ECAL Low-Tech Factory

Machines for Design

Why are so many young designers making machines these days? That was the matter under hot debate at Hotel Droog last Thursday, where students from Ecole Cantonale d’Art de Lausanne showed six process-focused projects that investigate small-scale production.

Although the underlying premise was serious, it was clear that the ability of these machines to delight and entertain was high on the agenda. The most successful of them required audience participation to complete the spectacle, like Damien Ludi and Colin Peillex’ Rocking-Knit, a chair that knits a hat as you move back and forth.

Oncle Sam by Laurent Beirnaert, Pierre Bouvier and Paul Tubiana was a charmer too – the popcorn maker delicately cooks one kernel at a time over a single flame. Designed to make us appreciate the slow things in life, the patient observer has to wait up to five minutes before the kernel ‘pops’ into life.

Others invented new methods of production, rather than re-appropriating the old. Eleonora Castellarin and Moises Hernandez developed a method for making toys by pouring a mix of liquids into an animal-shaped mould. Clamped in a vice, the animals then fill out into a 3D form.

Léonard Golay and Camille Rein’s Swing was similarly active: by swinging on a human-sized spinning top, the user cuts out a 2D pattern in material, later the material folds out into a two-handled shopping bag.

 Searching for the meaning behind these low-tech endeavours was up to the panel of ECAL Director Alexis Georgacopoulos, curator Joanna van der Zanden and designers Chris Kabel and Joris Laarman. And it wasn’t an easy job. Laarman saw the internet-friendly performance aspect of these projects  as a great way for the young designers to raise their profiles, but found the machines themselves to be of little commercial value. Others argued that value of these end products was increased by consumers seeing and understanding how they are made. It will be interesting to see how well the knitted hats, shopping bags and animal toys do in Hotel Droog’s shop.

Van der Zanden claimed that we are surrounded by objects but have no idea how they are made,  praising the machines for having ‘humanity and legibility’. She posed that designers could bring a new perspective to  things normally considered technical or in the realm of engineering, opening up a new type of machinery that consumers can understand and fix themselves.

The appeal of these witty low-tech machines  – proved by the excitement that filled the small exhibition room after the debate – was also up for discussion. Do these simple, labour-intensive projects provide us with a nostalgic fix? Are they a backlash against a world speeding along at a digital pace? Seen within the context of a resurgence of craft  and the handmade, it certainly fits a popular point of view. Georgacopoulos said the challenge wasn’t to make a utopian project but ‘something simple and down to earth’. Hernandez said his toy animal project was about emotion rather than nostalgia, and the pride that comes from doing something yourself.

Interpretations aside, the low-tech attitude is certainly enjoying its moment in design. And Low-Tech Factory proves ECAL’s students haven’t been afraid to have some fun with it along the way.

Low-Tech Factory is at Hotel Droog, Amsterdam until 21 April.

Images by Nicolas Genta; courtesy ECAL.

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