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Exhibitions > Designing Machines

Designing Machines

By Ginger Gregg Duggan & Judith Hoos Fox, Curators of "Mechanical Couture"

Haute couture is, by definition, made-to-order, high-quality and hand-executed, and for centuries has signified the ultimate in luxury and exclusivity. Conversely, machines typify the antithesis of couture, and are associated with mass production and decreased standards. Currently, however, we are witnessing a fascinating phenomenon of mechanical luxury, whereby designers are reinterpreting couture as a hybrid of both mechanized processes and customized craftsmanship. These designers employ machines and technology neither for their streamlining abilities nor for their capacity for mass production, looking to them instead to realize completely new forms and products. As opposed to simply incorporating technological components into wearable pieces, they create new machines in order to realize their vision, are inspired by machines as concepts, or transform machines into a part of the actual work.

New advances in technology have recently found their way into and onto wearable garments and products. Examples of such experiments have been featured in exhibitions such as "Design and the Elastic Mind" (2008) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; "Fashioning Technology" (2009) at the Design Museum in London and "Nobel Textiles" (2008), a collaboration between Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London and the British Medical Research Council. In addition, a number of projects undertaken at research institutions such as MIT have captured imaginations with new design possibilities. The products featured in this exhibition, however, do not exist simply as a showcase for the technology, but are rather the result of a design process that incorporates the use of machinery.

The decision to turn to machines can be motivated by various philosophical, psychological, physiological, sociopolitical and scientific reasons - thus resulting in a wide range of distinct visual styles. This essay will explore the unique processes and logic that shape the work of each of the designers participating in the exhibition, and will highlight the differences between them. Ranging from witty low-tech explorations to subtley inspired works or even mind-bending experiments, these works all reveal the pivotal role played by machines in this redefinition of couture.

Both the exhibition and the catalogue have been divided into four categories, which are represented by a series of visual equations that distill the roles played by machines. The first category, "Designer + Machine = Product," features designers who directly incorporate a new machine or technology into their design process in order to create a new product. The second category, "Concept = Machine = Product," provides examples of works that were inspired by machinery and incorporate machinery into the finished product. The third category, "Product = Machine," includes products that are themselves transformed into machines in the course of the design process. Finally, "Designer through Machine = Product" highlights products that were created in a machine-mediated process; although their production does not do away entirely with the designer, a substantial part of the process is given over to a machine.

The exhibition title, "Designing Machines," thus refers both to machines that design and to machines that are designed, and reflects the multiple roles played by machines in this context.

Designer + Machine = Product
Although machines have long played a role in various design processes, the new processes featured in this exhibition rely on the full integration of existing or newly invented machines. The machine, in this case, is no longer simply a means to an end, but rather the force driving the entire design process.

The way Dutch designer Marloes ten Bhömer incorporates machines into her design process is quite unique. When she envisions a product whose development requires a non-existent technology, she works with a mechanical engineer to create the necessary machine. The resulting shoe design, like the rotationalmouldedshoe, is inextricably linked to the mechanized process she has developed, and is unlike any other shoes currently available.

Although ten Bhömer has employed this approach to produce a number of unique shoe models, her design process is constantly evolving as she seeks to redefine and re-imagine shoe design. Her most recent invention, the rapidprototypedshoe, represents her search for a design that liberates the designer from most of the set-up and manufacturing costs. Upon learning that shoe lasts (the foot mold typically used in footwear as an armature on which to construct a shoe) are now digitized, ten Bhömer set out to use the lasts directly in a 3D computer program. Using a specific type of rapid prototyping called SLS (Selective Laser Sintering), the shoe is built out of layers of powdered material that is then sintered using a hot laser.

In this manner, various designs can be uploaded to a website where a computer program calculates the amount of material needed to produce the shoe, quotes the cost and builds the shoe. The resulting object is composed of a single material and made in one piece. Eventually, this could be a process that expands a designer's impact from a niche market to a broader audience.

