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radical craft

Four Really Big Ideas

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In the last session before lunch on this second day of the Art Center’s conference, we were served four slam dunk presentations that made us see craft as a way to change a small corner of the world–by hand.

Jane Olson is chair of the board of trustees of Human Rights Watch, and told her heartbreaking stories of traveling to Bosnia to counsel women rescued from rape camps. She used knitting to connect to the women, eventually teaching them to adapt burlap sacks into fashion (Olson was wearing one of their designs). The women were so empowered by this experience they ended up modeling their creations.

In his quest to find affordable solar energy, Bill Gross of Idealab said there’s three ways to change the world:
1) Be a politican
2) Be a preacher
3) Be a designer
He also recommended that “most things fail, so fail often and fast.”

Maurice Cox is the former mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, a city that requested it be reverted to “town” status to protect it from excessive growth. They even made up a word for it: reversion. The town of 50,000 is striving to be a walkable, accessible community, with no parking lots and a huge public chalkboard that faces city hall for residents to voice concerns.

Martin Fisher of KickStart took on the heady task of designing to end poverty by making low cost tools for East African rural farmers. They created an irrigating machine that operates pretty much like a Stairmaster (above). The KickStart Super Money Maker (no joke–they named it to sell) has started 40,000 new businesses.

High-Tech Heroes Are Totally Radical

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After lunch, Radical Craft rolled out its finest nerdery for a high-tech showcase.

Danny Hillis of Applied Minds showed us a computer made of Tinker Toys, flight maps tracking planes that trickled out of airports like a glittering ant farm, and a touch screen map that became 3D with a touch of the screen. Best use of conference theme so far: “Craft is the moment when an idea is pushed by imagination and pulled by reality.”

Wolf Prix, of the legendary Coop Himmelb(l)au opened his presentation with this thought: “Radical craft in architecture isn’t about radical tools, it’s about radical thinking.” But he infused his radical tools anyway, with a stunning animated rendering of a to-be-built BMW dealership.

Nik Haafermas, graphic design chair at Art Center, revealed an installation scheduled at the school’s Wind Tunnel campus in conjunction with the city of Pasadena. 80-foot solar-powered lights will operate with what’s essentially synthesized photosynthesis: the panels collect light, store it and emit a soft glow at night. A rendering of the PowerPLANTs are pictured above.

Charles Elachi of JPL, whose presentation two years ago inspired the Radical Craft theme, made a special appearance to update the Rovers’ performance on Mars. He unveiled the full-scale models of the next round of Rovers (when did those get in here?), a polar lander for 2007 and a “roving chemist” in 2009.

From Zero Gravity Space Craft To 20,000 Feet Under The Sea Craft

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Besides having the coolest title ever, space architect Constance Adams from Synthesis International has job we want: designing the shelters that transport and house us when we leave the Earth’s atmosphere. She says design that keeps people safe in space follows the “Mothership” model; looking to the planet for structural guidance, and finding solutions that make the smallest environmental impact. Adams’ pursuits strive to bring the crucial senses of time, place and wellness to wayward travelers–not always an easy task as the only designer working in a team of engineers. It’s her job to incorporate human elements like patterns into the sterile interiors of the shuttle.

The best part of any John Hockenberry-moderated conference is when he comes out after presentations to interview the speakers. He poised to Adams an especially hard-hitting question about the politics of NASA. She thinks we would have had the space station built 15 years ago, for less money, if NASA wouldn’t have hit dry spells during the administrations that didn’t support exploration.

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David Gallo’s presentation took us in the opposite direction–straight down. His teams at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute create undersea explorers that can go as deep as 20,000 feet, mapping mountain ranges as big as Manhattan, and taking samples in the seven-mile-deep Mariana Trench. His incredible images of oceanic biodiversity were gorgeous, but with its weird Enya soundtrack we felt like we’d wandered into an IMAX movie.

Hockenberry Q&A: What’s the deal with global warming? Gallo says that we don’t need to worry about the earth, we need to worry about the earth’s ability to support humans. And we don’t need to worry about temperatures rising, we need to worry about preserving rainfall patterns that will provide fresh water.

Beginning To Grasp Radical Craft

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Art Center Conference moderator John Hockenberry wheeled onstage with his definition of the Radical Craft concept, as pictured above. “It may not look radical now, but after a few days under these lights, we’re all going to see some Radical Kraft.” He proceeded with a hilarious interpretation of PowerPoint Craft that we imagine to be better than anything David Byrne or Al Gore could engineer.

