Making happens on a spectrum. The range of the spectrum encompasses the most touch to the least touch used to create a given object. On one end of this spectrum, we have the studio artist and on the other, a fully automated machine. The machine is a tool designed to recreate something numerous times with the most minimal deviation from the original. Each object that the studio artist creates exists without being replicated. The moment that the spectrum shifts from studio artist to machine is when the tools that are designed to recreate come into play.
Handmade design can be initially defined through tools. The spectrum of tools ranges from ancient innovation to machines of the digital age. The most notable step in human evolution was the creation of tools to start fire, hunt and make survival easier. We as humans are past the point of just “surviving”. Now, in first world countries, we curate our lives through the habits we choose to embrace. We create settings for rituals with objects of purpose. While this is a creative process in itself, there is a sector of society constantly considering how and why. The most skilled designers and makers of things do this with passion, purpose, intention and skill. These individuals understand how to manipulate and refine raw materials to create objects that work purposefully in the lives of the user.
In the twenty teens, considerate craftsmanship is engulfed in a sea of disposable things produced for profitability, backed with massive marketing budgets and sold at unsustainable prices. Too-big-to-fail corporate conglomerates are well-armed with a knowledge of how to convince people they want something by taking advantage of data collection on habits, interests and need states. These massive corporations have the funding to develop systems as void of the human hand as possible – for the trained human hand is more often than not the most expensive part of making.
The handmade design movement is a desire to unite makers and their craft, systems of modern tools, and the competitive induction into a consumer marketplace. By explaining where handmade and design actually meet, I hope to shed light on what handmade is and ultimately bring value to objects that consider this relationship.
Tools in Design
Tools are designed and invented with a purpose. Tools separate the hand from the medium. Tools are something designed to help a process maximize efficiency and precision. Implementing tools can be beneficial if not necessary in effectively communicating an idea that has become an established part of a making process. The better the tool the smaller the tolerance of deviating from the initial prototype.
The potter's wheel is a tool to move clay into round forms, as is a wood lathe and a "block" in glass blowing. These tools create a round blank to explore form. Tools such as molds are made when the artist feels like a design is composed to completion. Sometimes the exploration of form requires a series of repeatable steps to execute a desired resolution. It makes sense to design tools to expedite this sketching and exploration phase and reach a conclusive moment with more ease.
The tools are systems of molds or jigs that help reproduce or revisit a “desired” formal solution. In order to create these tools or systems of reproduction, dimensioning must be done to document the spatial decisions that the form will comply with. My definition of design involves tools, which are implemented to execute dimensions to create objects with specific functional utility.
Engineering is the field that often takes these tools and mechanizes them with the intention of removing the hand, speeding up production, and having the tightest tolerances. This is instrumental for the hand to be absent and introduces the other side of the production spectrum from the studio artist.
Designing Systems of Making
During the making process, records are left behind in each piece by hands or tools. Creating a system of reproduction requires systematic documentation of the moves hands need to make in order to execute designs. Tools are created to translate a model into a reproduction of the original idea. These tools allow skilled labor to also engage in a production process.
Handmade isn’t about the ability to reproduce the most refined version of the original but the number of moments left for interpretation along the way. This requires skilled translators with independent, trained, and creative minds. They require the ability and background that allow them to problem solve and inflect their subjective decisions in translation. The furthest end of the production spectrum from handmade craft is inserting raw materials in a machine that refines them to the closest version of the original. The goal is to have as little deviation as possible.
Deviations are embellishments while refining and translating by the makers/operators. These are the moments when the maker's hand breathes character into the objects. There are differences between these moments and flaws of material. Materials flaws are exposed when there is a lack of comprehension of the stresses on material during the making process. My definition of craft involves and individual set of hands with a strong knowledge of the materials they are working with.
The practice of the studio artist is to constantly design or sketch, creating unfettered reflections of imagined objects. The best makers’ hands work as extensions of the decision-making-mind to leave calculated and deliberate impressions. These makers inform the field, leaving historical markers. There is no translation for anything to get lost in. They make no unintentional deviations because there is no “prototype” and no end product. Only the pure dynamic moment exists within the attempts at making ideas come to fruition in the form of tangible works of art. What if we distilled one of these fluxing moments and formed a system to translate it?