Shelley Fox similarly relies on the aid of a machine in her design process, albeit for very different reasons. Rather than developing a new technology, Fox uses an existing technology in a completely new way to realize her vision. Inspired to design a collection based on bodily changes and body image, she worked with Sir Peter Mansfield, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, to scan the bodies of volunteer participants while they underwent medically supervised weight loss. These "fat-maps" became the blueprints for a collection of dresses.

Motivated by the emphasis on body size in our society, Fox worked with seven volunteers to explore weight as a social issue. In addition to body image, Fox was also interested in the way we consume and discard clothing, particularly as technology has made production more affordable. To highlight this issue, she chose to use vintage clothing as a starting point for these fat-map garments. Just as our bodies are made up of parts and layers that can be dissected and examined by doctors, clothing can be mined by designers for various components. In this case, Fox dissected and altered the found dresses, leaving markings and other evidence of changed stitching as a record of sorts. Eerily reminiscent of the marks made by a plastic surgeon prior to operating, these traces recall the design process, while the layers of added fabric recall the actual weight-loss process that inspired the project. The actual body scans, exhibited as life-size images, are equally disconcerting. Publicly exposed, they represent our vulnerability as we surrender, arms up, to MRI technology.

Concept = Machine = Product
For some designers, the end result of the design process embodies a perfect balance between concept and machine. Machines provide inspiration for the initial idea, which is given expression through the process and garment and, in some cases, even in the fashion show itself.

Hussein Chalayan is known for his highly conceptual approach to fashion, and for collections inspired by subjects ranging from emigration to abstract themes such as control and history.
His Fall/Winter 2007-2008 Airborne collection, which featured LED technology, constituted a wonderful example of design that is both a manifestation of a concept and a working machine. For this project, Chalayan was interested in tapping into the weather cycles and their constant state of flux as a metaphor for life and death, with various "chapters" in the fashion show and collection representing the four seasons. One of the dresses in this collection was composed of 15,600 colored LED lights underneath a transparent white fabric, resulting in a wearable video screen. This abstract design was meant to signify the arrival of spring, and a similar LED dress was designed to represent summer. Interestingly, in this case technological means were used to envision a natural and organic process.

Another example of turning to the forces of nature for inspiration can be found in the Dyson A-POC garments created for the Issey Miyake Spring/Summer 2008 collection. For this project, titled "The Wind," the creative director of the Issey Miyake label, Dai Fujiwara, collaborated with the industrial designer James Dyson on a series of designs inspired by vacuum technology. The resulting designs - as well as the entire fashion show production - cast this technology as the mechanized version of naturally occurring wind.

The initial concept, the garment designs (inspired by deconstructed Dyson machines) and the catwalk (which featured super-scale Dyson components that provided real airflow) all came together to provide an innovative interpretation of the dialogue between fashion and machinery. This dialogue is similarly at the center of the display included in this exhibition, which features robot mannequins made entirely of Dyson parts.

Montreal-based designer Ying Gao's inspired experiments are wonderful realizations of the approach that regards the concept, the machine, and the product as one and the same. Her Living Pod and Walking City projects literally transform before our eyes as a result of stimuli like light, breath, and our proximity. The interactive garments are equipped with micro-motors and sensors that detect the stimuli and react by expanding, inflating and transforming into altogether new forms.

In the gallery, viewers are invited to interact with the garments by breathing into a sensor or shining a flashlight on a particular section, and may then watch the immediate response to their actions. This direct relationship between designer, product and consumer is quite unique, and endows a mechanical process with an intimately personal quality.

Gao's most recent experiments were inspired by Jacques Tati's 1967 film "Playtime," which was itself described by French author François Ede as "haute couture." The use of optical illusions and mirror effects as a metaphor for urban transparency became the concept for a new group of interactive pieces that transform in reaction to sound and to the surrounding environment, mimicking the often futile attempts to "capture" our presence via surveillance mechanisms. Purposefully elusive and illusionistic, these garments appear playful while taking on the darker subject of surveillance and its relationship to truth.