Dan Neil, Pulitzer Prize-winning automotive columnist for the LA Times, opened the Vehicle Craft portion of the morning, with an animated survey of automotive innovators (hacked hybrids, jet engine Beetles, fuel made from dead cats). If you’ve been tinkering with your Prius on the weekend, keep this in mind: if you can produce 10,000 vehicles that get 250 mpg, the XDrive competition will award you $25 million.

Looking for Neil’s latest column, we stumbled across the LA Times report on the “puzzling” nature of this year’s lineup. We realized that everyone’s picking up on the Radical Craft portion of the title, ignoring the part that defines it perfectly:

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Hearing these stories, straight from the source, are what we’re looking forward to the most.

Who Comes To The Art Center Conference, Anyway?

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After Ricky Jay’s sensational rundown of the radical craft of magicians–it read like an especially gory episode of “Carnivale,” tempered with Jay’s impeccable wit–then a demonstration of his remarkable card-hurling prowess (watermelons were pierced), the stage was set for spectacle. The conference emptied into the GE-sponsored tents, complete with retro rocketship, where blood orange martinis were the alcoholic equivalent of Art Center’s historic orange dot.

First we saw Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder, who we said an energetic “hi” to, thinking we were old friends, but realizing he only looked familiar since we had seen him at SXSW, where he was a speaker. We explained this to him and he was awfully nice about it.

Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel were observing design, but James “Celluloid Skyline” Sanders is officially covering the event for Design Observer. Portland architect Brad Cloepfil, of the controversial Columbus Circle project, was swept away from us by Holly Hotchner, director of MAD, Columbus Circle’s most (in)famous tenant. Sagmeister was as friendly as could be. Tucker Viemeister, VP of the Rockwell Group, claimed he was on vacation. AIGA 2006 Medalist Lorraine Wild was rushing home after a day teaching at CalArts and couldn’t stay to party. Dorothy Dunn of AIGA pitched the Aspen Design Summit to those not complaining of a TED hangover. ‘Tis the season for design conferences.

Rob Forbes of Design Within Reach admits he doesn’t know anything about design blogs, and we admire him for his restraint. Art Center’s Richard Koshalek, Erica Clark, Nik Hafermaas and Petrula Vrontikis hovered like perfect hosts. Program director Chee Pearlman said she was heading to the desert on Sunday after the conference for a personal debriefing. Also spotted: design conference moderator extraordinaire John Hockenberry, Ph.D’s Clive Piercy, Metropolis‘ Susan Szenasy and Andrew Blum, and IDEO’s David Kelley and Tim Brown.

LA design pioneer Gere Kavanaugh made us laugh the most with her story of meeting Deborah Sussman at a Herman Miller party in 1960. She was introduced to Sussman by a friend who yelled, “Hey, there’s another girl designer here!”

It’s Crafty–It’s Just Our Type

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Art Center’s South Campus used to be called the Southern California Cooperative Wind Tunnel; it’s a monstrous concrete hangar where they tested supersonic engines. Today, it’s blanketed with black astroturf, swathed in designer textiles, and seats its not-quite-packed audience comfortably in Steelcase Think chairs.

The Mars Rovers inspired the “Radical Craft” theme of this conference. Chee Pearlman, program director (above, looking so LA), said she was stunned when watching computer animations of a Rover landing on Mars that an object so technically advanced was ultimately “so handmade, so bespoke.”

Even though it surrounds us–the pop beauty of a carved mango-on-a-stick, the delight of a handwritten note–craft has become maligned (remember that formerly-known-as museum?). And that’s the mission for this conference–to reveal the elements of craft in all design pursuits.

Adam Gopnik, up next, called craft “decaffeinated art” (something that Pearlman disagreed with later–offering that radical craft might be better described as “design on speed.”) Gopnik says our obsession with objects reveals how we’re drawn to craft–he absolutely advocates Gillette’s five-blade razor as the perfect example. Craft strikes us because we can see its inherent usefulness or the specialized skill and technique needed to create it. A interesting argument, but the brilliant New Yorker writer’s keynote was more like a voluminous art history lesson with the words “radical,” “craft” and “design” inserted for effect.

Perhaps this is because of something Gopnik calls the Tchotschke Challenge: the fact that we don’t really have the words to accurately describe what we admire about objects and what attracts us to them. We’d venture to say that design itself has the same Tchotschke Challenge, where designers find it difficult to simply and succinctly describe what they do.

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