Radical Craft
The Second Art Center Design Conference

By Janet Abrams

Ricky Jay, playing card, watermelon
All photos courtesy of Chris Tung


Call me a Luddite, but I went to Radical Craft, the second biennial Art Center Design Conference, hoping for insights into the shifting definitions of craft and how it is evolving in an age of post-industrial design and manufacturing. With the exception of a few talks that touched on things hand-made in a digital era, however, few of the speakers addressed this fascinating issue head-on.

Here we got closest to the essence of craft, as a very delicate, tentative, and maybe even private activity, involving preparedness to fail, and try again, and experiment, and tolerate not knowing what the outcome of this process may be "useful" for.

Once again guest programmed by Chee Pearlman and moderated by John Hockenberry, the conference drew over 800 people to the vast barn of the Wind Tunnel (sic) on the school's South Campus. There, from comfy leather armchairs and assorted other seating choices, the audience could peer at speakers, diminutive on the distant stage, or, with heads upturned, watch their giant presence on three massive projection screens.

A few themes emerged, nonetheless, from the smorgasbord of 30 speakers, revealing some undercurrents of activity and intention that may come to be recognized as "design trends" before long. The first of these I would label Radical Voluntarism, sometimes involving the sub-category of Enlightened Duplicity: a situation in which people come together, either completely voluntarily or with some material/magical inducement, to improve their skills or change their own, or others', lives for the better.

Setting up the room

Is this design? Yes, but interestingly, the main examples of such practice came from non-designers: Martin Fisher, CEO and co-founder of KickStart, a non-profit organization founded in Kenya which develops modestly priced tools and equipment that enable impoverished Africans to start their own businesses and make economic progress; Dave Eggers, whose literacy centers, lurking behind the utterly convincing stage-set storefronts of improbable (indeed, magical) businesses, lure kids aged 8-18 into after-hours learning, with the help of volunteer tutors; Jimmy Wales, whose Wikipedia online encyclopedia is compiled by a self-regulating community of contributors; and a grassroots campaign to supply Bosnian women with knitting supplies, described by Jane Olson, of Human Rights Watch, following a humanitarian task force visit to Croatia during which she inadvertently discovered that knitting together was an activity ("Like chopping onions, or stirring soup") that not only provided a means of creating much-needed warm clothing, but also enabled the Bosnian women--many victims of rape, used as a deliberate war-tactic--to open up and talk about their traumatic experiences.

From knitting together, it was on to knitting urban fabric. Maurice Cox, the former Mayor of Charlottesville, VA, a practicing architect and University of Virginia professor, spelled out his definition of radical craft: "I think the radicalness of design has everything to do with the ability to engage participation. What if design were used as a tool for civic discourse? What if it produced unrest, dissatisfaction with things as they are? What if it were used to engage people, even stirring them to the point of anger? If you don't like the rules of the game, it's your responsibility to break them. Use the democratic process to bring a hell of a lot of people with you."

Cox's exhortation lingered in the mind, even as the urban design initiatives he presented were soon overwritten in one's visual memory by the flashiness of architect Wolf Prix's presentation on his firm's design for the BMW Welt "center for brand experience and vehicle delivery," opening in March 2007, in Munich. Prix, partner in the Vienna-based Coop Himmelb(l)au, calls his architecture "functional sculpture," and argues that it is "a synergy between program and form," but it seems largely to be driven by the possibilities of making "forms that have never been seen before" using the computer, without much consideration of whether that novelty justifies building them as permanent structures at 1:1 scale, or what it will be like to occupy the results. If the formal arbitrariness of this glorified car showroom (its swirling drum-like turret derived from a still-frame of a storm cyclone) wasn't irritating enough, then the extraordinary excess of its salesmanship made one blanch: Coop Himmelb(l)au, hired Imaginary Forces to make a lavish computer animation simply to sell the architects' concept to BMW's board to win the commission. After viewing excerpts not only of the resulting computer animation (basically: simulated people peering at cars!) but also footage of its making, one was left wondering how many $95 irrigation pumps Martin Fisher could have manufactured for the cost of this video alone, and how many plots of African soil might have been turned into useful agricultural land as a consequence.

826 Valencia Brooklyn storefront

Eggers' initiative made one ponder whether radical innovation in school design is more likely to spring from designers and education policy makers, or from left field: from those with a passion for teaching and awakening the creative imagination.

