Rapid technological change, economic and societal forces are radically challenging traditional process of making, manufacturing and using. Disruptive platforms such as digital fabrication enable pre-production customisation as well post-production personalisation. Open source technology and open design are also creating opportunities for new models of production, distribution and use. The constraints of craft, batch and industrial fabrication are overlapping and changing the nature and future of furniture. This second East London studio-salon explores how this impact on furniture designers, manufacturers and users.
Date & location: 1 March 2016 - makerspace Machines Room, East LondonModerator: Daniel Charny (From now on)Start-up speakers:- Joni Steiner, co-founder of open source platform Opendesk reflects on its philosophy, set up and challenges.- Mark Smith, director at Isokon Plus - set up in the 1930's based on early modernist visions - talks about their ongoing commitment to produce hand-made furniture in the UK (East London).- Kim Colin, founding partner of Industrial Facility, talks about their involvement with TOG (AllCreatorsTOGether) and about TOG's ideals and backgrounds.Participants: Nat Hunter (Machinesroom), Rose Etherington (Clippings), Grant Gibson (a.o. Crafts Magazine), Gareth Williams (Prof. Middlesex University), Max Fraser (London Design Guide), Johanna Sjögren (Form Design Centre SE), Jenny Nordberg (designer, curator SE), Anna Bates (Dirty Furniture magazine), Jonathan Ledge (Makers and Brothers IR), Christopher Turner (LDF), and designers Michael Marriott, Alon Meron, David Steiner, Assa Ashuach, Philipp von Lintel (Industrial Facility), Ineke Hans, Tomoko Azumi, Nina Tolstrup, Thor ter Kulve (photo's)
Ineke Hans: Today we are at Machines Room and hosted by Nat. She is the 'chief' here and will explain a bit about it. After that Daniel will take over to moderate tonight's round table conversation with three start-up speakers.Nat Hunter: Welcome everybody. You can probably guess while walking through this space that we have everything: from 3d printers through to a wood workshop.We are an open practice or makerspace. The idea is a very low barrier to entry to makers, but in practice we have become an additional workshop for professional people and local practices as well. So instead of buying tools and machines yourself you can use them here and share tools, space and knowledge.Some machines are real game-changers like the cnc-machine we have here. A few weeks ago a young women with a child came in. She had downloaded three stools and a lamp from the Opendesk website and asked if we could make the components for her. After we cut the pieces she took them in the wood workshop, sanded them, put them together, and finished them off herself. From a price point of view they were pretty similar to IKEA. From a sustainability point of view however it was all cut from one sheet, but when something happens to that furniture she is much more committed to take care of it, to repair it or bring it back in here to do so. We see this more and more and we have been running all sorts of classes this year with huge amount of interest in open design and open making.
Daniel Charny: It is one off the - now - over hundred open workshops in London. It makes you wonder if there are more workshops opened than people working in them. This also leads to key questions underlying this evening: let's try to identify these shifts in making and manufacturing and look into how significant or marginal they are for our future. A term to describe current changes in relation to furniture and making is Industry 4.0: making and manufacturing have digital and technological sides that have effects on education, on living, on our financial situation, on social changes in cities and pressure on cities and on designers designing furniture. What does furniture means to designers and is that changing over the last hundred years.We are going to hear from three people who thought a in advance about designing and making. I am also going to ask all of them about the oldest tool they have and the latest acquisition. If we can hear from you Joni?
Joni Steiner: Opendesk essentially is part furniture, part digital platform using independent workshops for local making. A bit like a furniture company without a factory. My background is an architect and Opendesk has grown out of an architecture practice called 00 that started to ask questions about the values of design and its social impact. After Wikihouse Opendesk was the second experiment of 00, both exploring the idea of open design and what that means for design and for buildings. In architecture the process of building takes up years with sometimes a limited control over the outcome and in design we had a modest furniture commission from a software company in Clerkenwell. They were interested in having furniture that fitted into the way they worked, their needs and their budget, like working in pairs on programming and coding, two people sitting together one looking at a screen the other one typed... It was exciting to find that we could produce locally enough to go with our clients into the workshops and get prototypes back the same day.
Daniel Charny: The bespoke became the starting point?
Joni Steiner: Yes in a way we had a very tight budget an a very short leading time under a month to produce something that would be affordable and bold.So what happened then is that we worked with this company and all the furniture got made in time and at the same time they opened another office in New York and were very excited about having the same furniture there. But the price would double to ship it all to there and then we found a workshopin Brooklyn that could make it there.
