Designer Joey Ruiter on his creative inspiration. It’s complicated.

Joey Ruiter, an awarding-winning Grand Rapids designer, is used to being asked about his source of creativity.

Just don’t expect a one-liner. The answer is complicated. 

“I get tripped up over that question because it's a big story on how you live your life. And I try to live my life to be inspired, and then to inspire other people,” says Ruiter. “It’s inspiring for me to see a new object that I've never seen or discover something new. Then, in turn, I'm trying to give back and give those things to other people as well.”

Often, he finds inspiration from sources not competing in his space, like under-the-radar art galleries, school craft fairs, scrap yards, even odd items for sale on Facebook marketplace, where he can get lost scrolling.

“Every once in a while, you see something that's very, very rare,” Ruiter says.

Inspired by vehicles

The furniture designer, who has shelves of NeoCon awards, finds his artistic joy with vehicles, whether cars, motorcycles, or something in between, which he builds as a hobby. 
Joey Ruiter
“I go to car shows a lot,” says Ruiter, whose favorite is the two-day SEMA Fest, the Specialty Equipment Market Association's annual automotive trade show in Las Vegas. It’s the world’s largest automotive trade show focused on after-market auto part manufacturers and sellers.

“Why I love SEMA is because there seems to be no limits on their budget, so that in turn makes creativity almost limitless, which is fun to see,” says Ruiter. “Some of those trends that happen in the spaces of no budgets and wild creativity will influence down the road.”

“On the other hand, when I travel to island towns with little resources, the creativity that comes out of modifications to cars is equally inspiring because there’s a different set of criteria and equality of creativity.  You can see both trends and quality played out in culture as well. These homemade customizations when it comes to interiors and wheels – there’s a lot of fun things they do. “

Ruiter's passion is classic cars. He rotates what he drives, but he’s currently cruising Grand Rapids in a 1960 356 Porsche B. The driver’s seat is one of his favorite venues for people-watching, another way he revs up his creative juices. He’ll pick up people at the bus stop, sometimes in one of his classic cars, and chauffeur to them to their destination. 

Joey Ruiter's piece, "Reboot Buggy" explores the concepts of minimalism and the experience of the road.
It’s all part of his exercise to keep his eyes open to the world. 

“I think too often we're just like in our own zone, just heads down,” says Ruiters, who likes to explain that the “art of design happens when you change the way things are perceived. It challenges convention and creates new stories, interactions, and the rarity we want.”

For Ruiter, a good drive can be restorative.

“A twisty country road is the best, he says. “You just have long views. You can see ahead for a while, but you're still turning, and I think the expanse is nice to look at. It's very inspiring to not be closed off. When you are looking at Lake Michigan, it is wonderful because it just keeps going. 

“I don't really love city driving as much because you can feel stuck. The same with mountains. I feel sort of claustrophobic. It goes back to keeping your eyes open to receive. You know what's around you.”

Making space in his brain

But there’s a downside to the curiosity that feeds this creativity. Sometimes he overwhelms his brain with too much stuff.

“I just have to be protective of that space,” Ruiter says. “It's funny. If people ask how I get inspired, I would say I clean out my mind a little bit to be able to have space.” 

He does that by taking advantage of liminal space – described as a metaphysical dimension that bridges the divide between past and present without fully existing in either. This space is where you’ll find ambiguity, tension, and uncertainty.

Joey Ruiter's mirrored bike, or Moto Undone has been described as creating the illusion that the “rider is just flying above the asphalt.”

“We forget those liminal spaces – the spaces in between –  can be really impactful,”  says Ruiter. “We're in liminal spaces most of our lives. It's kind of like a flex in between. Liminal spaces keep my brain sort of in check sometimes.”

Exercises that clear his mind including doodling and sketching lines on the paper or circles and just kind of make them expand and contract. Or mowing the lawn in random lines. Unfortunately, his artistic approach to his yard doesn’t inspire his neighbor, who is a professional landscaper.

He just finished listening to the book, “Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road,” by Matthew B. Crawford. 

“It was not only eye-opening but gave a voice to the thoughts that I don't have the words for,” says Ruiter. “I wanted to articulate his words into something physical.” 

Blending the creative and the mundane

Ruiter, who earned his BFA in industrial design from Kendall College of Arts and Design in 2000, works with some of the world’s leading furniture companies, primarily developing tables and chairs for offices and hospitality settings. These projects are both fun and difficult. He likes the collaboration process, but the challenge is moving forward with his artistic vision, meeting the limitations of the manufacturing process, cost projections and even making sure it's not a nightmare for facilities and cleaning crews. This may also be his sweet spot. He’s built a reputation for reimagining everyday products in new ways. 

“I consider myself more of an artist than a designer, and I'm trying to make provocative pieces that get companies and individuals to think about what's next and how they can move forward,” Ruiter says. “It's not like you're just going through the process. You have to take your clients to their creative process as well.”

Joey Ruiter created "Consumer Car" as a futuristic car that focuses occupants on experiencing the road around them.

To offset that sort of regimented work, he builds cars and motorcycles for himself.

“A long time ago, I just decided I was sick of people complaining about how they don't get cool projects, lamenting, ‘I wish I could do this.’ I'm like I'm just gonna make my own clients up. So every year I make up a new perfect client. I’ll hire myself to do what I think would be the coolest project,” he says. 

Sometimes the project sells, but most of the time it’s usually recycled into a new project.

The best known was his mirrored bike, or Moto Undone. The magazine Wired noted the conceptual design created the illusion from a distance that the “rider is just flying above the asphalt.”

“I got a lot of interesting press and met a lot of people and did museum shows. It let me travel around and be in different industries that I wouldn't have done,” Ruiter says.

Being his own client gives him the space “ to make ridiculous decisions.”

“A lot of automotive manufacturers and designers will talk to me or put my work on their wall. We just have too many things, so I feel like I'm being an inspiration for people who can't do that,” he says. 

In some ways, those are his challenges in the furniture world. His wife encourages to take that approach into his furniture design projects. 

“It definitely frees you up when money is no object and time is irrelevant. You might plan it differently. I like thinking about things like that, and I take that type of thinking into the mundane projects. I'll ignore the criteria, or ignore that it has to be suitable or whatever, and just free myself. If I get stuck, I pull back on the things that I have to do and then just see what happens.”

Photos courtesy of Joey Ruiter.

Shandra Martinez is the managing editor of The Lakeshore WM. After a distinguished career in daily journalism, she launched her business, Shandra Martinez Communications. A longtime West Michigan resident, she now writes and edits on a variety of platforms for clients in Michigan and across the country. 

From furniture to shoes, from arts to education to even policy creation, design is everywhere you look. Designed in Michigan, a new story series coming out of West Michigan, is devoted to sharing the expansive role design plays in Michigan's past, present and future. It is made possible through the support of Kendall College of Art and Design and Landscape Forms.
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