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Exhibitions > Machining Designs / Designing Machines

Machining Designs / Designing Machines
by Steven Skov Holt
With editorial and research assistance provided by Mara Holt Skov

My Introduction to Wearable Electronics

One spring day in 1991, I noticed that Craig Janyk, my classmate at Stanford University's graduate program in design, had something new and shiny on his desk. It turned out to be integrated circuitry woven together with fabric - exactly the kind of exploratory project that Stanford's program was known for. The Stanford approach was based on having an idea and immediately prototyping it; build it and test it, and then get feedback on it - an approach that works just as well for the design of products as it does for the design of clothing, where a draping technique can be instantly tested on a dressmaker's
form. In Craig's case, he had produced a non-working sample swatch, and although he never directly capitalized on it, I realized it heralded something important: this "artifact from the future" showed how logical and obvious wearable electronics were. Although the model was rough, it was credibly convincing for me: beginning on that day close to 20 years ago, I knew it was only a matter of time before opportunity and willingness would line up with advances in technology and materials.

The Multiple Meanings of Clothing / Why Clothing Matters

Beyond the need to fulfill the basic functions of protection and modesty, the manner in which we clothe, ornament and display our bodies is a three-dimensional message conveying our mood, our allegiances and an entire host of self-perceptions: it is an expression of our worldview and a window onto our conspicuous and critical consumption patterns; it is a statement about what we will stand for in terms of conscious public display, while reflecting the unconscious coding our clothing broadcasts to the universe; it is both a wordless scream about our existence and a protective barrier to shield us from our enemies (and at times, ourselves); it is, for all of these reasons and more, an unfailingly relevant composite picture of who we think we are, and who we hope that we will become.

We are currently witnessing a new design phenomenon that I have been calling "Post-Industrial Craft." This term refers to the efforts of artists, craftspeople and designers to customize the mechanized processes of industry for their own purposes, often marshalling the tools of independent fabricators, the machinery of manufacturing, and industrial materials such as plastics and electronics to create new types and classes of objects.

Post-Industrial Craft has become a reality thanks to the following: the infusion of products with enhanced technological capabilities; the employment of smart materials that enhance functionality without added componentry; the reconsideration of cast-offs and overproduction from the manufacturing process as raw materials for new and innovative constructions; and products that embody a specific experience, further establishing the shift from object-based to experience-centered design.

The re-examination of materials, functions and concepts that is inherent to Post-Industrial Craft has given rise to a wide range of hybrid objects that simultaneously draw on art, craft, design, science, technology and a host of other areas for their production.

Take, for instance, a project such as Thomas Traxler's The Idea of a Tree, 2008: in this work, the Austrian-born, Eindhoven-educated designer devised both the method and the apparatus necessary to capture sun rays and translate them into layers of coiled thread, which are exposed to a color bath during the manufacturing process.
Each variation in the color of the finished piece correlates to a realtime
reading of the sun's strength. The result is a striped, multi-hued object that is then adapted to create a stool, a lampshade or even a bench; the size of the piece ultimately depends on the length and strength of the machine's exposure to the sun.



In a more technologically intimate vein, Dutch ceramicist Simone van Bakel, in partnership with Matthias U. Keller, created the Floral Sculpture Clinic, 2003 , a visionary yet entirely fictitious enterprise that consisted of a medical firm, a website and a printed brochure - and whose first product line was a series of four bioceramic implants, each in the shape of a notable Dutch flower: tulip, iris, narcissus, and amaryllis. Once inserted under the skin, the effect was that of a slightly bulging, 3-dimensional tattoo. A follow-up
"intelligent jewelry" implant collection consisted of five bone-like pieces, and came with a proprietary microprocessor they dubbed the DaVinci Chip©; the added technology purportedly allowed for the electronic exchange of information with others similarly equipped.
Each implant was intended to maximize the wearer's technological connections while augmenting his aesthetic appearance.

The body also figures prominently in the Sketch furniture project,2005, for which members of the four-woman Swedish design collective Front drew chairs, tables and a lamp in 3D space as an example of "performance design." Reminiscent of earlier projects from MIT's famed MediaLab, the physical gestures of each sketching performance were captured and then used to generate actual-sized products from the digital data. This allowed the designers to take each 3D drawing directly to the final production stage through the process of rapid prototyping. Although the Sketch project created a buzz in design circles, it also attracted criticism because it effectively bypassed what many considered to be the essential model-making and iteration phases of the design process; not surprisingly, it shook many designers' notions concerning the foundations of good design.