Daniel Charny: Your model evolved from there?
Joni Steiner: Yes and there is a quote from John Maynard Keynes that says: 'it is easier to ship recipes than cakes and biscuits' and it goes back to this. So we ship recipes instead of goods. On the back of that we started to think about how we could connect all these workshops around the world.
Daniel Charny: So other people are making not you?
Joni Steiner: Yes and this has grown into a network of 500 workshops although we don't work with all of them every day.
Daniel Charny: So what is the oldest tool you use?
Joni Steiner: The oldest tool I still use is definitely a Japanese saw with a vicious blade that brings cnc to a myth. I would like to say that I don't need it any more but that's not so.
Daniel Charny: And the latest acquisition?
Joni Steiner: A Opendesk it is probably a software package that is about parameterizing design.
Daniel Charny: If we go over to Isokon Plus and you Mark... that sounds like a very different model...
Mark Smith: Yes we are very different, we are manufacturers. Isokon was established in the late 1920's to produce furniture for the Lawn Flats in Belsize Park, now known as the Isokon building.We are now called Isokon Plus. The plus bit being the work we develop with contemporary British designers so there are two sides: the historic and the more contemporary side. We moved from west to east London and we don't see ourselves so much as designers, but as manufacturers and facilitators where we go through the process with designers: prototyping, prototyping, prototyping.... We don't have an in-house design team but everyone who works with us gets their hands dirty.
Daniel Charny: With how many are you?
Mark Smith: Really small: 9-10 people.
Daniel Charny: How much do you outsource?
Mark Smith: We have an engineer that is with us for 30 years. He still in West London and he is literally a dying bread being able to do little jobs so well. We use upholsterers, but we do our own veneering and cnc work.
Daniel Charny: In terms of distribution:is there any e-commerce?
Mark Smith: We have our own website. On a limited budget we used an e-shop template but that works for us. We also work through a couple of trusted retailers, so we are very archaic: we use shops! People still like to touch and feel, turn things over to have a look at furniture, however... we do notice that there is a shift towards people buying quite expensive pieces of furniture without seeing them and of which I know that there are NO shops that have them on display.
Daniel Charny: Do you think the values of keeping the ownership comes back as an investment of something to keep?
Mark Smith: Oh yes, be we have noticed that with Isokon for a long time.
Daniel Charny: What is your oldest tool?
Mark Smith: Our oldest tools is radio frequency machine of 1952 that creates radio waves and literally cooks you, but it speeds up the pressmoulding process and cures the glue. Our newest is a program for cnc cutting, but in terms of a physical tool it is a Festool domino machine that really is a gamechanger for us.
Daniel Charny: We will come back to each one of you and how you feel about shifts in making but Kim, working Industrial Facility together with Mattiazzi with the eight axis cnc, Herman Miller - who was named one of the 10 most innovative companies last year - and TOG now, can you pick up on this? How do shifts in making look from your point of view as a designer?
Kim Colin: Our work with furniture is more involved on an industrial scale. Our name is Industrial Facility, it was our idea to work with industry, we like to work with industry and and to find out about working with industry. For me it is interesting to hear about this Industry 4.0 you mentioned.We have been pulled into working with smaller manufacturers like Mattiazzi that combines this incredible tradition of handcrafting and an 8 axis cnc machine. It was interesting to do something on that scale, not driven by big sales pressures, but more to find out what happens if you mix craft and technology. On the other opposite end is Herman Miller which is completely industrial, very corporate and with lots of people, lots of factories and this amazing legacy of working with outside designers like Ray and Charles Eames. At the same time they have outsourced over time and they are now trying to bring things closer to update their factories, to get more control over manufacturing. Their burden is that people are interested in their furniture for all kind of reasons.
Daniel Charny: And do you see a shift from contract to the domestic? Herman Miller have bought Design Within Reach.