As a contrast, it was a relief to learn about the tongue-in-cheek architecture of Dave Eggers' 826 Valencia tutorial center, and the several kindred "storefronts" in other cities around the U.S. Eggers, novelist and brains behind McSweeney's publishing enterprise, has stretched his talents for visual and verbal wit--well known from the Quark-enabled flourishes of his print efforts--into the three-dimensional environment, not just as a marketing ploy, but in service of advancing literacy. Cluttered with stuff, faintly antiquarian, surrealist, like old natural history museums, complete with lopsided cupboard doors, and floor hatches with fake snakes inside, these enchanted chambers draw kids in to the (admittedly more conventionally designed) classrooms tucked behind.

"There was a Trust Gap there," Eggers deadpanned, describing the evolution of the San Francisco original venue, "because we were operating in the back of a Pirate Supply Store." Subsequent stores masquerade--complete with thematically-repackaged items for sale--as the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Shop, in Seattle; a Spy Supply store in Chicago; and an upcoming Duty Free Shop for Time Travelers, that will "look like a 7-Eleven."

"We just had this idea that the store would be a place where things fall on you," said Eggers, outlining his architectural philosophy. "So there's a lot of shrieking, which makes for learning. The storefront allowed the kids to turn off their school brain and turn on some other kind of brain." The effective message of such spaces: homework doesn't have to be a burden. Eggers' initiative, and the extraordinary network of volunteer tutors which it has inspired, made one ponder whether radical innovation in school design is more likely to spring from designers and education policy makers, or from left field--from those with a passion for teaching and awakening the creative imagination, rather than devising barracks in which to process kids through the drudgery of standardized tests, scores, grades and measurement.

The virtues and rewards of the hand-made surfaced in several talks, almost apologetically, that such a mundane thing as making with one's own hands could be so pleasurable, or even still worthy of acknowledgment in an age of digital reproduction.

Harold Koda, curator of the Metropolitan Museum's costume collection, introduced us to the phrase Les Petits Mains (literally, "little hands"), the term for those artisans--fleets of anonymous seamstresses, appliqué experts and embroiderers--whose (now vanished?) skills in applying individual sequins, or ostrich feathers, silk flowers, hand-knotting, or other tiny gew-gaws, enabled celebrated fashion designers, such as Chanel, Balenciaga, and Dior to achieve the lavish detail and swoon-inducing effects of their haute couture garments. Here, craft was again associated with the cumulative efforts of many nameless individuals--and also with the economics of one-offs that "push the envelope" of a field, but rely on a disparity in income, and labor, between the name "designer" and the craftspeople whose skills buttress these hallowed reputations.

Claudy Jongstra at the podium

There were more gorgeous textiles in Claudy Jongstra's talk, once she herself came on stage (introduced, in a rather awkward turn, by her personal manager--apparently to offset the designer's acute shyness about public speaking). Jongstra tends her own flock of 200 long-haired Drenthe Heath sheep in the Netherlands and makes felt from their wool--sometimes blending other materials such as cashmere, silk, merino and organza--and from it, wall coverings and freeform rugs that grace private homes and even the White House, the Dutch prime minister's official residence.

Describing her many proprietary recipes for making felt, its shrinkage factor, and the way she achieves different colors (for example, through oxidation of organza's metallic content, or using a gold vegetable dye whose intensity depends on how much sunshine the plant received), Jongstra conveyed the rapture of material engagement: deep knowledge from devoted focus on a specific substance, and the elaboration of a rich repertoire of variants that comes from close understanding of its chemical structure and behavior. "It's very nice to work with your hands, in your studio, doing a physical thing...It's really a wonderful craft," said Jongstra, as images of algae-like landscapes--bubbly fibers stewing in water, dank and glutinous--filled the screens, strangely reminiscent of David Gallo's footage of undersea creatures, captured by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution submarine, seen the previous day.

Here, and in Danny Hillis' and Jonathan Ive's talks, we got closest to the essence of craft, as a very delicate, tentative, and maybe even private activity, involving preparedness to fail, and try again, and experiment, and tolerate not knowing what the outcome of this process may be "useful" for. A stage of provisional knowledge, refined through repetition, of finding-out-in-the-making, leading to skills that can be consciously applied.

