About Stacy Jo Scott

Stacy Jo Scott received her BFA in Ceramics from the University of Oregon in 2010. She is currently a candidate for MFA in Ceramics at Cranbrook Academy of Art.

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.

At-Home 3D Printing and the Return of a Craft Utopia: Part 2

LifeTrac Prototype II by Open Source Ecology (2009)

LifeTrac Prototype II by Open Source Ecology (2009)

In assuming that at-home 3D printing will upset and revolutionize the currently unsustainable corporate-driven marketplace, we are also assuming that those who use this technology will act counter to such forces. This is a big assumption. As we saw in Part 1, even well-known idealists like William Morris suffered from the dichotomy of market complicity.

An uncritical acceptance of capitalist models wrapped in revolutionary language is perhaps most pronounced in Chris Anderson’s “Atoms are the New Bits”. In it he describes his vision of an “age of democratized industry, (where) every garage is a potential micro-factory, every citizen a micro-entrepreneur.” Anderson is surprisingly transparent about the routes he suggests such citizen industrialists should take: outsourcing. As he says, “Anybody with an idea and a little expertise can set assembly lines in China into motion with nothing more than some keystrokes on their laptop” (Anderson 11). In outsourcing to China the actual implementation of this revolution falls prey to the same complicity to dubious labor and ecologic standards that centralized industry is responsible for. Individual manufacturing capacity thus necessitates individual responsibility for ethical action. Asking individual makers to take into account the ethical impact of their goods production may seem in some ways as difficult as it is to make multi-national corporations budge. The drive toward economic growth at any cost seems insatiable. But there are other more intractable limits to adopting an Industrial model. As Adrian Bowyer alludes to in his description of RepRap’s large-scale adoption: “Of course, any exponential growth must run up against resource limits….” (Bowyer 8).

Parametrized Lego Bricks on thingiverse.com by Wizard23 (2009)

Parametrized Lego Bricks on thingiverse.com by Wizard23 (2009)

In his shattering 2010 book Eaarth, Bill McKibben makes plain that we have thoroughly exhausted the limits of the systems that support our civilization and we must change. Not that we should change, but that we don’t have a choice anymore. As this next industrial revolution is in its infancy it must take this reality into account if it will be at all successful. According to McKibben this is no longer about utopian idealism or consumer revolutionaries, this is the sober reality. Interestingly, in McKibben’s view of our possible futures, the decentralization of services, such that Bowyer and Pettis predict, will be key. E.F. Schumacher in his 1973 book Small is Beautiful shares a similar prognosis to Eaarth, seeming to anticipate decentralized manufacture when he says “the poor of the world cannot be helped by mass production, only by production of the masses” (Schumacher 163). Schumacher ties decentralized production to both sustainability and Morrisian attitudes on machinery, saying: “The technology of production by the masses, making use of the best of modern knowledge and experience is conducive to decentralization, compatible with the laws of ecology, gentle in its use of scarce resources, and designed to serve the human person instead of making him the servant of machines” (Schumacher 163). Even Morris, in Factory Work, As It Is and Might Be shared this focus on adopting ecological standards as integral to a re-imagined industry: “…our factory must make no sordid litter, befoul no water, nor poison the air with smoke” (Morris 16), even going so far as to cite “Earth, the Common Mother” (Morris 13) as a material source. The proliferation of plastic parts that one now sees on 3D print file sharing sites like thingiverse.com exemplifies an unfortunate reliance on un-sustainable petrol-based materials. This 2nd industrial revolution will only be revolutionary if it deals head-on with our ecologic crisis and makes the development of ecologically sustainable materials-use a reality. If anything can do this perhaps the evolution of technologies via open source models on the Internet has a chance.

While the ideal results of an open innovation of ethical and ecological 3D printing models are still speculative, the decentralization of manufacture and skill-sharing precedes it. In some ways the decentralized industrial revolution that Bowyer and Pettis link to 3D printing prefaced that single innovation. The evidence can be found at instructables.com and makezine.com but also sites like Open Source Ecology’s openfarmtech.org as well as localharvest.org. One especially interesting example is found at afrigadget.com which is dedicated to “solving everyday problems with african ingenuity.” The site showcases such things as a plastic recycling press that transforms plastic waste into useful sheeting, lamps made from repurposed scrap and anaerobic digesters to produce methane gas.

Decentralized forms of manufacture offer the possibility of a globally-connected, locally-minded and cooperative skill-sharing that can move the innovation of micro-manufacturing from entrepreneurial enterprise to a progressive re-imagination of what may still be possible in the material world. This 2nd industrial revolution may succeed where others have failed simply because it may be the most viable option in the failure of outmoded models of centralized industry. Paradoxically, it is industry that brought itself down by its abuse of power, resources, and labor; rather than by the emergence of a collective utopia. Perhaps the collective and pragmatic idealism that is exhibited by latter-day William Morrises who continue to strive for alternatives to centralized industry offers a way to a more hopeful future. The use of decentralized industry to model avenues through the detritus of the 1st industrial revolution may be its most progressive possibility. It now falls to the 3D modelers of thingiverse.com and other object file innovators to link their creations to this broader movement. If not they risk becoming a revolution cut short: just another source of plastic trinkets with an insular gee-whiz focus on what is effectively child’s play, in contrast to the magician’s toolbox they may now have their hands on.

Works Cited

Anderson, Chris. “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits.” Wired 25 January 2010. 28 April 2010 <http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/01/ff_newrevolution/>.

Bowyer, Adrian. “Philosophy Page.” RepRapWiki 21 July 2006. 5 May 2010 <http://reprap.org/wiki/PhilosophyPage>.

