Tommy O’Gara has gravitated towards design and conceptualization for as long as he can recall. Growing up in the frontier strip of America, he enjoyed a humble and quiet upbringing, which eventually motivated him to travel and finish his schooling abroad in Japan. After a decade of working in creative direction, branding, and product design while successfully nurturing Dita and Thom Browne eyewear throughout Asia, Tommy set out on his own; building and establishing his first eyewear facility in Sabae. Reputed as one of the largest manufacturing centers of eyeglass frames in Japan, O’Gara perfected the intensive, high quality production methods he is now known for. With TheLight Co. Well into it’s 4th year, O’Gara now runs associate agencies out of Taiwan, Europe and Korea and fine tunes products for a growing list of OEM clients and collaborators including Native Sons with Shinsuke Takizawa and Max Pittion alongside John Mayer.
We were fortunate enough to spend the morning in the company of Tommy O’Gara following one of his ritualistic dawn surf sessions and shared a candid conversation about his past, his affinity for design along with the varied milestones that consist his distinguished career.
Please tell us about your upbringing.
I was born in South Dakota, in the North East corner of Nebraska in the badlands. My dad was working in the dams at the time. I grew up in a blue collar, industrial farming and construction community. Our family immigrated from Ireland 130 years ago on slave ships and some of them became boxers who did construction, and the others were military contractors; they have a company called the O’Gara Group. Our Irish history stems from being warriors.
What was the main focus in your schooling? And what kind of work did you do following?
I studied art, art history and design. There was some architecture involved. I did a couple internships and designed some architectural gardens and things like that. I did a lot of space generated design and product design. For a long time I worked in the snowboarding industry doing boards and bindings, rescue bags and equipment and stuff like that. I still do work with scuba and diving equipment.
But when I came to Tokyo, I did a lot of everything. I’ve designed, built and owned restaurants. But mainly I concentrated on creative direction, re-branding and producing. Producing things that weren’t there or available at the time. It was crazy back then, 1998-99. Urahara was kind of booming then. I’ve been living in Japan since I was 24. So I’ve been here for 33 years. The appeal of Tokyo is the energy, don’t you agree? At least compared to where I grew up. Even if I go to California now, it’s like I’m wading through jello (laughs). Everything is so slow there.
How did you utilize that energy to transition into what you’re doing now?
I worked with a lot of different people in varied industries, and did a lot of travelling within Asia and incubated relationships. I mean, you can do as much or as little as you want. And for me if it fits in the same wavelength of what I’m thinking, I’ll try and make it happen. That’s how I started doing branding for Freshjive Asia, I produced the Asanoha project and worked with friends on the touring Dogtown events, and through those avenues I met the guys at Dita. Things were more organic then, and things happened a lot faster. Here in Tokyo, everybody is pretty righteous, everybody shares a market and there’s no agro or egos. No other city in the world could survive an earthquake and come back like Tokyo. Ever.
When did you establish TheLight Co.?
Immediately after leaving my position at Dita , I went and leased a factory, bought the necessary tools and refit the space to be a semi production factory, not just a prototyping facility. At that time everybody was going right, so I turned left. The first few years I spent really dialing in technology in Sebae and met with engineers and factory presidents and learned as much as I could about the process. The more you learn about the parameters of what you’re doing, and the materials you’re working with, the more you can do. We developed a lot of custom methods and tooling for our factory, we really changed the game this way. Industries usually don’t change from within, it’s usually somebody who is thinking outside the box and asking questions that normally aren’t asked.
How did Native Sons come about?
I really wanted to do optical eyewear, and I noticed no one was doing traditional frames. The only ones on the market here was craftsman stuff. And my idea was to take traditional based shapes but do them in a retro modern edge style with volume, using diamond tooling, computer screws and things like that.
After I established TheLight I went to speak with Takizawa San (Shinsuke of NEIGHBORHOOD). I was inspired by post WWI industrial design, writers, painters and other artists. I explained my ideas to him, and within 15 minutes we had an agreement on how to do the brand. It was a concept that stemmed from the ‘less is more’ school of thought and keeping balance in mind. I look up to guys like Buckminster Fuller and Dieter Rams. It’s not just about designing something for use; it’s also about having something that’s economical and innovative.
In your opinion, what sets TheLight Co.’s product apart from your competitors?