"I'm beginning to think of craft as a stage that an idea goes through, like adolescence," said Hillis, co-chairman of Applied Minds. "It hasn't had to meet reality yet; it's an intermediate stage where it's making that transition, then it becomes a real industrial idea. Pushed by imagination, and pulled by reality: that's the moment in the life of an idea that I love."

Applied Minds' topographical map, before and after

Applied Minds' working environment seems almost a kindergarten-like atmosphere of playful experimentation, with a warehouse/library of all the possible pieces and parts one might need to put things together in new, experimental ways. It serves as an alternative context to either academic or corporate R&D, one in which people can come up with their own problems to solve, and "think broadly about the technological future," but, as an independent consultancy, spurred by the impetus to push concepts toward realization. "The easiest thing to do in a company is to NOT do anything with an idea," said Hillis. "Within internal R&D, they can always defer decision making." Showing one recent project--a robotic caterpillar whose movement pattern can vary, from side-to-side to S-curve oscillation--he admitted "I have no idea if this will turn out to be useful. At this stage you really don't know what it's good for. It's a little bit indistinguishable from play, but it's not doodling. It has its own affordances and's 'pre-engineering'. You start seeing the possibilities."

So where do ideas come from, and how do they survive their birthing process to reach the world at large? Part of this has to do with establishing a nurturing environment for creativity, a trusted space for people to work together, and learn together, over time: design as a social activity. Such an atmosphere seems to pertain at the Jet Propulsion Lab (to judge by the video of JPL scientists cheering their latest conquests of outer space, shown in Charles Elachi's unscheduled "bonus" appearance), in Hillis's transitional "playspace" between pure invention and institutionalized corporate R&D at Applied Minds, and in Jonathan Ive's industrial design team at Apple.

The task is "to solve incredibly complex problems and make their resolution appear inevitable and incredibly simple, so you have no sense how difficult this thing was."

In a dialogue with Pearlman, Ive (taking the conference capstone throne occupied by Frank Gehry last time), spoke of the moment he came across the Mac SE, as a design student in Newcastle, England, and realized "there was a value system...a level of humanity and care that yielded this object," and how that led eventually to him joining Apple, where he became VP of its design group in 1998, and Senior VP of Design in 2005. Deftly deflecting Pearlman's attempts to draw him on what it's like working for Steve Jobs, Ive instead emphasized his team's effort to "get the design--in a conscious way--out of the way, because we're surrounded by so much clutter. But trying to simplify and refine is enormously challenging." The task is "to solve incredibly complex problems and make their resolution appear inevitable and incredibly simple, so you have no sense how difficult this thing was."

Chee Pearlman with Jonathan Ive

By way of illustration, he turned to the monitor sitting between them, on which images of Apple products were wafting by, and explained the design of its supporting foot, articulating his enthusiasm with seemingly triple-jointed fingers: "I love that we took one raw piece of material--a thick piece of aluminum--and achieved that sort of utility: you bend it, stamp a hole into it and anodize it. It's heavy on the thinking and very light on the implementation." Again the rapture of material fabrication, the appreciation of craft skills: "We spent time in Northern Japan talking to a master of metal-forming, to get a certain kind of detail. We love taking things to pieces, understanding how things are made. The product architecture starts to be informed by really understanding the material."

Ive was especially lucid about the value of working for a long time in a small team. "You know how fragile ideas are at the very beginning. We're good at moving these little fragile ideas along till they become a little more robust and you can start to evaluate them. We make lots and lots of prototypes: the number of solutions we make to get one solution is quite embarrassing, but it's a healthy part of what we do." Apple's remarkable portfolio of successful products can be traced not just to individual skills, but to the less obvious achievement of having established and sustained a long-term design team, "collectively learning stuff and getting better at what we do. One of the hallmarks of the team is inquisitiveness, being excited about being wrong because that means you've discovered something new."