Another project, "Biometric, Biographic", was designed and created for this exhibition by Israeli designer Yael Taragan in response to a plan that recently passed the first stages of legislation in Israel that would allow the use of a biometric database for security purposes. This form of identification through a collection of all citizens' fingerprints is seen by many as a frightening prelude to even more extreme de facto national identification. While we are accustomed to the use of fingerprinting as evidence in a criminal case, the widespread incorporation of this very personal, private marker led Taragan to consider how, like a fingerprint, our clothing can also tell a great deal about who we are and how we live.

Taragan's project, designed for this exhibition, presents an imaginary situation whereby the fingerprint database is given an alternative designation. In her scenario, the database will be open and accessible through the internet, allowing fingerprinting technologies to go beyond their typical function in monitoring and identification and instead become devices for memory and storytelling. Further, it removes the vulnerability and instead empowers the average person to use the technology voluntarily rather than unwillingly. This alteration transforms something that is potentially scary into a poetic approach to fashion.

Product = Machine
The designers whose works are featured in this category do not rely on machines for inspiration or integrate them into the design process, highlighting some new technology that just happens to have been paired with a garment. Instead, they create works that exist as machines in and of themselves.

Patrick Killoran's straightforward approach to machines has led to the creation of an interactive T-shirt that is itself a machine. The simple addition of a metal grommet in the center of a dark navy cotton shirt enables us to transform our bodies into a crude camera obscura. By holding out the neck hole and peering down at his chest, the wearer sees an image of the surroundings reflected on his skin. This witty design reminds us that technology does not have to be as complex as we might think.

Mika Satomi and Hannah Perner-Wilson work together under the name Kobakant. In Japanese (Satomi's native tongue), "Koba" means a family-run factory, while in German (Perner-Wilson's native tongue) "Kant" is the worker in such a place. This name speaks to the two designers' interest in machines as the point of intersection between the worker and the factory. As is the case in Patrick Killoran's work, their starting point is a simple cotton T-shirt, yet this work evolves in a completely different direction. A do-it-yourself element permeates much of their work, as a way of making technology more approachable. By revealing each step, as in an IKEA instruction book, Satomi and Perner-Wilson offer the tools and provide the outline for anyone to turn their own T-shirt into a wearable piano. What is unique and surprising is their use of readily accessible, cheap materials and their assemblage into a working electronic instrument. Although many designers are interested in wearable technology, the results typically conceal the components to create a sense of mystery. Here, however, the apparatus is prominently displayed across the wearer's chest, literally exposing the creative diagram for all to see.

Despina Papadopoulos, who works under the label Studio 5050, defies categorization. Her designs are not simply wearable gadgets, but rather incorporate technology just as another designer might incorporate zippers or pleats as an integral part of a garment. Every Studio 5050 piece includes a custom-designed circuit board, or module, that serves as both the label and as a functional control center for the work's technological component. A beautiful object in its own right, this module activates different electric elements. Accordingly, there are sound modules, temperature modules, LED modules, and so on.

The Masai Dress, designed by Papadopoulos, was inspired by the traditional Masai neck adornment, yet the final result is a significant departure from this source. A simple blue linen sheath with elegant and subtle stitching running down the center is transformed into something else entirely when its leather neckpiece is connected. The traditional silver beads that dangle from the collar are naturally conductive; when worn, they rub against the stitching, which is made of conductive thread, and activate a recorded sound element. The visual appearance of the dress does not hint at this capability, making the effect all the more surprising.

Alyce Santoro collected the audio tape from discarded cassettes and devised a process through which the material can be woven into a new textile. The garments created out of this new fabric are functional, retaining their ability to make sound. Her Sonic Fabric involves the use of machines during several stages of the design process. To begin with, the raw material was once part of a mechanical process; secondly, the tape is "woven" into a textile using an loom; finally, the resulting pieces actually produce sound when a specially designed tape-head apparatus is rubbed against the fabric.

Santoro's design process also merges past, present and future in an unexpected way. The designs appear futuristic, yet they are made of a raw material that belongs to the recent past. Cassette tapes were once the latest technology for audio recording and playback; virtually obsolete now, they have come to be viewed as a retro, low-tech product. Santoro works with a mill in New England to weave the tape into fabric using an antique loom - a choice that adds another dimension to her concern with the hierarchy of technology, reminding us that machines need not be the latest advancement in order to advance the design process.

