Unfold interview–the virtual potter’s wheel

An interview with Claire Warnier and Dries Verbruggen of Unfold design studio, the creators of l’Artisan Électronique, a “virtual potter’s wheel”.

As a “virtual potter’s wheel” L’Artisan Electronique stands at an interesting cross-roads between materiality and the digital ephemera.  It dematerializes the process of creation, separating the maker from the raw material of the final object.  Do you have any thoughts on the role of materiality in what seems a widely de-materializing and virtual culture.

If you look at l’Artisan Électronique from the analog/material standpoint of it being a virtual remake of the traditional pottery studio than yes you are right in stating that it dematerializes the process of creation. But we actually approached it the other way around, from the digital standpoint and that angle is sometimes lost in the discussions. l’Artisan Électronique tries to bridge both worlds and to actually materialize the world of virtual design both by researching the use of more tactile digital design tools where there is much more relation between what you do with your body and the forms you generate as opposed to traditional digital design tools that are no different in interaction than non-design tools like browsing or email. Also the use of clay materials in 3d printers as opposed to more sterile and synthetic plastics is an effort to take some of the digital on/off logic and esthetics out of digital manufacturing. That’s why we often refer to the current era as the early days of the post-digital era where the divide between the digital and the analog thinking is fading away, it is not relevant anymore to think of something as either being digital or analog. The axe that a forester uses to cut a tree is produced using a computer controlled mill, you can’t take out the digital anymore.

Designguide.tv interview from Unfold on Vimeo.

I know that you are a participant on the online open source object file-sharing community at thingiverse.com, sharing plans for designs and even parts for 3D clay printing such as you used in L’Artisan Electronique. Could you reflect on how this participation in open source forums fits into your role as a designer?

At the moment we do this only on the level of the tools we use/develop and not (yet) on the level of our actual design output like plans for products. On the level of the tools it is very important to us, the advent of open source tools made it, like Tim Knapen says: impossible to have an excuse to NOT do a project. There are so many open source variants of what used to be very high tech hard- and software and it is very easy to combine and alter those building blocks and have a working prototype of a pretty advanced tool. If there wasn’t the RepRap open source 3d printer we would never have been able to create a working ceramic 3d printer. The community and the whole ecosphere around it is essential to any OS project and it is a system of give and take.

We also think that it is much better to share our findings on printing with clay because we are a small design studio.  Being able to tap into this vast community and have others with different backgrounds replicate your work, build on top of it and share back their findings suddenly gives us the knowhow that would traditionally be reserved for larger cooperations while still being very flexible and dynamic as a design studio. It’s the benefit of the networked society.

Do you see L’Artisan Electronique as an innovation specific to the practice of designers or do you have ambitions for it as a model for more distributed forms of manufacture?  For instance, do you see 3D printing in clay as a key tool in future forms of decentralized and open source manufacture?

It’s is basically a factory in a box so it would be hard to ignore that aspect. l’Artisan Électronique is a very narrative installation meant to tell a story to a public in a gallery and let them wander about the various aspects that are embedded in it, it’s a spatial snapshot of what we are working on as designers. But we are not sitting still and working further on these various lines, unfolding them into different projects and products. Networked manufacturing is an aspect we are very interested in. We just finished a project called Unfold Factory for Onomatopee shown at the dutch design week at the moment. It’s not a finished project but more an initial proposal in the form of a movie running on an iPad that demonstrates how the virtual throwing wheel could be adapted as an iPad app. Everyone can design objects using the app, these objects can be uploaded to unfoldfactory.com where they are up for display. Besides being able to download the file and print the design yourself, the uploaded designs take part in a system where others can co-fund the production at the Unfold Factory. The design that reaches the goal first will be produced and profits are shared between the funders, the designers and Unfold Factory, a bit similar to how something like Kickstarter.com works. This is also extending what we have done with the NFLD2030 project which is Unfold’s shareholder community. 3D printing in clay is a relevant addition to the world of 3d printing because it helps to move from Rapid Prototyping to Rapid Manufacturing because the materials have a higher emotional value that is linked with real world objects vs the exotic resins and plastics of traditional RP processes. The problem is that all RP techniques are unsuitable for mass production, and this is the interesting dilemma to work on for designers. There is probably also no place for ceramic 3d printing in an at home scenario because of the need to fire the objects so small scale, decentralized manufacturing using local sustainable energy and even raw materials looks like the most interesting route to follow.

