Creativity without fear: Up close with ICON head Jonathan Ward

Jonathan Ward first landed in Los Angeles as a child actor in the 1980s, logging screen time in Charles in Charge, Steel Magnolias, and The New Adventures of Beans Baxter, among many others.

Once he reached adulthood, however, Ward began to search for a new creative outlet and found it in the form of old Toyota Land Cruisers. Through his company TLC, which he co-founded with his wife, Jamie, Ward made a name for himself with faithful restorations of these ruggedly iconic off-road vehicles. In the process, he caught the eye of Toyota, which tapped him to build the early prototypes for what would become the company’s FJ Cruiser. While working with Toyota, Ward hit upon the idea for an icon of his own—a company which he named, quite aptly, ICON.

Jonathan Ward in a Baja
Jonathan Ward Jonathan Ward / ICON

What Singer Vehicle Design is to the Porsche 911 and Emory Motorsports is to the Porsche 356, ICON is to … well, a little bit of everything, it seems. The company’s bespoke 4×4 makeovers—everything from FJ40s to Ford Broncos and Dodge Power Wagons—bring an unparalleled level of refinement to off-road vehicles, while their Derelict line hides modern drivetrains and technology beneath the timeless design and patina of classic road cars. To these builds, Ward brings a design sensibility that draws inspiration from sources as disparate as mid-century architecture, aerospace, and even the placemats on your table.

We recently sat down with Ward and began our conversation with what immediately struck us as his No. 1 personality trait: curiosity.

Where did you get your boundless curiosity and creative drive?

When you come right down to it, I think you are either born with or without an appreciation for details, and with or without a tendency to stop and touch and enjoy tactile values, architectural styles, or whatever it might be. I really don’t know why, but I always grew up with a really open eye for this stuff and not only appreciated them but also plotted on how to bring them all together in my core love of transportation.

I grew up on a small farm in a remote town in Maryland. My dad was an attorney and was the first in his family to go to college, but when I was a kid my parents were still struggling to pay off law school and all that fun stuff, so I didn’t grow up around high design or wealth. We had a godmother, however, who was a senator’s wife in D.C., and my parents made a very conscious effort to take us to visit her once a month. She, in turn, would take us to the Kennedy Center, to the theater, to the opera, to the ballet, to museums, or just out and about.

I later moved to New York and it had a huge impact on me—just all the madness that is New York City, all the layers of great design from the turn-of-the-century forward, the high-end stores, the window outfits, the streetlights, you name it. All the culture and design sensitivity that exists there really opened my eyes.

And then there was my disappointment with the automotive industry at large in modern times, the way it’s run—like an MBA program and not like a design program, as it should be. Even today, when I am looking at content for a custom build, I’m more likely to find the material not in the horribly-engineered automotive space, much less in the aftermarket, but in other realms where quality is still driving factor behind the products. This realization brought a new challenge for me as a designer: to figure out how to integrate all these separate components into a cohesive design that flows.

I became sensitive to this very early on but, even now, I can look at a very expensive custom build—whether it’s a hot rod or a street rod or whatever segment—and I’ll often see a gauge from so-and-so and some other part from Amazon and it just kills it for me. There are builders for whom I have great respect, who have great primary lines of design, and then you look inside and it’s all off-the-shelf pieces. It’s like designing a custom house and then furnishing it from IKEA. It just ruins the whole party.

ICON PW Jonathan Ward / ICON

And finally, I try to spend up to three months a year traveling out of the country and in different cultures. Just like anybody, when I travel to foreign lands I come back looking at my own from a different perspective and I find that I pick up new aesthetics, materials, and design languages that sustain me. Then I come back and figure out how to integrate those into what I do daily.

What are some of the non-automotive sources of inspiration that find their way into ICON builds?

I draw from military, aerospace, rail cars, architecture, fashion … and tons more.

For our lighting, one of the manufacturers we use routinely is used by NASA on all sorts of spacecraft and on the Mars Rover. I have friends at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), so on a tour over there once I was given access to the Twin Rover that they used as a test bed and I thought, “Those lights are cool. They look better than any lights I could get.” So I figured out who the supplier was and dove into it deeper.

And once I was at a meeting in Chicago, and in this fancy office building I saw this really cool stainless interior lining on the inside of an elevator, and I thought, “Damn, that’s cool!” So I found the superintendent of the building and drove him nuts until he gave up the supplier—and then we started using that material.

