Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics

OJAS Interview by Katja Horvat

Devon Turnbull, co-founder of streetwear brand Nom de Guerre, is the designer behind OJAS, crafting high efficiency speakers for the past twenty years, aiming to bring realistic, natural sound to the listener.

KH First things first: what is the correct pronunciation of Ojas? How did you end up with this name?
DT(laughs) For some reason, with every brand name I've had over the years, people have never known how to pronounce it. The original context of the word is from Sanskrit, so I pronounce it “o-jas.” I've been using it since I was a teenager, and now it’s just become part of my name. My parents grew up in a suburban area in New York, but they’ve been heavily involved in Transcendental Meditation since they were teens—they were both TM teachers, which is how they met—so we were actually living in the back of TM centers for the first few years of my life. Then, when I was about eleven years old, we moved to a small, culturally secluded community in Iowa. There, I went to school with other kids who’d been born into this TM world. We had our own dialect and slang that we made up over the years. We also didn't have Spanish or French in high school—we could only learn Sanskrit, and that's where I got it from.
KHThat's amazing. There were a few communities like that in Slovenia, too: super secluded but also so very self-sufficient. Anyhow, how did the Ojas speakers then come to be?
DTThe philosophy of the speaker design I use is very tried and true. The components that I use are stuff that is highly sought after by audiophiles all around the world, so it’s not a radically original design—most of my cabinets are based on already existing design principles.

That being said, my process is made of constant experimentation and evolution. Until very recently, almost every commission or small run of speakers was unique, so I only really started standardizing models just now. I have a building block system, where the different components of a speaker can be reconfigured in different ways, but each of these components are always subtly evolving.

KHHow does the scale of your product relate to the sound it makes?
DT The trend in audio technology over the last thirty or forty years has been to make things smaller, which in turn makes them less efficient or sensitive. The resulting sound is compressed and forced by comparison. The kind of audio technology that I’m attracted to really requires a lot of space to achieve sensitivity, speed, and transparency. Sound is just moving air, so we want to move air with as little effort as possible. Good sound should sound effortless.
KHWhat type of sound is your favorite?
DTThe things that inspire me as a sound engineer/designer are really natural, realistic-sounding instruments. For a good decade, I only listened to purist vintage style systems on which you really cannot listen to any music produced after the late ‘80s. Electronic music with a lot of bass just falls flat on those kinds of systems. Genre and the time when music was recorded really matters.
KHYou primarily studied audio engineering, but prior to Ojas, people knew you from Nom de Guerre, your New-York based design collective and streetwear brand. When that stopped, I feel like a good chunk of your supporters just followed you, anticipating where you would land. That said, due to your work in fashion, due to your peers, you still heavily exist in the fashion world, only now with a different product. Fashion and music have always gone hand in hand, but your discipline in it is very specific. Do you think your background was vital for Ojas's success and reach in fashion?
DTThat's an interesting question! I kind of exist in at least three worlds right now, and that is just through the systems. To an extent, I am known in the hi-fi world—that being home audio—but I’m still a bit of an outsider there, as I don't come from the “traditional” background. Also, since I’m hand-making everything, I can't go through conventional channels of selling stuff, as it would just cost way too much, so I cannot fully exist in that world, either.

And then there’s the fashion world, which is mostly because of my background and my peers, like you mentioned. They were also the first people who saw my new work and later commissioned it and displayed it in their stores. That said, I’ve always tried to keep these worlds separate. I didn't want people to perceive my audio work as a fashion trend. But Virgil [Abloh] gave me a shift in perspective, saying all of my work is part of my universe, which makes it more interesting, but then also creates more traction on various channels. Ultimately, I'm just building gear to enjoy with my friends—anything else would be forced.

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