I think what sets us apart are our systems. Systems for using materials and finishing. You place our product beside some of our competitors and ours look a lot better. Big companies don’t even polish their frames, they use chemical baths to smooth them out. So you have this porous material that’s designed and made to go on your face, and it’s filled with chemicals. That can’t be good. At theLight, we only use cotton oil based acetates. They’re all natural, they don’t pollute. They are not going to hurt your skin, your body or your brain. Our company encompasses the concept of making product for discerning people. I don’t think what we do is for everyone. But we take pride in what we do and the people that we work with.
And were not expensive compared to other designers, the product and the price point has to fit. For me that’s key. But to each its own. I just want to make cool product that will last for a long time. If you look at Native Sons you can see and feel that they’re constructed for longevity. Your grandkids will find your frames in a drawer one day and ask Grandma if they can have them.
Can you tell us about your design process?
The way I work is really closed so I don’t get influenced off other designs. I’ll sit down with music on, and watch films, absorb it all and I’ll start sketching. I always start with the lens shape. I don’t draw frames, I start from the bone. For a single design I’ll usually draw hundreds of ocular shapes, then I’ll edit them, and then I’ll take that shape and start to sketch armature around it and build it out. I start to build the architecture of the frame from the lens shape and once I have that, I’ll work on the carving. From there I can create a line of three or four designs. It’s really a step by step process, and if it’s something I can’t do myself I’ll send them to my craftsman and production manager, Kobayashi San (Hiroaki). Then he does the blueprints and sends them back to me, and then I make revisions. There’s no middle-man, everything is done in-house. That way it doesn’t get diluted. Since I’m not looking at other glasses or anything like that I think it’s a much purer process. I’m looking at cars or guns, airplanes and architecture, what you see produced is really close to what I draw in my sketchbooks. I think the prototypes are almost like artwork. In a weird way it’s kind of like Christmas, we’re all waiting to see how they’ll turn out.
“‘I want to continue to work with more young and talented designers. I like doing real shit. Real shit for real people. I don’t believe in trends, they don’t exist. Make your own wave and ride it.’”
TheLight Co. produces OEM product for a handful of well know labels and you always have a few collaborations in the pipeline. What variables come into play when deciding who you will work with?
If the people have a certain dimension about them and you appreciate what each other do, it’s the magnetism that ends up being the deciding factor. It’s not first and foremost about making money, it’s about creating something dope that fits within the genre. I didn’t see much of that in the eyewear industry, and collaborations are great because you get an opportunity to create something completely different from what you would do if it was just by yourself. These kinds of projects elevate our brand as well as add a new dimension to whomever we work with.
We’ve done work with Supreme, OAMC, WTAPS, visvim, and I have some projects coming up with Norse Projects and Ambush. It all ends up being a project among friends. It’s all about the relationships; you have to keep that human element in front of your mind at all times.
You’ve designed for such a diverse range of product. What is it about eyewear that keeps you consistently working in this industry?
I’ve spent maybe 16 years doing eyewear. What’s appealing about it to me is it’s probably the biggest design challenge in the world. There’s a certain set of parameters that goes with each frame, it goes on your face, the manufacturing aspect isn’t easy and the tolerances in frames are miniscule but can change the design a lot. For me it’s the ultimate design challenge, and I don’t think I’m the best at it, I am just who I am. I think that’s what it is; you take the core of what you were growing up and keep at it.
For me that’s what I love, as a kid, I would sit down with my Dad and I would do drawings of buildings of armature and as I grew up I would go out to the shop and make these things. I learned how to weld when I was 12, I could use cutting torches, I was very hands on.
How do you envision the company changing or evolving moving forward?
We let it grow organically, it’s very grass roots. We’re not trying to be the biggest, baddest company in the world. You have to draw a line somewhere, if you cross that line, you start having problems and that eats up more capital. We are just trying to build a really solid company. It’s more about sharing, and setting up a system to share. I’m setting up a store in store at Dover Street Market in London, I already have a section in the NYC store and we’re working on a capsule collection for them.
Honestly there’s no real end target, I’ll be launching another brand next year and I’m working on a brand now that I can do with my kids a little bit. I want to continue to work with more young and talented designers. I like doing real shit. Real shit for real people. I don’t believe in trends, they don’t exist. Make your own wave and ride it.