Theo Jansen and one of his beach-creatures

Toward the end of the conference, emeritus poet laureate Billy Collins remarked, prefacing his reading: "What women want, deep down inside, is... similes." And indeed, there were satisfying moments of visual resonance, serendipitous likenesses linking otherwise disparate talks and topics. The billowing jellyfish in David Gallo's gorgeous undersea photography echoed with Stefan Sagmeister's interactive spider's web that reacts to the bodily movements of passers-by, distorting the text of one of his mantras, written in its filigree. Applied Minds' robotic caterpillar seemed brethren to Theo Jansen's amazing Strandbeesten, multi-legged wind-powered beach-creatures made of bent electrical conduit, which are now starting to have nervous systems, "stomachs" to digest their own fuel, and some capacity to evolve genetically. And emergent systems cropped up in both Prix's "storm-based" BMW showroom, and the swarm behavior of air traffic, shown on one of Hillis' interactive maps: over a speeded-up 24 hour cycle, planes descend on Fedex's Memphis hub like buzzing bees to the hive, go quiet while sorting packages, then fly out in different directions--an industrial ecology for The World on Time.

There was the magician (of course): Ricky Jay, breathlessly hurling playing cards at a watermelon, eventually to pierce its "pachydermal hide," among other tricks. There was the female chanteuse (of course): the saccharine Tift Merritt, tapping a tambourine against her hide. There was the unexpected showstopper: lexicographer Erin McKean, the Betty Boop of Words and Letters (officially: editor in chief of American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press), whose own command of the English language and infectious enthusiasm seems capable of transforming that veritable behemoth, the Oxford English Dictionary, from a deadly vault of definitions, into a sexy tool for terminological triumphs: "I feel I've made a Good Grips can-opener" she exclaimed, of her new version of the OED, which places the most psychologically instinctual (hence, useful) definition, rather than the earliest, first.

There was documentary filmmaker Jessica Yu--perhaps the most intellectually and visually ambitious presenter, in terms of linking ideas and representational media from different eras. Her next film attempts to elucidate the moral dilemmas and contemporary relevance of Euripides' tragedies, by juxtaposing excerpts from The Bacchae, enacted by hand-held puppets, with face-to-face interviews with four men who have "become so single-minded in pursuit of an idea that it becomes almost the opposite, which occurs to them in a blinding flash of epiphany--they could not have been swayed from their path except by their own implosion." Introducing a section featuring the fervid revelations of a former terrorist, Yu offered some helpful context for the associated puppet interlude: "The thing you need to know is that the woman on the stairs doesn't realize that the thing she's holding on a pole is her son's head."

And then, climbing down the stairs from the stage and into the audience, there was Isaac Mizrahi, microphone in hand, offering up witticisms in his "chat show" confessional: "I had a really hard mother to please...When I'm not making things, I'm not happy..." and, with a wink and tap to his temple, "craft is really about getting the meds right." Asked how he knows when a design is 'done', Mizrahi responded: "I don't know when it stops, I don't know when it starts. It's almost like a bodily function: it just comes over you."

In the end, whether Radical Craft met one's expectations depends on what one goes to such events for: entertainment, or intellectual stimulus; a pleasant dive into a bran-tub of inspiration, or deep probing of complex issues. The by-now conventional format of these massive design/technology conferences (cf TED, AIGA, Pop!Tech)by their nature mitigates against sustained exploration of ideas, or making more than the most basic connections between different speakers, except in the occasional panel discussions and Hockenberry's always witty, but telegraphic post-talk interrogations. The need for charm and stage presence, for lively visuals with engaging soundtracks, takes precedence over signing up hesitant and modest presenters whose talents may be more "in the hand" than in words. And the schedule, with its battery of mere 20 minute presentations--scarcely time for anyone to make more than a couple of points, plus introduction and closing punch line--inevitably leaves one with the sense of having just being washed by a tidal wave of faces and bons mots.

Conference swag bag

As I lugged my Timbuk2 swag bag of conference sponsor goodies back to my hotel room--an advert for unsustainability, heavy enough to dislocate your shoulder--and wrenched its ultimately useful contents (a pen, a notebook, a discount voucher and some breath mints) free from their surfeit of packaging, I found myself pondering what Maurice Cox had said, in his talk, about using design to stir unrest, dissatisfaction with the way things are, and of making access to design one of every citizen's "inalienable rights." Could a design conference truly galvanize, challenge its audience, provoke us into action, spurred rather than dazed by the stunning variety of its speakers' agendas and accomplishments?

Now, that would be radical.



Janet Abrams is Director of the University of Minnesota Design Institute, and co-editor of its new book, ELSE/WHERE: MAPPING--New Cartographies of Networks and Territories, published in March 2006.