Kim Colin: Well, I think these worlds will never merge, but previously you could not buy an Eero Aarnio chair unless you would be IBM who needed to buy 500 of them, but now they are in the process of making that much more accessible. They have been described as the cutting edge of slow which means they are very fast for a corporation, but to us they are a dinosaur to how fast things go.In the middle of that is TOG. TOG is interesting because they started big like Established & Sons once started big.. They have a lot of investment and capital to make things and to spend on communication. They had an interesting mandate to how they wanted to work with industry and they saw 2 opportunities. One: there are factories and expertise in Italy where factories were laying in waste and they thought lets put them to work, lets invest in them. The second thing is that they saw a new customer in Latin and South America. They know that in the western world we are talking about conservation and not spending so much, but in South America they want stuff and they want stuff from Europe that has a legacy for them. That was interesting because they have Brazilian and South American investors.What was interesting for us is that they asked us to work on furniture that we could not have done for anyone else so not for Mattiazzi or Herman Miller: they wanted furniture for the home for people that are now working at home. That is what attracted us because we are interested in those changing times. Industry is changing shape and therefore the designers role is also changing shape within that. I made some diagrams earlier today and it is interesting to see how in the designer works with all of those three companies in terms of our changing roles. Mattiazzi previous to working with us and following with other very well know designers was a factory manufacturing for others without their name on it. They had no name, so in order to create a name they turned towards designers with a name and that really has helped for them. They don't have in-house designers but they have a creative director that helped them to make the shift to the designers.
Daniel Charny: Have they stopped to produce for others?
Kim Colin: No I don't think so and I think they need to do so to survive, but they are very focussed and dedicated. There is generations of shift there and they are very comfortable with both crafts and technology next to eachother.
Daniel Charny: So what is the oldest tool that you use.
Kim Colin: We still make models one to one before we digitise, we are still very old school! The oldest tool is probably a file, so a shaping tool. Our latest manufacturing tool would be the 8 axis robot at Mattiazzi.
Daniel Charny: We mentioned tools are shifting as is the relation with the designers, but I would like to throw in one last thing which is the relation with the users, for instance TOG and customising. In order to do that I picked on the disclaimers from the three companies that you guys work with.So, if we start from Isokon it is about controlling all the aspects, you are not in fear of customers changing things after purchase. Where Opendesk has a particular need to make clear that if someone changes something it is up to them and not up to Opendesk.
Joni Steiner: Yea, but here also comes in the designer and the type of licence he gave.
Daniel Charny: But you cannot control or take responsibility for the production of your maker network and you don't know about the quality?
Joni Steiner: It is based on and born out of the desire to work with people in a different way. It is actually a trust-based system, where we work with people who want to do a good job.
Daniel Charny: So the customer is not your customer, it is the customer of the maker?
Joni Steiner: Well yes to a certain extend if they are in San Francisco and we are in London...
Daniel Charny: And is that the same with TOG?
Kim Colin: I just read today that TOG disclaims almost everything.
Daniel Charny: They say: as the publisher and editor of the website they have no party to any customer or customiser. So designers are called customisers.Kim Colin: Shall we just explain how TOG works? This is something we only found out very late in the game... perhaps a week before we showed in Milan: that there is also a this customisation aspect to their business model and that has to do with export: the furniture would be produced in Italy and would be considered as naked. The customer can order that and than TOG can get you in touch with a network of crafts people in South America where it was destined to go. So, there is a kind of global aspect where you benefit from the low cost of mass production and there is a local aspect where you are able to customize the furniture to your own mark. We did not know that our furniture was considered naked and we are happy with it being naked, but Philippe Starck - who is involved - is really really into this idea where designers design and then give it away.
Daniel Charny: So one layer is open and the other side not.
Joni Steiner: What kind of customising do you see?
Kim Colin: I would call it artist applied graphics, sometimes beading.
Daniel Charny: How do we feel here at the table about opening up to the users involvement?
Mark Smith: We are dinosaurs her we are not going to change the sizes. Someone wanted to buy a coffeetable for a school once and we thought that was very inappropriate since it could tip over. We said we really don't want you to buy this piece of furniture.
Daniel Charny: Is there any of your pieces produced in China under your licence, or copies? In terms of economic scale: China is the biggest manufacture and exporter worth a 94 billion dollars a year.
Mark Smith: No we don't produce in China. There are people making their version of our long chair, but we don't suffer from that and if we talk about the contemporary Isokon Plus pieces: the have almost been chosen to be a pain in the ass to make! That's why we spend so much time on prototyping!
x: That is the difference between customisation and this type of production.
Daniel Charny: How do people feel about open design?
Ineke Hans: Well I had some students last year who were completely into open design and were fed up with the old fashioned system where - if you want to work with companies like Herman Miller or others that show on the fairs we know - they always take on just a few designers and often the very popular ones. For the young designers Open Source Design is an interesting mentality, not only because of the technology, but they also look at it as maybe a kind of gap where they can find a way of surviving in the design world and get their work out in the open.
