Changing Role of Crafts and Design in the Digital Era

in conversation with Claire Warnier and Dries Verbruggen (Studio Unfold) and Alexandre Humbert

What is the role of the designer and how is it changing in a time when design and manufacturing become increasingly more digitized? This question is key to understanding the work of design studio Unfold. The studio, founded in 2002 by Claire Warnier and Dries Verbruggen after they graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven, develops projects that investigate new ways of creating, manufacturing, financing and distributing in a changing context. A context in which we see a merging of aspects of the pre-industrial craft economy with high tech industrial production methods and digital communication networks. A context that has the potential to shift power, from industrial producers and those regulating infrastructure to the individual designer and the consumer. Based in Antwerp, Unfold’s works have been presented internationally and are part of the collection of Design Museum Gent (Be), Centre Pompidou Paris (Fr) among others.

Alexandre Humbert (1989, FR) is a director and conceptual designer focusing on filmmaking as a design practice. Since graduating from the Design Academy Eindhoven, Alexandre has collaborated with a broad range of designers and cultural institutions to animate things through motion picture. His understanding of the design process guides him to explore the close relationship that exists between humans and objects through installations, fiction and experimental films. Based in Amsterdam, his works have been presented internationally and are part of the collection of Design Museum Gent (Be) and MUDAM Luxembourg (Lu). In parallel with his practice Humbert is a mentor at Design Academy Eindhoven, Head Geneva and HDK Göteborg.

Your work is always preoccupied with questioning different aspects of the design profession. In many of your projects, you have been investigating different modes of production in the digitized world. How and when did your interest in new technologies start and what topics have been in your focus during the last decade?

We started with a project that was about unfolding of very complex shapes. We scanned our bodies, unfolded them digitally to flat patterns and remade them again in different materials. Through this project and over the years we developed an interest in the malleability of the digital medium, but also in the tangibility of materials in contrast to the ephemeral state of the digital content. At the same time, we are not attracted to the screen, instead we are trying to move from it into the realm of the physical world. We are probably best known for 3D printing of ceramics, but why it interests us is because ceramics is almost one of the oldest materials that mankind used to create objects. So, there is a superrich heritage of making that we tapped into and built on top of that.
We are not so much excited about new technology because of the radical new things you can do with it, but instead in how it actually belongs to the history of making and how these new tools are just a continuation of mankind’s interest in redeveloping, making and changing new tools. For example, at one point the pottery wheel was also representing automatization of a hand building process, but today we see it as a tool that belongs to the craft potter.

New models of working and new modes of production are inevitably changing the role of crafts in today’s society, but also our relations to it. What is the role of craft today and how does craft inform new technologies in your design practice? 

We have noticed that craft is struggling for its identity for many years now. Many crafts have difficulties to evolve in changing roles. We became aware of it after we did l’Artisan Électronique. In 2009, we bought a 3D printer because we were curious on how to implement this technology into our design practice. We quickly changed this self-built 3D printer to print with clay as a material much more valuable than plastics. In the same year we were also asked by Z33, an art house in Belgium, to make an installation for their exhibition Design by Performance. We made a virtual pottery wheel, with which visitors could throw a pot in the digital manner and then on the other side of the installation print it with a 3D printer. The ceramic 3D printing is in a way a continuation of the traditional pottery making — you stack rolls of clay on top of each other to make a shape, and the printer is actually doing the same, only in miniature. So, it is kind of a logical way to make pots. A lot of institutes, and especially schools were struggling how to bring crafts into contemporary practice, and this was one of the projects that really embodied this tendency.
The common misconception of our work actually often comes from craftspeople, who perceive it as a sort of gamification of their making skills. We on the other hand were trained as designers. During our studies, we learn how to use 3D modelling tools, and consequently the language of the objects you make with them is usually the same. Our work evolved out of this frustration of not being able to influence the making of the tools we use, like craftspeople do.

We are not so much excited about new technology because of the radical new things you can do with it, but instead in how it belongs to the history of making and how these new tools are continuation of mankind’s interest in redeveloping, making and changing new tools.

Your projects explore methods of manufacturing and distributing design in the digital era. For instance, Stratigraphic Manufactury represents a new model for the distribution and digital manufacturing of porcelain, which includes local small manufacturing units that are globally connected. How is this model functioning in practice?

When we developed the ceramic 3D printer we also decided to share it with the open source network and put all the plans online, so that other people can start building it and make objects on their own. The Stratigraphic Manufactury project was born out of that.
The interesting part of digital files is that you can send them to anyone around the world. You don’t have to transport them as physical goods from one place to another. So, we asked people that were already using 3D printing with ceramics to print the set we have designed. We also asked them not to change the digital file, but to use their own local clays and materials, which are always different depending on their locality. In that sense you involve the maker or craftsperson in the production of mass-produced items, but you also involve the very specific local material and cultural context in it so that you get this range of all similar but also all different objects. It is interesting that with this approach you can get together lots of different people with the same interest very easily.
Today we see a special kind of interest in return. A lot of things were lost in the transition to the industrial age. For instance, craft is rather holistic — making, financing and client relations are all embodied in one person, while in the industrial age a lot of that was stripped out. However, in the last 20 years, many designers are moving back into those lost territories. They are promoting and making their own work again. For us a lot of that is being made possible by digital tools — like the way the internet has removed the barriers to communicate. You don’t need the magazines or trade fairs anymore. You can actually publish, promote, finance and manufacture your own work. This small-scale local manufacturing — taking back the responsibilities and aspects of making and then combining that with high-tech manufacturing tools or new materials, is very interesting.

