As a child, Rachel McConnell remembers being enchanted by the drawing Wentelteefje from the Dutch artist M.C. Escher. Known as Curl-up in English, the artwork featured a wondrous crustacean-like creature with eyes protruding from the sides of its head, a beak, six human-like feet, and a flexible spine that allowed it to roll up into a wheel.
"Wow, wouldn't that be a fun toy?" she recalls thinking. Now, at 45, McConnell finally has that toy. She was able to bring Escher's drawing to life during her time as an artist in residence at Autodesk. The maker of 3-D-printing software, Autodesk has a 27,000-square-foot research-and-development center on San Francisco's Embarcadero that houses a woodworking shop, metalworking shop, 3-D printing lab, industrial sewing center, laser cutters, water jets, and even a commercial test kitchen—in short, it's a maker's paradise.
The daughter of a mathematician father and violinist mother, McConnell has had a varied career, including garment worker, self-taught programmer-turned-startup cofounder, and lead developer for Instructables, which Autodesk acquired in 2011. She left the company a year after the acquisition to get her hands dirty and create physical objects as opposed to virtual ones. "Writing code is a very creative effort. It's making things entirely with your brain," she tells Fast Company. "It's great, but you can't hold it in your hands."
Going by the moniker Dr. Shiny, McConnell embodies the the mad scientist persona with her disheveled hair and wild ideas for projects. Take, for example, Pulse of the City, a public art project in Boston that placed five solar-powered heart-shaped speakers around town. When people hold the handles of one of the hearts, the sensors pick up their heartbeats and played music based on that. One of her proudest creations to date is the Mustache Ride. Like a mustache-shaped rocking horse, the device (admittedly somewhat sexual in nature) features a pressure sensor and vibrating motor. She's created multiple versions—including "a 1970s CHiPS" type mustache—and it remains one of her most popular projects on Instructables.
Post-Instructables, McConnell struck out on her own with grand aspirations: "I want to make cool shit for rich people," she says, sitting on a swinging conference table at Autodesk's R&D center. Her quick business pitch: "If you want a sofa, you can go to an upholsterer, or if you want a new wing in your house, you go to a general contractor. But if what you want is a drivable Internet-enabled sofa, then you come to me."
Though she knows her way around 3-D printers, welding equipment, software, and even knitting needles, McConnell admits she lacks business acumen. Nobody's been knocking down her door asking for a smart driving sofa. She still isn't sure how to land those wealthy clients, even in San Francisco, the land of the quirky and overnight millionaires.
With business slow, she thought it'd be a good opportunity to return to Autodesk in October for this residency. If anything, it gave her a small $1,500 monthly stipend, an allowance for materials, use of sophisticated machinery that ordinary people wouldn't have access to, and the freedom to work on whatever projects she desired. And Autodesk gets a deeper understanding of the different ways its products could be used in the wild.
"To my knowledge, never before have the kinds of production-quality CNC [computer-controlled cutting] machinery and high-resolution 3-D printers that we have at Pier 9 been made available to artists and makers of all kinds to use firsthand in the creation of their work," said Noah Weinstein, Autodesk's senior creative programs manager and founder of the artist-in-residence program. "When they enter the workshop, they don't have any preconceived notions of what these machines should be used for. Instead, they explore, experiment, test, and modify both software and hardware to fit their needs."
Taking full advantage, the resident tinkerer used water jets to cut sheets of metal to create a human-sized metal dinosaur (a long overdue, work-in-progress housewarming project for a cousin) and industrial 3-D printers to fabricate the parts of Escher's creature.
For the better part of half a year, this creature consumed her. Describing her approach as "trial and error informed by previous experience making things," McConnell faced a number of setbacks but tried to remain patient. She spent about 15 hours working on her initial sketches and drawings made with computer-aided design software. She had to improvise with her model because she claimed "Escher cheated" in his art. ("Some of the ways he drew [the creature] are not physically possible," she says.) After spending hours 3-D printing the head out of a proprietary translucent and flexible material for an early prototype, a piece broke off, causing further grief. It took her more than a month to figure out how to shape the different shell pieces so they could connect and curl up.
"You can plan all you want, but your accuracy is really low because you don't have the experience. You haven't done it before, because no one's done it before," she says. "Everything is a new problem and I really like to solve new problems."
But as she iterates, she gains new insights. "That's the nice thing about rapid prototyping. You don't have to solve all the problems immediately. You can get a certain way into the project, see what you've got, and then get feedback for what you've actually done, and learn what changes you have to make."
When McConnell glued the eyes to the creature at the end of February, she said the project finally felt complete, satisfying the eight-year-old who once dreamed of playing with Escher's design. "Like with almost anything, I could keep going if I wanted to. I could mechanize it, for example," she says, a process that would give the creature movement. "But I don't have immediate plans for that."
Though the Curl-up project fulfills a childhood fantasy, she agreed to donate it to Autodesk's gallery as part of her residency. But she notes: If a wealthy collector would like to purchase one, she'd gladly recreate it.
[Image: Alice Truong for Fast Company]