Closing thoughts?
I am encouraged to see the evolution of the “makers” community here in Bend. I hope local government and city planners nurture a business environment where creative people and entrepreneurs can work, thrive and contribute to our local economy. I would love to see our area become known as much for design, innovation and invention as it is for the skiing, dogs and beer.

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