Examples of character in translation are subjective and will typically be determined by critics of those materials. Sometimes, these deviations or flaws in refinement reflect a lack of understanding or experience with the material. Therefore, a handmade process must include moments for interpretations and deviations that become marks of the makers. These marks are impressions of subjectivity that are moves or reflections of a certain individual.
Handmade design lies somewhere where deviations in translations are still encouraged. The deviations will be embraced if they are tasteful and intentional rather than a result of carelessness or indifference. The parameters of the design are rigid enough that the objects have been dimensioned and tools have been invented to aid in efficiently executing an acceptable translation of the original.
Authenticity in Design
Handmade design relies on the assumption that these designs will be reproduced with limits on scalability and executed in small batches. I believe that a demand for authenticity can be satisfied and embraced. Establishing the lifespan of the tools for reproduction and allowing those tools to refine the material until they are worn leaves moments for deviation. This is a good lifespan for a design. I think the most beautiful thing is when a jig or a mold invented or designed for reproducing a specific thing becomes worn through use in refining material. It is an art object in itself with a story – a history, an ultimate purpose and utility.
All of these definitions are an attempt to explain the authenticity of objects. This is important to artists and craftspeople as they often work independently. Their output is a dynamic thread of ideas that informs the next decision. Ideas are introduced in bodies of work, or editions that are developed with cohesion. These batches are incredibly valuable to the art world and should be regarded with the utmost respect. They are dynamic moving targets responding to a relentless force of time. Can we capture those responses to the fleeting moments in a studio practice and expand that into a design process?
There is a huge gap in design that I believe can be bridged by adding the concept of handmade and allowing these studio artists to participate. Often, product development teams start with a concept without considering material or process. The foundation of handmade design relies on the concept that the design and production process are mutually dependent. In order to design something, on should go through executing and understanding the process of making. To produce a design, you must have a firm grasp of materials and the experience to invent tools to translate that making process through an efficient and reliable method of reproduction.
Filling the Gap at The Bright Angle
The Bright Angle is special, because our practice involves collaborating with the whole team that works in the studio. Each member of The Bright Angle works on a particular part of the process. Currently Tyler Anderson is handling production management and logistics, Allison Cochran is handle glazing and materials science and Alyssa Ruberto is the content and marketing manager. I myself do most of the technical designing, prototyping and mold making. We meet once a week to talk about how the process is working for each person and how we can improve so that the work moves through each part of the studio. Not only do we make check in to make sure we are working efficiently, but that each part of the process is enjoyable for all.
We also have a space for resident designers who we host both short and long term. They get to utilize the studio and facilities to explore ideas and work with the production team. The goal is to provide them with the tools needed focus on a certain part of the process that they need time to play with. In return, The Bright Angle also learns and grows in this collaboration.
My role at The Bright Angle is to facilitate the design process from concept to fruition. I primarily spend my time working with clients and colleagues to work through the design process. Considering the production methods and tools that will be implemented to create objects. I am a tool maker. I create tools to help produce systems of design that can be taught to other craftspeople. I create systems that are efficient, precise and scalable.
My employees are involved in every part of the design, prototyping, mold making, production, packing and marketing. This creates a symbiotic workflow in the studio that allows designs to be produced with considerations such as production techniques and marketing. Each artist in the studio assists with designs so they are excited and integrated in the whole process. It is great to have such talented employees feeling connected to the work. We focus on WE instead of I. We believe making things together encourages the development and production of thoughtful products.
It seems as if good American design is about bold color, patterns, outrageous forms, and a love for plastics. We're approaching design from a different lens, because our material choices inform our work. Materials, process, tools come first for us and dictate the forms which are subsequently informed by function, utility. Our designs are not contingent on what design school I went to. Our designs are collaborative efforts where the designer's name is not bringing value to the work. Instead, the work speaks for itself. We make it and the subtle marks of the maker leave traces of care and enthusiasm.
Returning to my concept of the spectrum, this is where The Bright Angle fits onto that scale: where one end is heavily manufactured goods with no room for interpretation; on the other hand is the solo studio artist with all this variation. And my interest is in the tools in between, the problems that can be solved.