McKibben, Bill. Eaarth. New York: Henry Holt & Company. 2010

Morris, William. Factory Work As It Is and Might Be. New York: New York Labor News Co., 1922

Schumacher, E.F.. Small is Beautiful, Economics as if People Mattered. London: Blond & Briggs Ltd., 1973

At-Home 3D Printing and the Return of a Craft Utopia: Part 1

Lasercut RepRap Mendel during assembly process, by stevew (2010)

Lasercut RepRap Mendel during assembly process, by stevew (2010)

“The Web was just the proof of concept. Now the revolution hits the real world” (Anderson 1). With these words Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine joins Makerbot and RepRap creators and countless breathless bloggers in heralding the dawn of a technology that promises to bring to bear the same force that upturned media industries to manufacturing industries. This technology is at-home desktop 3D printing which uses 3D object files created with computer-aided design (CAD) software to build up a physical object through the deposition of layers of raw material. It works on the same principles as a desktop paper printer, though instead of ink it prints plastic, ceramic slip, and other tactile materials. It is made accessible by the effect of open-source parts, plans and tutorials and priced low enough ($500-$1500) to make at-home factories a possibility for the avid hacker. Object files are shared the way music and other “old media” forms are now shared: as digital information. Given that the object data is easily exchanged, edited and endlessly vast, the potential for revolution seems only logical. The manufacturing industry is destabilized and individuals regain an agency lost since the first industrial revolution.

At this point it would be well to remember that we have heard these claims many times before. An especially interesting corollary can be found in the utopian project of craft-idealist William Morris. A connection between historical utopian-minded maker cultures offers a natural entry point given the language of DIY and craft that often surrounds discussions of at-home prototyping. By looking at this “next industrial revolution” through the lens of historic appeals for a utopian craft we can examine the critical potential of this technology at the outset. It turns out we have a lot to learn from the results of past calls for a new industrial revolution.

Detail of Unfolds l'Artisan Electronique installation (2009). These have been printed using a modified version of the RepRap 3D printer

Detail of Unfolds l'Artisan Electronique installation (2009). These have been printed using a modified version of the RepRap 3D printer

In “Atoms are the New Bits,” Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson suggests that with the rise of decentralized modes of production “Everybody’s garage is a potential high tech factory” (Anderson 8). For Bre Pettis, the face of Makerbot Industries which fabricates open source 3D printers for purchase, the possibility of toppling paternalistic systems of manufacture with hacker pluck and ingenuity is key. “Its absurd that we need a revolution to bring personally fabricated objects to the marketplace. We are humans with hands…. Somehow the first industrial revolution took that away from us” (Pettis 1). Adrian Bowyer who leads the team that developed RepRap, a self-replicating 3D printer has an equally idealistic end-point in mind for RepRap. He proposes RepRap as “Darwinian Marxism”. “Darwinian” because RepRap is made to self-replicate and rapidly evolve in the open source habitat, “Marxism” because the maker/worker will gain control of the means of production, as Bowyer says, “without all that messy and dangerous revolution stuff” (Bowyer 8). William Morris likewise called for this type of gentleman’s revolution. A prominent Marxist, he posited the “Revival of Handicraft” as the path to the liberation of the worker from dehumanizing divisions of labor in industrial work. He sees the revival of handicraft as a “token of the change which is transforming civilization into socialism” (ed. Adamson 150). This focus on makers shaping culture is no less than what many proponents envision as open source hardware follows the route of open source software. Past maker revolutions relied on state control and violent revolution, but the most profound check to industry now may be open source and decentralized manufacture.

What we have learned from past calls for utopian design should give us pause. Perhaps one of the most instructive lessons of William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement is how easily the force of capitalism subsumed any vestige of revolutionary power. Tanya Harrod, in her article “Paradise Postponed: William Morris in the 20th Century”, describes the irony between Morris as a business man, selling elite handmade goods through his company Morris & Co. and the anti-capitalist rhetoric one finds in his writing. As Harrod describes, “Morris as a sound businessman, kept practice and philosophy separate apparently believing that only after a full-blooded revolution would it be possible for a new art to develop” (Harrod 7). This focus on commodity production before idealistic models has only increased since Morris. Indeed as Harrod points out, “The practitioners of the crafts have gradually shed their utopian ambitions as they have come to occupy a small but acknowledged niche in the world of goods” (Harrod 23). This might be seen to correlate with the subsumption of today’s revolutionary-minded DIY movement into the world of the market via sites like etsy.com. While this decentralization of the marketplace may itself be seen as revolutionary it must be remembered that early proponents of the current DIY ethos saw it as a critique of the capitalist system of which etsy.com plays a part. While the success of Morris & Co. is often cited as evidence of the ultimate failure of Morris’ utopian vision, might it be possible to negotiate a better balance between the force of the market and the force of idealism?

In part 2 of “At-Home 3D Printing and the Return of a Craft UtopiaI’ll consider some ethical and ecological hurdles this technology must navigate in its path to revolution.

Designguide.tv interview from Unfold on Vimeo.

Works Cited

Adamson, Glenn ed. The Craft Reader. Oxford: Berg, 2010

Anderson, Chris. “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits.” Wired 25 January 2010. 28 April 2010 <http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/01/ff_newrevolution/>.

Bowyer, Adrian. “Philosophy Page.” RepRapWiki 21 July 2006. 5 May 2010 <http://reprap.org/wiki/PhilosophyPage>.

Harrod, Tanya. “Paradise Postponed: William Morris in the 20th Century.” William Morris Revisited. Ed. Jennifer Harris. London: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 1996. 6-32.

Pettis, Bre. “Industrial Revolution 2.” Bre Pettis Blog 24 Sept. 2009. 20 May 2010. <http://www.brepettis.com/blog/2009/9/24/industrial-revolution-2.html>