Designer through Machine = Product
Rather than integrating machines into the design process, this group of designers uses machines as an objective point of intersection between designer and consumer.

In recent years, a great deal has been made of customization in the fashion and accessories industry, and companies like Nike and Levi's offer products that enable consumers to play a small role in the design process. Cedric Flazinski is interested in expanding on such superficial customization and simple do-it-yourself scenarios, resulting in a product that, in his own words, "would not be user-generated anymore, but user-based." To this end, he devised a system that includes a visual questionnaire, and which requires a more complex thought process and more subjective responses than other, more simplified customization forms. The questions are based on Flazinski's extensive research concerning signifiers and icons and their relationship to various personality traits and shoe shapes. The wide range of possibilities offered by this system allows for a vast number of shapes and styles, mirroring the unique individuals who were involved in the design process.

For their new project, Copification, Israeli designers Dana Farber and Galya Rosenfeld employ a mechanized process as an intermediary between designer and consumer. Their new project, Copification, which was designed for this exhibition, is an intriguing hybrid of their areas of expertise (Farber specializes in 3D art and animation, and Rosenfeld is a fashion designer). This project allows for design "accidents," and results in garments that comment on copying - in the fashion industry and life in general.

For Copification, Farber and Rosenfeld envisioned a process whereby anyone can create a facsimile of an ensemble they have seen on someone walking down the street. The challenge was how to make this technically possible. Interestingly, the unique approach taken by these designers involved embracing the limitations of the technology and allowing these to guide, challenge and inspire them.

Using a Z-scanner (a portable 3D scanning device), the designers could either scan an existing garment into the computer, or model the garment from scratch using 3D software. Subsequently, the design can be manipulated as desired. The next step involves fitting the garment to the dimensions allowed by most 3D printing machines by running a computer simulation of the garment falling and folding into this predefined area. The file of the model is then ready to print, and can be sent to a 3D printing facility. Once the garment is printed, the designers implant in it a barcode containing its specific digital information.

At this stage in the process, the idea of "copification" is initiated. The individual wearing the printed garment can now share the digital information with anyone else interested in copying the design through the use of a smart phone using a barcode reader application. The person receiving the file has the option to print the design as is, or modify it to create new variations on the original.

The availability of this digital information and the potential for the remixing of fashion elements, allows the new "copy", or "copified" version, to become something quite unique and removed from the original. This approach and the work process through which it is implemented compel us to consider the implications of copying, and of how this process is transformed when the variables are so open-ended. At present, copying in the fashion world amounts to the reproduction of similar silhouettes, fabrics or styles; the use of such highly advanced technolgies, however, enables copying to become the starting point for a truly original and personal form of expression.

This highly technological system eloquently and simply reminds us that through our efforts to adopt another personal style for our own, we end up creating a truly original custom garment.

Simon Thorogood is interested in fashion as the end result of a process in which ideas culled from disparate and unexpected sources are transformed into a product that communicates something about both the creator and wearer. The name he chose for his label, Phasion, was inspired by a scientific process called "phase transition," which involves the transformation of a system from one phase or state to another. In SoundForms, music activates a computer program that selects images from a digital library and projects them onto the form of a female body. The participant plays an important role in the design process by selecting the music. The volume, tempo and harmonics alter the color, shapes and contrasts of each projection, resulting in a unique study that can be translated into a sketch and even into a garment.

Beyond the range of unique, personal reasons that have lead these different designers to involve machines in their work, the trend toward mining machines for more than their traditional benefits is leading us to a new understanding of design. Machines offer designers a highly personalized way to customize their works and to experiment with new design processes, thus leading to a broader interpretation of couture. This transition from our understanding of haute couture as the creation of customized, hand-made products to its definition as a form of machine-mediated customization is charting exciting new trajectories both for the fashion world and for the world of design at large.

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