You have researched and collaborated a lot within different contexts with other designers and craftspeople across the world. What do you find interesting in Zagreb that might be different from what you are accustomed to seeing elsewhere? Have you noticed any local specificities concerning crafts, craftspeople and locality?

Small manufacturing in the city that you see so nicely here in Zagreb is completely lost in most of central and western Europe. We were totally amazed by how many and how tiny the workshops around the Zagreb city centre are in comparison to Belgium for instance. Also, workshops are often still rooted in the places where they started a hundred years ago. We often talk about how with digital manufacturing and 3D printing we will hopefully see the return of manufacturing to the city, but it is always good to see the places where it was never forced out of the city. The problematic part that you always hear then is that there is a tendency, here and in other places like Turkey, to redo the mistakes that places like Belgium and The Netherlands made in the last 50 years, only to discover you want to bring the previous situation back.
Also, in Croatia the craftspeople make very utilitarian quality objects, and then the work they do is also part of their lifestyle, the way they sustain their living and provide for their own needs. This was interesting to see as well. In Belgium, those crafts are usually practiced nowadays as hobbies or in connection to specific art practices.

When we first invited you to collaborate on MADE IN project in Zagreb, you quite quickly, after some research, suggested to work with Antun Penezić, the Croatian last comb maker. What attracted you towards this specific craft?

What attracted us most to Antun was his story. It is quite dramatic in a way. It both tells something very personal, but also something about how we address crafts in general. We noticed that Antun was trained as the master craftsman for three years, learning the craft by doing. Very soon after his training and after only a few years of practicing, the craft disappeared. The ironic part is that then he started working in the plastic industry which replaced horn as the material, and then after his retirement he started doing the craft again. He is so passionate and happy with it, but at the same time he is not finding someone who wants to take the effort to invest time to learn it and make it into the future.
This contradiction is happening on a larger scale as well. At one point Antun also mentioned this is partly because of the new technologies. On the contrary, in virtual space, there is a big revival of craft today, due to tutorial culture and YouTube, where people document how they do things. So maybe it is hard to find somebody in your neighbourhood who wants to learn something in particular, but much easier on the internet, across the world. It in a way represents this somewhat lost idea of master/apprentice relationship. We wanted to investigate this further.

Many crafts are being so to say conserved in museums around the world. Antun’s collection of combs and his working procedures have been filmed and made their way to the Ethnographic Museum in Zagreb. Also, parts of his workshop and tools HAVE BEEN on display in Old Village Kumrovec FOR SOME YEARS NOW. Despite the fact, we kept wondering what happens with the knowledge, and especially the embodied knowledge that cannot actually be taught or learned from a museum collection, but rather acquired by contact with the practitioners. This seems to be a starting point for your experimentation with new technologies in the project. What is the relationship between new technologies, specifically the robotic arm that you work with, and Antun’s craft, and what role does it play in your proposed scenario?

We were basically trying to replicate Antun’s tasks in his little studio, we tried to copy them and let the robot redo them or do the similar tasks. At first, before coming to Zagreb we already did the initial part of the project at the University in Antwerp because they already had a robotic arm that we wanted to use. The software itself was not so difficult to use because of the apps that are already pre-programmed. So, there are a lot of small actions that you can add and put together so that they make a sequence of movements. Actually, that was really nice, because the technology behind the robot we worked with is quite new. Programming is the hardest part, but it is approachable.
Our intrigue however, goes back to the main premise of the project and the fact that there is supposedly a big interest in crafts and hand-made products, vs. the mass manufactured ones. So, if Antun can’t find an apprentice human to do it, we want to question who can do it and how can we preserve this particular craft. And we think that’s kind of the role of the robot in our project. On a bigger scale, we are questioning the motivation of humanity. Why do we want a product, but not the work involved? This is a zone of inquiry that we are trying to wander through and not necessarily give answers, but travel with Antun and audience of the film through this space of questioning.
In the film, we use the robot as a character, an actor. Robotics and digital technology could be used by makers as tools for innovation and experimentation. They could bring the craft in a new era. We see crafts as something nostalgic, something that is stuck in time and that doesn’t evolve. But obviously, this is not what craft is about. It is developing, changing and innovating as well. And that’s probably the only way for it to survive.

In the film, we use the robot as a character, an actor. Robotics and digital technology could be used by makers as tools for innovation and experimentation. They could bring the craft in a new era.

Both Unfold and Alexandre Humbert are using design methods and translating them into various types of media. In the case of the Combmaker’s tale it is Alexandre’s focus in filmmaking as design practice. What was your point of interest while working together and how did you start this collaboration?

It was rather natural since we know each other for some time now. Alexandre is doing super nice short videos in which he projects different identities, emotions and stories on inanimate objects by using voice overs and other techniques. We thought in this case it’s the same. The robot already has some kind of animistic quality, and so we wanted to mix its story with Antun’s story and convey it through the film.

We don’t have an object but rather we have the story that we don’t know how exactly to tell, but we think the film is a good way to approach it.” This is how it began, with an email and a concept I received. Basically, in this project the object is a tool to tell the story but not the one creating the story. And design is in communicating that story. With the film and a specific approach in which we are, for example, using the robotic arm to film from the perspective of the robot, we are creating a feeling of ambiguity of not really knowing who is doing the craft, whether it is Antun or the robot, whether it has already happened or is it happening in the future. We are also posing a question of who is filming. This is something you cannot communicate through a documentary only.

How were Antun and Danica Penezić reacting to your proposals and ways of working?

They were a bit sceptical about how horn as a material could be really picked, mapped, recognized and processed by a robot. On the other hand, we are aware that the technology is not that far yet so that the robot can absolutely replicate the craftman’s work. But all in all, Antun and Danica are very keen on seeing a new generation that could revive the craft, and innovate it to make it relevant again.

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