In your text that accompanies L’Artisan Electronique you describe the objects produced as “artefacts of a new history”.  What historical lineage(s) do you see L’Artisan Electronique acting within?  Given that you’re working within the specific forms of pottery making, how do you see L’Artisan Electronique in relation to ceramic history?

We are not trained as potters, although our interest in ceramics is big. But the history of pottery is like the history of (furniture) design. Both professions evolved from an artisanal way of working with small editions to industrial mass production. The difference between pottery and design, is that in the field of pottery, you still have a great deal of people working in an artisanal way and the industrial production still has a lot of handwork in it. And it seems in pottery, these two tendencies still look at each others as rivals: the artisans don’t like industrial production, the ceramic industries seem to find artisanal production childish. The same you found a bit in the Arts and Crafts Movement, where machines and industry was presented as something bad and small minded, while the crafts were seen as a noble way of working. People often think in antagonisms. Intelligent – stupid, high art – low art, good – bad. But things are not that black and white. With L’Artisan Electronique we want to show this. We want to overcome these antagonisms.

The objects that have been made on the digital pottery wheel and the 3D ceramics printer have a lot of traces. They are not perfect, even if they are produced on a machine and with a digital design software. You can see the imperfection of the hand in the design. None of the objects designed on the virtual pottery wheel are completely symmetric. Even if you try to make it is ‘perfect’ as possible, your hand is never stable enough. The software will register every small movement of the hand. One can also see the traces of the digital representation within the objects, such as the polygonal mesh. And the machine leaves traces while producing, due to air in the clay, the layered deposition or designs that are not perfect enough for printing. This means that the objects we print are not sterile (something people often say about industrial production), but they are also not really handmade. They are something in between. And that’s where we think a new history evolves. It is the difference between the crafts and the industries that we want to bridge. So to use they feel like the first artifacts of a story that will further unfold.

Could you speak about the importance of your own role in building and modifying the tools you use for L’Artisan Electronique? In some ways it seems that the tool itself is more important than the final object, that the interest lies more in the machine that made the object than the final object itself.  Could you respond to this?

The tool was definitely the initial goal for the project, can we as designers add relevant items to the digital tool case in an era where these tools get increasingly more specialized and complex to understand. Can we create our own tools like an pre-digital artisan used to do? We always wanted to first develop the tool and then find out true experimentation what the tool learns us, what is its specific form language, which forms are possible and which are impossible, how do people react to it etc etc. Due to the success of l’Artisan Électronique as an installation we had the printer rarely in the studio and could spend far too less time than we wanted experimenting. We are in talks with actors within various industries to develop the tool and related scenarios further. We were able to develop the initial prototype as a small studio with the help of the OS community but now we need specialists in clay, software and hardware to take it a few steps further. But that could only happen after we made the prototype because now these more specialized people can identify the areas in their expertise field and see exactly what can be improved. If we only had the concept on paper then nobody would have been able to help us and be rather  sceptical, the value of seeing it actually working is enormous. Recently Bits from Bytes, the company that produces the printer kits, agreed to support us with materials and development so now we have machines to exhibit and machines to experiment with in the studio. We also got a small kiln working since last week so the experimentation part will kick into higher gear after the Abu Dhabi Art show next week.

You acknowledge a gap between those who insist on “physical craftsmanship” and those who support “digital design”, indicating that your interest is in finding a workable space between these two camps.  In my recent entries for the Journal of Modern Craft I consider some possible physical roadblocks to digitally-driven innovation, such as resource depletion and worker conditions.  I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on how digital open source innovation in decentralized manufacture might approach the still very physical challenges that face our culture.

We don’t know if we understand your question correctly. But open source innovation is a mentality change. It’s not only about digital innovation, it’s about sharing rather than using. If we want to overcome problems such as resource depletion, we need to rethink the way we work and live. The open source mentality, we think, is a mentality that could help rethinking our lives. It is based on a social principle. By sharing your code with others, you get access to someone else’s knowledge. At the end, it will help to make a better, cheaper and shared product. If people have the same mentality with physical things, we could probable solve quite some urgent problems that we are facing these days. Also see the answer below about social, economical and ecological implications.

As to the gap between the two camps, yes we meet some people that are in one of the two camps (mostly craft) and oppose the other but I would rather not pitch them against each other as two camps. Far more people we talk with are interested in both (ceramic) craft AND digital technology but have difficulties finding common ground between the two or finding the appropriate tools to work in that space. We have already had one professional potter who took the time and the effort to visit us in Belgium and a few more who contacted us. So there are a lot of artists/designers/craftsmen that would like to work in the space in-between but lack the necessary tools and so have difficulties expressing themselves.