Joni Steiner: One of the things with open design is that people think of it as something that is free. We work with these big tech companies, but if Google wants hundred desks we work with these small independent makers who can make things in a quick way. The designer will get fairly paid and Opendesk is paid. But is is also possible that people get in at Machinesroom or a fablab to make something themselves.
Daniel Charny: Does that scare you here at the table?
Michael Marriott: No, people always liked making things and this opens up too for furniture being more crafted and more customized.
Daniel Charny: How does that ownership work through on an industrial scale?
Kim Colin: Justifying the big need of a factory that produces on a large scale and making things yourself are two different worlds, really. But shifts are starting small there too. A company like Herman Miller sees that changes are now going very fast where they used to go very slow. An expansive tech company doesn't need a hundred desks they need thousands, but the requirements are very different than before. This has to do with the assembly and reassembly of products - something we all at this table know off - but it is something that is going mass now. We might have to reconfigure a situation based on a time frame: a company might say: 'we want to reconfigure a room in 5 minutes', they do not say: 'we want two people on a desk or four people here or a chill out space'. The issue is time. It was previously a myth that people wanted to move around furniture, but that myth is now the zeitgeist. We are interested in those kind of scales and the behavioural aspects.
Nina Tolstrup: We worked - me, Tomoko, Michael - in this group of TEN where we explored all kinds of making: DIY, doing plans and selling them through the website, 3D printing and making files accessible. There were ten designers, things were ten pounds, you could have things made within ten kilometre.
Daniel Charny: A commentary about new makes of working.
Nina Tolstrup: Yes, but I designed chairs that could be made from pallets that are global available and from selling that plan I had more income than from any royalty contract. Subsequently from that a project called TEN PLAN evolved: an outdoor kitchen, but that was way to complicated as a DIY project. You could buy the plans and take them to someone to get it made.
Daniel Charny: That is a cultural arena where you are in an exhibition, but Mark you describe things coming from a job.
Ineke Hans: I think it is interesting to see that how we can make things evolves over time and that dominates how we do make things and how it gets to the user.
Mark Smith: Yes and the buyers expectations chance too. Donkey 2 that we make used to be made by Remploy and was literally stapled together bits of plywood. We could not sell that now. In the 60's they were mailed to people who were screwing them together. Maybe it will go back to that. People now - probably more than ten years ago - would really enjoy being part of the making process.
Daniel Charny: Going back to this making process, the relation with the user and how designs enter the arena: are we facing a time where we throw out design without the knowledge of industry and poor quality because you can now just distribute everything?Is furniture going to suffer and loose quality?
Ineke Hans: Our perception of quality has changed too. If I look at the clothes my parents bought in the sixties and the materials most clothes are made of today there is a huge difference in quality, but it doesn't matter to people: the price has to be interesting. However when sales on internet started I could imagine it for smaller objects but now people also buy really expensive things online and don't even look at the quality!
Daniel Charny: IKEA declared that they had reached 'peak-curtain': they can not sell more of it. They focus now on fixing and repairing. Is mass customisation an issue for users?x: I think the customising issue is a marketing thing.
Phillipp von Lintel: I ordered a shelve from HEM of exactly 94,5 cm. I thought the idea was great, but it took 3 months and I think they stopped it now.
Rose Etherington: Clippings is an online platform for discovering and buying furniture. Many customers are not in touch with bespoke furniture and for customisation it is also a matter of how do you work out what you want and how is it presented to you.
x: designers should make choices that's what they are trained for, not people!
Daniel Charny: We begin to see parametric open software coming up that enables making these choices.
Joni Steiner: We don't work with people that bought bespoke stuff, but more the ones that used to work with Vitra and Herman Miller. They are also interested in the narrative, the locality and the speed. Technology now enables craft making where it may not have survived.
Daniel Charny: So the bigger shift is in the network not in the fabrication?
Jonathan Ledge: I have a Dublin-based company with my brother called Makers & Brothers, selling around Europe and the US. I see space where people are buying smaller pieces for their home instead of furniture. They not only buy less but also a lot better and are prepared to spend more. There is certainly a shift - when companies like Vitra buy HEM and Herman Miller buys Design Within Reach - to figure out what the consumer is doing and how much companies can put in there.
x: But is is quiet cynical. Companies do this also strategic. They buy a brand because they are scared and terrified. Vitra puts aside a big amount of money per year to fight legal challenges against copyright. Vitra is exceptional aggressive in how they treat the furniture business.
