DIY reigns in the virtual world. With so many old points of friction removed, we can freely and cheaply build our own blogs, e-books, and Web magazines. But making real, live stuff still seems like a slog reserved for those who know their way around a bandsaw.
Not anymore. The open-source revolution is putting product design in the hands of regular Joes. Take Berlin-based Open Design City (ODC). It’s a workshop in which anyone can learn to make just about anything, whether a bioplastic wallet (above) or a lamp made out of sweaters (up top). The recipe is simple: Gather people willing to share ideas and collaborate. Teach them to use a few power-tools. Then make things — cool things, not junk even your mother’d be too embarrassed to display.
It’s a movement that has the potential to upend traditional modes of industrial design and manufacturing — and even change how we consume products. “I strongly believe we’ll see more spaces emerging like this,” says Christoph Fahle, of Open Design City. “It’s not so much about scientific development, because this work doesn’t require rocket science. It’s more about creating the social interactions that invent new things. If you look at Facebook, it wasn’t just its technology that changed society; rather it was the social idea.”
Open workshops are in many ways a natural outgrowth of DIY fever. Resources abound from sites like MAKE, Instructables.com, and IKEAhacker; and sales-networks like Etsy and Supermarket. You’ve got the modes of production, too: People can now purchase their own 3-D printers for less than $1,000.
Co-founder Jay Cousins stumbled into Open Design City through a circuitous path. A trained product designer specializing in what he calls “crockery” (in a delightful British accent), Cousins became disillusioned. ‘The job became a trap “- it was all about management, instead of creativity,’ he recalls. ?That got me thinking about where designers and inventors fit into this production model.” In search of fresh inspiration, Cousins moved to Berlin in 2009 and stumbled into Palomar 5, a temporary shared live-work space for creative types, then in its infancy. (Despite its hippy-dippy-sounding conceit, the endeavor is actually sponsored by Deutsche Telekom.) At Palomar 5 ‘we observed a lot of how we behave in these collaborative roles,’ Cousins says. “You enter into this intense awareness of what’s assisting your creative energy and what’s blocking it.” There he met Christopher Doering, a product designer trained at Bauhaus University in Weimar. Emerging from six weeks at Palomar 5, both were seized by the dream of creating an open workshop of their own.
So in the spring of this year, Cousins and Doering ran a DIY workshop at betahaus, a new co-working space in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, while simultaneously preparing a live open-workshop event for Berlin’s annual design conference, DMY. At the same time, they were scrambling to find space for the tools Deutsche Telekom fortuitously donated to them after Palomar 5. Betahaus’s empty garage proved the perfect spot, and Open Design City was born.
Open Design City has a built-in constituency of potential members: betahaus workers upstairs can wander downstairs and rent gear by the hour or day, or participate in an open workshop in which a leader teaches the group a particular skill, then opens the floor to experimentation.
The equipment available to them is vast. They can futz around with woodworking tools (saws, jigsaws, hammers); a silk-screener for textiles; photography equipment; hot plates and a sink; wool, soap and bubble-wrap to make felt; a generous supply of starch, vinegar and glycerin that, when mixed with water and heated, make moldable starch-plastic. A few tools are higher tech: a 3-D printer, which “prints” by squeezing out thin layers of a given material to build a product’s shape, using three dimensions? of data the user inputs. A platforming machine resembles an oven: a thin layer of nylon is heated until it softens, then pushed over a mold to create a shape as it hardens again. Open Design City doesn’t have laser cutters and some of the other tools necessary to qualify as an official ‘fablab‘ — which might have something to do with the fact that much of the equipment and materials are donated. “One guy just bought a ton of white Lego bricks and donated some,” Fahle says.
Learning to handle the equipment is usually the toughest part. Doering recalls the experience of one ODC member, an Iranian-born PR manager working at betahaus. She wanted to make huge Styrofoam letters to spell slogans at an event supporting the Iranian election resistance (see below). After pricing the job at a traditional prototyping workshop — “incredibly expensive,” says Doering — she came to ODC thinking she could explain her project, then hand off the work to more capable hands. Not so. ‘We made a deal: she would buy us a machine to cut Styrofoam, and I would teach her [and her friends] how to use it,’ says Doering. “At the very beginning, she kept repeating: This is impossible. How can I do this” But then we spent 15 minutes together, she saw how it’s actually fun and easy to make, and she and her friends totally enjoyed it. They spent a week cutting like crazy, building a jailhouse out of bricks, inventing a method to join the letters. All that was needed was this little start.?
Open Design City encourages a “parallel process” of work to do away with egos and promote a sense of play. Cousins explains, “If I believe a project should be done one way, and Chris has a different idea, instead of arguing over which way is best, we try both ideas at once and share what we learn as we go.”
Does skill or experience matter in this brave new world? Yes and no. Doering likes how open workshops like Open Design City throw into question the whole idea of quality (incidentally, the topic of his final thesis at Bauhaus). “Quality is defined by to what degree certain requirements are fulfilled, obviously,” he explains. ‘Industrial culture says: here’s a product with a certain use or value. But products don’t work that way; things can be used in so many ways. You cannot say: this is a lamp; its purpose is to fill a space with light. That’s totally limiting. It’s also a gift from your grandma; it’s a personalizing touch in your living room; it’s landfill; it’s made of materials that cost something. You have to have an element of flexibility [in your thinking].’ He picks up a layer of starch plastic on a worktable and brandishes it. ?This is a bio-polymer. It’s not water-resistant, and I don’t know how long it’ll last ‘- a year, maybe. This is the point about oil-based plastics: they last forever, and that’s not a good thing. We don’t love our products that long.’ Upcycling events ?- in which old products get broken down for parts and recombined into new, desirable things again ?- are an ODC standby.
All this sounds studiously anti-corporate ” and to some extent it is. But as product designer and pioneer of the Open Design movement Ronen Kadushin says, toppling the corporate power structure isn’t the goal. ‘You know the old Roman proverb about your grandfather’s ax?’ he says. ?My father changed its handle; I changed the blade. Nothing of the ax I hold is from my grandpa, but it’s still his — it’s a tradition of values. We don’t have objects to fulfill this need anymore; we don’t have the ax. The best way to get attached to a product or object is to make it yourself.”
Where could a future of open product-making lead? To a silicon-fueled Middle Ages, say Doering, Fahle and Cousins, where craftsmen connect “locally” across the globe via the Internet. ‘The future vision [of this] is kind of regressive, really,’ Cousins admits. ?It takes you back to the baker, the furniture maker, the electronics specialist, your tinkerer ?- a distributive system in which we recognize each other’s values, and value. We can hardly take an object anymore and say: this is 100 percent ethical; nobody was hurt, no community was decimated in making this object, because it’s so complicated and far-removed from us. We’re sustained right now by this big system that’s more fragile than we might like to believe. Distributing this knowledge [of how to make products] within the community gives us resilience, lets us fend for ourselves better.”
“But it’s not just about survival,” Cousins continues. “It’s about the emotional cost this disconnect exacts from us. We’re struggling to reconnect with a community, a culture of participation. That’s a very strong bond that we’ve been missing more and more over the last 100 years.” It’s an intriguing Mobius-strip vision of the next decade: the detritus of an industrial revolution becomes raw material for medieval-style workshops, a movement made possible by the crowd-sourced Internet, a populace tired of living virtually, and machinery democratized in price by a consumer base eager to buy the new means of production. What’s old is, indeed, new again.
[Images via Betahaus]