We’ve also used Chilewich in a lot of our builds, and it’s now a standard production textile in our FJ and BR models. Everyone has seen that material in placements around the world, and they did Nike’s tradeshow booths, making the walls and floors out of that material. I called up the company in New York and told them I’d like to buy wholesale and explained what we wanted to do.

They said, “Well, we don’t have a checkbox for ‘automotive’—we don’t do automotive.”

I said, “Why not? Your UV stability, your dry rub rating, all of your wear parameters meet or drastically exceed anything automotive, so why don’t you do automotive?”

They said, “We just don’t.”

I ended up calling a friend over at Design Within Reach and mentioned this to him. He said he would just send me some damaged samples from their warehouse. So I deconstructed them and repurposed them into a truck, a truck which just happened to get a nice story in The New York Times. The owner of Chilewich happened to read the article and he sent me a nice email, just saying, “Hey, I like your work.” I replied back and said that I’d wanted to use his material routinely but his office staff had told me to get lost. He said, “That’s ridiculous. We’d love to work with you. Oh, and how would you like to get a custom weave?”

Chilewich seats
Chilewich seats Jonathan Ward / ICON
ICON FJ40 FJ43 FJ45 Jonathan Ward / ICON

So the inspiration comes from all over the place, but it can be a battle to get people—even the suppliers—to take the blinders off and see a bigger picture way of looking at the market.

You worked with Toyota to build the pre-production prototype of what became the FJ Cruiser. As a small manufacturer of bespoke builds, what did you learn by working with a giant automaker?

It was a really interesting experience [to work on the FJ Cruiser] because I was able to see behind the curtain, so to speak, and to get a much deeper understanding of product development, manufacturing, and what the core priorities really are these days.

Not to pick on Toyota too much here, because it has also became painfully evident in my work with other OEMs, but they are very afraid—not just apprehensive, but afraid—to express an opinion because they might isolate somebody. At the end of the day they’re trying to create a product that doesn’t offend anybody, which in turn means that the product is not declaring a design perspective or opinion.

Take each four-door sedan available from any manufacturer today, remove the hideously oversized grills and badges from them, paint them black, and put them all in a warehouse with the logos removed, and then bring in 1,000 people. No one is going to do better than a D-minus in figuring out what they are because they’re so reactive to each other. This all started in 1958 with the first focus group, which produced the Edsel. You would think they would have learned their lesson.

And then there’s the manufacturing. The Land Cruiser was notable historically because Arakawa—the division that was responsible for the design, development, and manufacture of the Land Cruiser—also did forklifts, 18-wheelers, and military equipment, so the engineering, design quality, and continuity were evident on a level that just doesn’t exist anymore.

Nowadays, everything is designed to die by the end of the lease cycle due to the excessive complexity and IT content in each vehicle which, for manufacturing, might give them short term spurts, but is it sustainable long-term? Everything is so disposable now that, barring a few psychotic specialty builders like Horatio Pagani, few designers are in a position to express an opinion and geek out on all the details of a design-intensive product that may not be for everyone but which allows consumers to become ambassadors and tribal advocates over the long term.

What positive lessons did you take away from the Toyota experience?

I’ve definitely taken lessons from these experiences, and not just from Toyota but also from airplane manufacturers, boat builders, and from Pagani when I visited them—lessons about efficiencies, standardization, and structures that allow me to repeat what I’m doing without compromising on quality.

I look at Toyota whenever they come out with a car that they can sell for 30 grand, 40 grand, 50 grand, and I just think, “How is that even possible?” Whatever my opinion about the cars made today, I have great respect for the fact that they’re able to make them at that price point. Unfortunately, that’s impossible in my world, at my volume, and with my anal retentiveness in picking products and suppliers.

We’ve also learned a lot about how to do job pulls, by which I mean: Once a job is sold and the client has made all his selections, how can we be the most efficient in presenting those parts to the assembly team in a manner that is organized and repeatable? We used to just literally pull out a wooden crate, which we called “the coffin,” and we would just chuck all the parts for the build into that coffin. Well, after analyzing this we realized we burned maybe seven hours over the course of a build with the guys just dumpster diving in that coffin in search of a damn part. So we dug deeper on the matter and stole from Pagani. Now a work order is automated to a pull sheet and then the pull sheet is color coded with numbered boxes aligned with the order in which the vehicles are assembled and built.