You briefly refer to “social, economical and ecological implications” of open source hardware and design.  Could you expand on what you see as those implications and how it effects your own thinking about design?

social/economical: We see social and economical as two sides of the same coin. The recent crisis has shown what happens if the two are disconnected. People have no idea where their money goes to, they put it on their bank account, the bank invests it in a repackaged insurance on loans taken by people on the other side of the planet. There is totally no transparency in these flows. Even if you invest in the stock market you rarely have a feel of what’s going on in that company. It’s not enough to only invest money in a company, you also have to be part of a community and be involved in the company. That’s why we like things like Kickstarter.com and our own NFLD2030 because it allows the lines between investor/producer to be very short.

ecological: It is very debatable whether ceramic objects would be more sustainable than objects printed for example in bio degradable PLA, something we would like to learn more about. Ceramics require a large amount of energy and can’t be used in a closed material cycle. But it is very suitable for the locale scenario we described above. What we are worried about is that the perceived value of an at home printed, immediately recyclable item will be very low and actually enforce the fast-consume/throw-away culture of today. Ceramics could have a higher emotional value to the user thus having a much longer life time.

I guess that our focus at the moment is on keeping the lines very short and transparent socially, economically and ecologically.

You describe a shift in the usual relationship between designers and consumers brought on by the innovation of at-home 3D printing and other open source projects like it.  Could you talk about how these shifts are influencing how you approach your own work and how you see your role as a designer developing in the future?

We have no clear view of how this will develop in the future, there are some people that proclaim a new revolution of desktop manufacturing where all goods will be printed by people at home. We believe that the future scenarios will be different and probably more unexpected and that is exactly why we have to explore these various scenarios as designers. What is clear is that the business as usual of designing mass produced items that are digested by consumers without any interaction between what happens upstream and downstream of that cycle is impossible to sustain much longer in a networked society. As designers we will be spending more time on designing scenarios, frameworks and tools to facilitate this consumer interaction than actual finished products. We have always been more storytellers than designers that can come up with brilliant forms so for us it is a great opportunity. Alternative ways of manufacturing, financing and distributing are important areas to explore as designers If you stick your head in the sand like the music industry did 10 years ago then it will catch you by surprise. But talking about the music industry, one of the ideas floating around would be that of an iTunes for printable products and as a side effect the PirateBay for products (place where you download illegal copies of designs, which actually already exist). But I don’t think that you can use this analogy 1/1 because you can enjoy music digitally and copy the files endlessly without losing quality. But a digital file for a product is still nothing more than a blueprint which has to be materialized, this is a lot more complex than playing an audio file. Since a few years we have digital cameras and photo printers that can produce physical results that rival what photo kiosks did for you 10 years ago but I see very few people printing their pictures out at home… They rather enjoy them on the various TVs, computers and mobile phones they have, share them over the net with relatives around the world on sites like flickr. People have had sewing machines cheaply available for decennia and with the advent of the internet a bottomless archive of designs but we are still not en-mass producing our own clothes. So it must be that people rather enjoy their traditional media on a digital carrier because of the added value and flexibility of that digital medium? But goods can’t be enjoyed on a digital medium like music, movies and photographs, there must be another scenario that will unfold in the future.

At the moment we are more looking at distributed glocal manufacturing with input from consumers than to consumer manufactured goods.

Another short term scenario (and maybe a transitional scenario) that we could see happening is some kind of 3d-printshop where you can have items printed but more important an added service. Traditional manufacturers can have a digital library of spare parts that are a burden to them to warehouse for years on end and provide these as a free download like they do with manuals and drivers (no warehouses full of books and cds anymore). People can send this file to the service shop and get them printed in a few hours. Or you can go there with your problem and have them design a part for you.

Lacquer’s latency by Matthew Larking

‘Soul is anxious for wing in the air’ (1998)

‘Soul is anxious for wing in the air’ (1998)

‘Soul is anxious for wing in the air’ (1998)

Kenji Toki (b.1969) took his Master of Arts in the lacquer section of Kyoto University of Arts in 1996 though he has been exhibiting in dozens of group and solo exhibitions since 1992 and international shows since 1995. His work is a hybrid of craft and design that also engages fine art, photography and architectural installation. While he uses software applications and rapid prototyping to arrive at finished works, he considers this less a break with long held craft traditions than a fusion of lacquer with technology. He positions himself as the present manifestation of the spirit of progressive kogei he discerns in Japanese lacquer since the 7th century. Indeed, he considers his computer a ‘craft tool.’

