Crafts And Design Within The Reach Of A Bike Ride

in conversation with Andrea de Chirico (Superlocal)

SUPERLOCAL, 0 miles production is a global network that promotes local manufacturing initiated by designer Andrea de Chirico. It fosters a future vision on crafts and more in general on production. Starting from the fab lab network, it elaborates a further layer, embracing also traditional manufacturing techniques. It is through the mix between new and old manufacturing techniques that every object is made. SUPERLOCAL final goal is to become a movement of people connecting resources and labour locally but having a global impact. After being implemented in four different locations in Europe, the system develops through a constellation of activities, including local productions, production tours and lectures internationally. In doing so, it helps local economies, promotes local craft traditions and encourages new manufacturing mentality.

SUPERLOCAL — 0 miles production, is all about alternative production scenarios, and shift toward, as you call it “constructive capitalism” that addresses “thick value” which is authentic, meaningful and sustainable. How do you define and create thick value?

What I mean is that we cannot continue measuring our success in economic terms just by the efficiency, which in other words is the profit. I think, but there are people much more involved with the topic, that we should consider also other aspects in order to define the success of a business. I don’t mean at all that profit is not important, but there are also other important aspects that we cannot avoid taking into consideration. For example, the social and ecological aspects are two of them. There is no perfect formula that defines how to produce thick value. It depends on a number of factors. The golden rule for me, which I also share with my students, is to avoid binary thinking at all cost. For example, if we speak about materials, there are no “good” or “bad” materials. I think it is a matter of having a critical approach towards things in order to understand the whole picture.

Within your design practice you tend to connect traditional crafts and digital manufacturing. The production process happens mostly in local fab labs that can provide 3D printers, lasers, milling machines etc., but as you pointed, they rarely address local context within their practice. Then again, there are traditional local crafts which dispose specific know-how and skills, yet they have been bypassed by digital manufacturing techniques. How can those two be connected? Has this been addressed within the scope of your project and how?

I look for diversity, to continue with my previous answer. Diversity in terms of contexts, approaches, materials and so on. Fab labs often (not always) don’t address their context, and probably that is the downside of digitally based manufacturing. However, each fab lab, even if it embraces a global network, is a story in itself. I visited many of them in various parts of the world, and it really depends. My impression is that there has been a big hype around new technologies and their potentials (such as 3D printing), but very little creation of meaningful objects through their applications. I think digital and traditional techniques really need to communicate and be interlinked with each other. I want to avoid crafts nostalgia on one side and nerdy all-digital approach on the other. I’m looking for the in-between, where the digital is reinforced by the traditional techniques and vice versa. At that point things start to become interesting for me.

You describe SUPERLOCAL as an applied Darwinist theory on object production process - where objects occur according to the context and develop through process of natural selection. Can you describe the process of natural selection within this proposed system?

Forms follow context. I strongly believe in this. In my practice the object literally emerges from the context, almost by itself. Of course, there are many decisions to be made on the way, but still there is a lot of room for things just to happen by themselves. I find it interesting that in nature the species that resist the best the climate and environmental changes were not the strongest but the ones with best adaptation skills. If we apply this to the object development, you may say that they are strongly linked to the present situation, to the materials available, and to the suppliers and active craftsmen. If the conditions change, the object will change accordingly, and eventually become extinct like other species do. This thought changes the way we look at objects. We start to see them as part of a dynamic flux of elements. All of a sudden, they are not as important for what they are, but for what they can become while adapting to an ever fast changing reality. I find this fascinating.

It seems that much of the announced fabrication revolution around 3D printing hasn’t been realized and the fab lab hype has been steadily declining. What is your perspective on the future of networked, shared and personalized production that digital fabrication induced? And in that respect what is your perspective on the future of crafts in general?

Well, I cannot predict the future. I can say by observing that even if a company starts with very good intentions in terms of keeping the technology as open as possible, eventually it faces the reality of current economic system. Therefore, Ultimaker for instance, which started giving away the files to reproduce 3D prints, is becoming ever more closed in terms of design. 3D printing is a technology with a great potential, not yet at the point where it can really make an impact, as it is not yet that efficient in terms of production timing. Though, I’m pretty confident that we’ll get there soon. A key point is the education around such technologies. Having a great tool doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll make great stuff out of it. We really need to focus on the education behind these tools, especially with the new generations.

On the other hand, the future of crafts is a huge question and I would like to have a clear answer, but that’s not the case. I can tell you my own personal view on this, but that’s also the result of my personal interests and inclinations. I like to combine techniques, and search for diversity, as mentioned before. I admire people who have a lifelong focus on one material or technique to fully master them. Instead, I like to connect different techniques and have a more general overview. In any case, I think craftsmanship has a future, and it is something that many people are saying. The contact with the material is inherent to us as humans. I am sure that in the future, when the repetitive work will be robotized, we are going to rediscover the beauty of making things by hand. “The Craftsman” by Richard Sennett is a great book about this topic, another one is “Futuro Artigiano” by Stefano Micelli.

SUPERLOCAL project is based on production of goods with local resources in close collaboration of local residents and craftsmen. In the scope of the project, you shift from designer as a “form giver” to designer of systems. Within this shift, is there a space in the project where these two roles meet? As you involve amateurs in the production and design process, how can they, within this process, learn and facilitate traditional knowledge of product design in order to produce ergonomic, as well as functional and useful products?