I am also way more CAD (computer-aided design) intensive than anyone I know in my space, and this makes for a better product, a more repeatable product, a more cost-efficient product. I try to get everything into CAD because this is a market where no CAD files exist for these vintage cars. There are no files we can use to reverse-engineer these cars. There’s no real direct payback on creating all this, of course, but it paves the way for a smarter company and a better product.

ICON FJ40 Jonathan Ward / ICON

How do you stay confident in your own ideas in the face of skepticism?

Everyone told me my business model would be bankrupt within a month! Thank God we found a customer base that understands us, respects us, and is occasionally willing to pay for my antics. It’s not just about price, though, it’s about the grasp of design or the aesthetic opinion communicated by the vehicles I design. As I said, you have to be willing to design a product that doesn’t appeal to everyone, that offends naysayers, and to know that this is OK. In fact, I’ll push that even further and say that these are not for everyone—and that’s the whole point.

You’ve tasted success as an actor, a car builder, and you’ve just recently debuted your first watch design. How do you know when it’s time to take on the next challenge?

It usually starts as a half-cooked, stupid idea over a glass of scotch, or a on a trip when I’m supposed to be thinking about something else. With ICON, it got to the point where the more I worked with Toyota and the more I saw the direction they were taking my initial design [for the FJ Cruiser], the more clearly my own design became in my head. It was like having a complicated CAD model in my own mind and it kept me up at night, just visually rotating the model in my head. That’s when I thought, “Okay, enough already. I have to do this.”

As for watches, I was designing and drawing my first watches when I was eight years old—and I’ve always been a watch collector—but it wasn’t until a couple years ago that I thought, “Wait a minute. Maybe it’s time for me to risk this and put my ideas out there.” It literally just gets to a point where it’s killing me and I have to do it. And if it happens that I just end up with a horribly expensive prototype watch—which is not going to happen because it is going to market!—then so be it. Creatively, I have to do it or it will kill me.

How have you balanced the pressures of building a startup with the need for a healthy home and family life?

Up until about five years ago it was a significant struggle, and I think my family got the short end of the stick. My wife and I founded and have run both [TLC and ICON] together since day one, but for many years I was working 12 hours a day, six days a week. For many years I was having to wear different hats because I didn’t have the capital and/or the infrastructure to hire people who could take some of those hats off my head.

There’s a business writer from the 1930s named Napoleon Hill, and he promotes the idea of the “master alliance,” of creating an alliance of people with different expertise and different skill sets that, when brought together on a common focus, produce a far greater end result because their expertise helps you build an idea out. For ICON, we finally got to a point where I could start building that master alliance by hiring those key people and thinking to myself, “Okay, which hats really fit me and which ones do I least look good in? Which ones do I enjoy wearing and which ones just eat up my soul and kill me, such as analytics and production efficiency and stuff like that?”

The opportunity to build that team made a difference in both my family life and my success at large because the scale of the company today is such that no mom-and-pop shop would ever be able to pull it off.

What gets you excited nowadays?

Derelicts Downtown
Derelicts Jonathan Ward / ICON
ICON Thriftmaster
ICON Thriftmaster Jonathan Ward / ICON

My worst business model, but also my most gratifying work, has to be our division of one-offs, what we call our Derelicts and Reformers.

For example, we’re finishing up a 1958 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud Derelict that’s going to be magical. We are also pretty deep into a radical 1949 Mercury Coupe that’s going to be an electric vehicle running Tesla 100S battery arrays, producing 800 pounds/feet of torque, and which is going to pave the road for future builds if I’m dumb enough to keep doing these at any kind of scale. We also have an original 1970 Superbird that we’re building by combining the Superbird with a Hellcat, according to the design perspective of Mies Van Der Rohe.

Now, if I was solely a businessman I would take all those racks of parts and all those employees and all the resources for those builds and deploy them on a repeatable model, which is the business strategy behind any successful brand. But noooooo, I do all these one-offs! Still, I’m lucky, because even with all the resources we have deployed—and my COO just gave me a rude awakening the other day about how brutally inefficient these Derelicts and Reformers are—we still end up in the black. I mean, there’s no real money in it, but there are more in the pipeline and I’m really excited about that.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

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