In pursuing a concept of progressive tradition, Toki overturns long held ideas about lacquer. It is conventionally used to coat the kind of tableware objects kept and used indoors. The novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) wrote of lacquer in his eccentric aesthetic treatise, ‘In Praise of Shadows’ (1993), that darkness was indispensable to its beauty. Toki, however, for the Kyoto Art Festival (1998), created curved lacquer sheets called ‘Soul is anxious for wing in the air’ that were elevated above the ground and arranged along a bridge that spanned a pond. The purpose of such a setting was to bring the craft out of the shadows so that lacquer’s brilliant color could be appreciated. It was also a mild riposte to objections about keeping lacquer out of direct sunlight due to the damage it causes the surface, dulling its sheen. Toki’s work, too, chimed suggestively with his inspiration, form and material. The lacquer sheets were inspired by the surface of water and their evident droplet shapes further conspired. Lacquer too is a liquid material that hardens by chemical reaction with moisture. It was perhaps fortuitous that the exhibition coincided with Japan’s rainy season.

 ‘Form for Wish’ (1999)

‘Form for Wish’ (1999)

Kenji Toki ‘Form for Wish’ (1999)

While previous work was intimate, works like ‘Form for Wish’ (1999) in the collection of Ayabe City, Kyoto Prefecture, assumed a monumental scale. Once again Toki coated the abstract work with his trademark red lacquer, but used carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) to create the form. Such fiber is more often used for applications in the aerospace and automotive industries. It helps  Toki achieve a thinner, stronger and lighter construction. ‘Form for Wish’ is approximately six meters high, a centimeter thick, but weighs merely seven kilograms. The uptake of the material seems like a shift away from tradition, but Toki notes that practically any surface can be covered in lacquer, and part of his attraction to the space-age material is that there are no preconceptions of how the material may be put to use. The form further reengages traditional lacquer craft ideas through an attention to the molding of the surface.

‘Latency#9’ (design process) (2003/4)

‘Latency#9’ (design process) (2003/4)

Kenji Toki ‘Latency#9’ (design process) (2003/4)

Latency Concept

Latency Concept

Kenji Toki Latency Concept

‘Latency#8’ (2003/4)

‘Latency#8’ (2003/4)

Kenji Toki ‘Latency#8’ (2003/4)

Since 2002 Toki has conducted his artistic research in computer assisted design (CAD) and rapid prototyping to search out the implications of new technology for craft in his hybrid digital/hand practice. Toki extracted curves based upon the natural forms of leaves and entered these into computer software where he created a seamless surface between the lines. He then used the automatic construction process of rapid prototyping which converts a design into a solid object through the build up of layers. These layers are sliced in the CAD model and that data directs a laser on to the surface of a tank of photosensitive resin. Where the laser strikes, the resin solidifies. The layers accrete into a final form which is then coated in lacquer by Toki. The point of these experiments, which Toki calls ‘Latency,’ was to arrive at forms mechanically created though finished by hand. These were based on nature, though not found in it. The result was something that also retained connection to traditional lacquer ideas of flowing curvature, lightness, organicity and a certain cleanliness.

‘Forms that are too fine to waste - Chicken Thighs’ (2006)

‘Forms that are too fine to waste - Chicken Thighs’ (2006)

Kenji Toki ‘Forms that are too fine to waste - Chicken Thighs’ (2006)

Further reference to mechanical construction arrived in a series of individually produced and hand finished copies exhibited at Kyoto’s Gallery Gallery in 2009. These works took their formal cue from the mass produced polystyrene trays found in supermarkets for food packaging and display. Toki’s trays are again homage to mechanical reproduction and traditional craft. He uses his computer to generate an object as a body for lacquer and he uses his superlative lacquer coating skills to create objects which are almost perceptually indistinguishable from the visual and formal characteristics they ape. Indeed, Toki compares his lacquer application to both the skill of the painter, and his minute and precise hand movements to the precision of digital measures.

Traditional lacquer production fell into decline in 19th and 20th centuries as it could not compete with the mechanical production methods that turned out copious quantities of inexpensive products for a receptive and burgeoning consumer class. Toki, however, inverses that trend, utilizing technology to produce individual mechanically produced works which straddle a virtual-handcraft divide. Such an inversion allows Toki to individualize the reproducible.

Matthew Larking is a lecturer at Kyoto Notre Dame University, Kyoto, Japan, and has written as an art critic for The Japan Times since 2002.

All images courtesy of Kenji Toki http://www.kenjitoki.com/