These three boundary-blurring projects are based on the purposeful misapplication of technological capabilities, the inversion of traditional fabrication methods, and the reexamination of materials, as well as on confounding previously held expectations of function and meaning. Chosen from among a multitude of works, these compelling examples reveal how tinkering with a new technology - really, "thinkering" with it - can result in a variety of new aesthetic and conceptual expressions.

In this rich and shifting climate, where boundaries are constantly being blurred and the limits of what is technically possible are constantly expanded, the areas of intersection between fashion, industrial design and advanced technology appear particularly fertile, meaningful and dynamic. Mechanical Couture draws attention to a succinct and evocative selection of designers who are not only fully engaged in the practice of Post-Industrial Craft, but who have also chosen to situate their work on and around the human body.

These body-based projects showcase a variety of future-oriented fashion pieces that feature sensor-and microprocessor-based circuitry; they play off of the ambient light, sound and motion of the garment, the model, the viewer, and/or the spatial and contextual environment they all share. More significantly, these pieces point the way forward toward a more seamless integration between the human body and a veritable panoply of machines, micro-machines and machine-based enhancements.

Other Post-Industrial Craft-based strategies or processes integral to these works include the creative sampling and appropriation of familiar technologies and materials that have been adapted to strikingly unexpected uses, infusing garments with new energy and purpose. In a similar vein, some designers have taken the massproduction tools intended for one creative discipline and introduced them into another. Adapting such technologies (in the broadest sense possible) for areas where they had no prior history of use has allowed
designers to create garments, footwear and accessories in ways previously unimagined. In addition, many of these projects reflect the recent industry-wide zeal for design research, including conceptual explorations of ideation techniques and various theoretical probes and propositions, resulting in work that is intellectually rich and that often challenges our perceptions and long-held notions of refinement and beauty.

The integration of these technologies and design strategies into the realm of fashion design has certainly influenced the look and feel of the pieces in Mechanical Couture. Yet perhaps the most influential and sweeping change is that technological apparatuses are lighter and more ephemeral than ever before. Features and functionalities are now seamlessly integrated with our bodies. We can now carry entire technological systems around in our pockets,
or even leave them hanging from our necks or dangling from our ears. We have begun to define our life experiences and human interactions through such systems, and technology-enabled objects are now routinely both the sources of, as well as the answers to, our desires, our fascinations and even our obsessions - three impulses that fashion both understands and exploits.

Although we have always had a complex relationship with the objects that fill our lives, this relationship is more emotionally charged now that so many of these objects have become as intimately connected to our bodies as our
clothing.

As designers continue to expand beyond the limits of the traditional fashion world, it is clear that advanced technology is providing one of the most  interesting areas for exploration and inspiration. Looking ahead, we can expect to see a fluctuating yet ever-evolving surge of technical possibilities for the production of garments, footwear, accessories and jewelry. We will see a growing number of previously sequestered manufacturing technologies, machinery and production options opening up to a wider range of creators.

We will follow the music's lead, moving in and out of our own jangly personal
soundtracks (and visual tracks) to overlap with those of others.
We will be startled by the unexpected juxtapositions and curious textural and visual combinations we encounter. We will engage in the search for The Next New Thing, sourced anywhere from the most inaccessible regions of the globe to the hardware store down the street. These metaphorical and expressive possibilities are available not just for fashion professionals, but for those working in all areas of creative and visual culture.

The designers featured in Mechanical Couture introduce us to a wide range of possible futures, yet their projects - which have invariably grown out of our present conditions - offer numerous lessons for the taking. They involve investigations, speculations and propositions that raise questions, garner attention, and generate more occasions for optimism than we might reasonably expect. In doing so, they offer all of us new models for seeing and thinking about fashion, because they expand our shopworn definitions of form and function.

Though they may seem strange, even disturbing at times, the projects in Mechanical Couture are the harbinger of a new way of thinking about what clothing can mean, what technology can do and what our bodies are for. For the new generation of designers seeking to send their visions of what could and should be through the changing cycles of creation and production, I offer a short message: the "strange" of the present will soon become "the familiar" of the future.

At the current moment, we are surrounded by an exponentially increased sense of possibility, a sense of design "being in the air" combined with the feeling that our professional boundaries - and even our smaller and self-imposed restrictions - are giving way, and giving rise to a new sense of excitement. This atmosphere marks our time and makes it the definitive era for creative minds of all types, enabling them to forge connections where none have previously existed; it makes it a time when designers must daily dare to infuse form and function with meaning and emotion. Mechanical Couture illuminates these changes even as they are occurring, and marks one of those cultural moments when clothing transcends its existence as mere cloth. What we see here is nothing less than a deeper expression of contemporary culture - and a revelation of what Post-Industrial Craft might yet become.

 
 
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