In the last years, with the occurrence of the “open design” movement there has been a misconception that everyone can become a “maker”. In my opinion, to become a maker involves all sort of skills and knowledge that is not easily accessible to just anyone. There is a professionality connected to being a designer that cannot be ignored. Giving a form to something has many consequences, comes with responsibility and needs preparation and experience, which is probably true for most of the professions. The design profession has shifted a lot in the last decades and is not so linear anymore. By linear I mean that it is not just about giving form to a mass-produced object. I think the highest role of a designer is to offer alternative systems to the already existing ones, to quote Buckminster Fuller. This brings higher levels of complexity to the equation, but it also makes it more exciting. On the other hand, I love form giving, I’m passionate about it. If you place it within a system it can reinforce the storytelling. So, aesthetics is also another point worth raising, especially in the Greek meaning of aesthetics, where “good” and “beautiful” are part of the same concept. While working I am often inspired by Giuseppe Penone, a great Italian artist from Arte Povera, who said that if the aesthetic of an object is linked to the logic of its creation, it can survive time and trends. For instance, every part of a tree, follows the radical logic of its existence, and this makes it beautiful. I try to embrace this in my practice as well. That’s why for instance the first SUPERLOCAL hair dryer has a glass transparent casing. The production is transparent and therefore the given form follows the logic of its creation.

Getting back to your question about dealing with amateurs. Yes, I work with them through the events I organize, but I don’t want to teach them product design. I want to inspire them to think about materials and production in general. I really see the tours as windows or portals towards local production. It is up to them, to get deeper into it.

The proposed production system is based on personalization, active participation of the user in the design and locally based production as sustainability strategies. Besides just designing the object, the designers are now focusing on the process of design as well as production system as those entail ecological and social effects. Yet, for most of the designers working with and within the industry, intervening in the existing structures, as well as proposing new technologies is being mostly discouraged. Can you describe some of the ways in which designers can inform their practice with different strategies and/or address thick values, to make it more susceptible for their clients, production companies, users, investors and so on?

Firstly, I don’t think all designers should focus on working on alternative scenarios, weather economic, social or production. Secondly, I don’t think that working in that field excludes working with companies. Actually, it’s almost the opposite, if you really want to make a change, you need to collaborate with a number of organizations, institutions and also with companies. However, sometimes I get the feeling that you either make business without “thick value” or you make “thick value” without business. I’m simplifying now, but I think half way is possible as well. It is not easy but it is possible. Also, for SUPERLOCAL I’m looking for partnerships with companies, like two years ago when we worked with BMW to suggest future scenarios for urban environments in Shanghai. We’ll see what comes next. Again, there is no formula, but on the other hand I think that if you want to be a designer in 2019 you need to take into account also the social and environmental aspects of your practice. I take this for granted, otherwise it would mean that you’re designing thinking you’re living in another planet, which btw. might be the case in a few years.

There are successful design projects and companies, like Opendesk whose business model is based on production organized through a network of local suppliers and crafts shops. In that way, they manage to deliver design to their user while supporting local economies and reducing costs and energy through cutting the shipment. Can you think of other good examples in practice?

Yes, I had the chance to collaborate with Opendesk and I’m a fan of what they are doing, I think they are doing great. OpenStructures project by Thomas Lommée is also a good example. It is basically a system where as all parts fit into a 4 by 4 centimetres grid and every piece can be combined with each other. Belgium Rotor’s maps for second hand construction materials is worth mentioning as well. There are many examples of successful practices. Even though many of them are small initiatives, and also my project is one of them, it is important to notice that they contribute to a common idea - sharing an attitude. Thomas Lommée once said: “The next big thing will be a lot of small things”. I share his opinion very much.

Do you think personalization by creating a stronger connection between the user and their material surroundings is the key strategy in fighting consumer culture?

Any time in history there was something made in order to fight consumer culture, it was embraced by industry itself. I remember Ettore Sottsass Jr. saying this speaking about the Memphis movement. Personalization is something that industries are already embracing for some years now, like Nike website allowing you to personalize your shoe. Probably the keywords are awareness and education. I think that most of the people are simply not aware of the consequences of their actions. Buying something instead of something else defines who you are as a consumer and maybe sometimes also as a person. In other words, it is a political act. Knowledge and education are the key and the more I think about it the more I’m convinced in that. On the other hand, building connections with your material surroundings speaks about resilience and can offer a different perspective on consumption in general.

How flexible is you proposed system within different contexts - areas with scarce resources or lack of fab labs? For example, Zagreb is just one example of the city with a strong decline in traditional craft shops, the unwillingness of craftsman to share knowledge and skills as well as poor fab lab culture.

We made many productions without involving fab labs. Having digital manufacturing techniques into the production doesn’t necessarily mean you need to go to a fab lab. For instance, there is this great network called 3D hubs where private people are offering their 3D printers to be used by whoever wants something to be printed. My point is that wherever you are, you can make something. I’m sure this is possible also in Zagreb!

What qualifies a certain design project as social design?

If we have to call a certain kind of design “social” it means there is a problem with all the rest of the design produced. Victor Papanek wrote in Design for Society: “The action of the profession (of design) has been comparable to what would happen if all medical doctors were forsake general practice and surgery and concentrate exclusively on dermatology, plastic surgery and cosmetics”. I think this quote sums up what happened quite well. Design should be social by definition. It is not a negotiable aspect of design because it is part of its DNA. That is also true for other aspects such as the interdisciplinary for example. Therefore, without the social aspect there is no design basically. It is also true that the word “social” itself is often overused, especially lately, with social media and so on.

I’m against definitions or “labels” in general. They reduce freedom of expression. I’m not interested in discussions about the difference between art and design, neither the ones about the difference between communication or product design and so on. I’m aware that sometimes you cannot avoid getting a label on what you do, but I never do it when I think about my practice. In this sense I’m a fan of the Dutch Design, which works very little with definitions compared to the Italian one for instance. The less we put things into boxes the more we can push the boundaries of the design discipline into new interesting fields of expression.

in conversation with Marion Poortvliet and Willemien Ippel (Crafts Council Nederland)
in conversation with Henriëtte Waal (Atelier Luma)