Kim Colin: I don't want to characterising industry as big and bad. They have so much collective energy and the possibility to change things. More industries are getting more conscious: they have more desires to change things and their clients are more consious too. It is more positive.
Daniel Charny: Are people coming back to making now? We in Kingston University have phenomenal workshops. There was a time that many schools got rid of it but Kingston did not get their act together to make that decision in time to and gained by that. Now it is really busy, students use old tools with the new ones. Is there a shift in education?
Kim Colin: It reminds me of someone who has a daughter in Stanford D school where it's all about design-thinking, next strategies, thinking big beyond big and he was really confused that his daughter was only in the workshop. It made me think that these people working in digital worlds - so far away from human scale like furniture - have a kind of romanticism about workshop and making things yourself.
Ineke Hans: I was in Singapore in a jury a while ago. Young designers had entered a competition with design proposals that were selected by a pre-jury and we had to select winners from the pieces that were actually made after that. The designers were very good in rendering, but when the furniture had been made they found out that to make for instance a long bench a very fat steel beam was needed and that made their design look totally different from the render. They did not know how things were produced and made.
Kim Colin: What the industry is suffering from is that all the domains are separated. The factories are outsourced, the designers have been outsourced, the companies become separate entities that only look at marketing. This kind of fragmentation does not work and certainly fails in most design education where whole aspects of the process and all of the tools are not available nor built into education in an integrated way.
Daniel Charny: Is that to some extend what the networks are doing now: making shared gateways?
Mark Smith: Specialisation is fantastic, can platforms correct things, bring things together to solve that they are disjointed? There are people that can make things, that can repair things, or that like to buy things but they just need to get together.
Daniel Charny: Because of the access to tools, to sales and new systems should furniture designers keep doing what they do?
Ineke Hans: In the beginning of the nineties many designers in Holland started to produce themselves since it was impossible to work for companies who had then in-house designers. I hear a lot of designers now who are in the mood to start selling their products themselves which is easier now online than when you had to work with shops. I have to get to terms with it since it sounds like a horror scenario to me to get back to that again, but it is interesting that these are serious and accessible options for designers now.
Mark Smith: What worries me is that if a client likes a design on a platform - pays for it, does everything properly and takes it to a manufacturer that can make it - this maker might think: hey I like that, I might have some other customers that might like some of those too and I make another two. He makes three sales and the designer makes one sale. As designer I would be quite weary about misappropriation of your work.
Joni Steiner: We are moving towards a world that is moving from starr designers and architects to a world where they collaborate and not scared to share stuff.
Daniel Charny: There is this approach that we are in a sinking ship, that we need a good design of a bucket and need to share that. Are we in a position that we have to change?
x: I did some research into furniture catalogues of the last 120 years in the Geffrey Museum. The furniture business is and has been a reflex to what is going on in society, it always will be and that is fine.
Rose Etherington: There are just much more options about how to produce, how to sell, if you work with royalties and in which area of the furniture business you work.
Daniel Charny: in cities employment will change. People might work for themselves and not be employed and have less income to spend.
Ineke Hans: I have the feeling that designers are very good at anticipating to situations that are changing. So in the twenties: designing bent-wood furniture for Isokon, now: producing furniture in the Opendesk way and trying to deal with individualisation with TOG. Things came up than and now that you would and could not involve with 30 years before. If the future brings urbanisation, less work or an older age... the nice thing is that we can always be optimistic and rely on our playfull mind and ability to adjust.
Daniel Charny: Is there any role for Utopia in here?
Christopher Turner: There is a point about education where good education is creating people that are selfemployed, instead of relying on corporations because of the way they learn and pick up from eachother, go out to solve problems and other people's problems in furniture or coding on a website through creative thinking.
Daniel Charny: A good story on the formula for collaboration and open innovation is bringing in designers into industry and the crafts people that know about the intelligence of material, about meticulous and iteration not for doing furniture, but to work with and in other industries using the skills that come from the values of working with furniture.
Michael Marriott: There is a crises in London with employment where younger people find it more and more difficult to work and live affordable. They will leave the city. It will strip of an awful lot of creative spirit from the city or to find good people.
Grant Gibson: But it could revive other things like Reiko Kaneko, a ceramic designer, moving to Stoke on Trent to work with the craftsmen, the makers, the ex-factory guys in a massive studio space that she would never been able to afford in London. She is setting up a new life and a new network and she potentially could be the future: there is skills and space!20170219