Iceland: Towards a Carbon-Free Future

Towards the end of March, I went to Iceland for a week with the lady.  Neither of us had been abroad in years -- it had been a decade for me -- and there are pretty cheap direct flights from Baltimore, so we took a chilly spring break excursion to Europe's wildest island. We took an overnight flight, landing at 6 AM, then rented a little hatchback and headed into Reykjavik. After breakfast, we napped in the car and then checked into our AirBnB. Later, we poked around the capital's design district, which boasted an impressive array of Made in Iceland products. 

We used AirBnBs every night except one -- the hotel system in Iceland seems to be mostly guesthouses and hostels, and the AirBnB listings were transparent (and cheap!). Reykjavik was a startlingly clean, modern, walkable city, built in a kind of vernacular modern style that was hard to place. It was part Bauhaus, part Scandinavian, and part Rural Studio, all galvanized tin siding and steep roofs.

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I stumbled across Rivethead: Tales From the Assembly Line, in an off-hand comment in our cranky local alt-weekly, The City Paper. God bless 'em, alt-weeklies still exist, a healthy weekly dose of casual profanity, pinko editorials, normcore cartoons, and weepy art criticism, held together with mis-registered newsprint and strip-club ads. I ordered it used and read it in just a few days.

Ben Hamper was born in Flint, Michigan, in 1956. He was a 4th generation assembly-line worker -- his great-grandfather joined the workforce in 1916, only 15 years after the assembly line was invented. He grew up standard mid-century Catholic: a half-a-dozen siblings, a drunk dad who was in-and-out of work, and a regimen of parochial schools. He ended up married with a kid on the way after barely graduating high school.

A few years later the marriage went south and Hamper went looking for serious work. Partly it was a ploy to repair his relationship, but it also seemed ancestral, like the dull pull of the mills had been ground into his blood. The late seventies weren't great years for the domestic auto industry -- the beginning of a rough two decades -- but he eventually found work at the General Motors Bus and Truck Plant on the night shift. 

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The Dome Builder's Handbook

On New Year's, a book fell into my lap via some friends that felt like a good omen going into promising year: The Dome Builder's Handbook, by John Prenis. It sits right in a narrow vein of 60s and 70s-era design writing that I've written about here many times before, dense with hand-drawn illustrations, DIY promises, and anti-establishment ethos.  It may, in fact, be a peak example of the type, second only to the Whole Earth Catalog in its complete adherence to the conventions of the form. 

I haven't been able to find much information about John Prenis or the circumstances of its publication, which only adds to the mystery. This was Prenis' first book; he wrote seven more, with the last coming out in 1990.  The Dome Builder's Handbook came out in 1973 as one of the first titles for Running Press. The publishing house still exists, with the name surviving a 2002 merger with Perseus.  All of Prenis' subsequent books were also published by RP, but their current catalog doesn't list any of his work. In general, their selection seems to have pivoted away from craft and DIY titles and into children's and cookbooks. 

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Zip Tie Side Chair Prototypes

I have been looking into zip ties for furniture construction for a few years now. The Zip Tie Lounge Chair went up for download a year and a half ago. I was pretty pleased with it at the time -- I had tested an unproven notion and it worked! --  but it's really just a first iteration. It has worked out ok, but it hasn't fully solved the design problems. There are a couple of outstanding issues:

+ Over time, it has become apparent that zip ties aren't great for rigidly connecting plates at right angles. A zip tie naturally forms into a slightly-teardropped loop as you pull it tight, so they never fully draw when wrapped around a right-angled butt joint. Then the plates flex every time someone sits in it, and the friction gradually loosens the chair and makes the ties to snap. 

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William HolmanComment
Dia: Beacon

Back in early October, I had a chance to get up to the Hudson Valley, an hour past New York City. Fall was just beginning (and seems to never end this year), with trees turning under the pressure of cold nights and crisp mornings. We stayed in a hard-luck town called Newburgh, across the Hudson River from Beacon. While both sides have rail lines, Beacon has the commuter train to New York City, and so has become an uber-outer suburb, full of Brooklyn expats, nice coffee spots, and farm-to-table restaurants. 

Years ago, in my first trip out west, I went to Donald Judd's sprawling Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. We revisited it a few years later in between Chicago and Baltimore. Now, it was time to meet its east-coast twin, Dia:Beacon. 

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The Hovering Genius

The other night, I watched SlingShot, a documentary about Segway inventor Dean Kamen.  Despite some withering reviews (this one from the LA TImes is pretty spot-on), I was curious about Kamen ever since reading a profile of him a couple of years ago. Now a self-made millionaire, he has invented dozens of medical devices, a self-balancing wheelchair, and is now working on the SlingShot, an off-grid water-purification plant. 

The film, hagiographic and stiff, paints Kamen as a lone, eccentric genius in the mold of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, or Nikola Tesla. He is a lifelong bachelor (confirmed by an interview with his sweet, elderly parents), too married to his work to have time for a family. He pilots a helicopter from his house to his downtown research lab. He wears identical clothes everyday --  Jay Leno-esque head-to-toes denim. The list of genius tropes goes on, building Kamen up to the task of taking on the world's biggest problem: clean water. 

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Alley Housing

The other week, I was walking to the grocery store -- a little over a mile, by alley as much as possible. Alley-walking is one of my favored pastimes. I can forage for building material, avoid cars, and get a little exercise. 

I came across this house, 3815 Crowther Street, tucked at the end of a dusty gravel no-mans land between Hickory to the east and Falls to the west, hemmed in on all sides by alleys (though I guess one of them is technically a street.) It faces nothing, with an abrupt front only made discernible by the slope of the roof. For the last two years I've been living in this neighborhood, I passed the house dozens of times -- windowless, unpointed brick standing like a little kid's bad dream.. It struck me as a great fixer upper --  I'll get in cheap, strip it down clean, whitewash everything, studio downstairs, living space above -- but the location was unusual.

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User Innovation : On (Not) Making it in the Digital Age

Last week, I had the opportunity to share some of my trials and tribulations as a worker in the user innovation economy at a seminar at the MIT Sloan School of Management. I was invited by Eric Von Hippel, an economist who has been at the forefront of studying "specializing in the nature and economics of distributed and open innovation." While we now take open source software for granted as a permanent feature of the Internet, let us remember it wasn't always thus, hampered by restrictive licenses, high cost, and general user unfriendlinessAnd, professor Von Hippel practices what he preaches, releasing his papers and books free online for unrestricted download.

My presentation concerned my experience in the user-driven economy, through the lens of four experiences: selling items on Etsy, posting projects on Instructables, writing Guerilla Furniture Design for Storey Publishing, and putting out designs on Open Desk.  My basic thesis was that while online platforms have lowered the barriers to entry around design-based businesses, they haven't lowered the barriers to success at all. 

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World Maker Faire 2015

Last year, I got a chance to the World Maker Faire for the first time. The experience was mixed; it was beautiful weather, with huge crowds, but presented in a chaotic way. I took some issue with other aspects of the enterprise (maybe a tad harsh here) which seemed at odds with some of the maker movement's stated principles. 

This year, I had a different experience with Maker Faire. I returned as an exhibitor --  to give a talk about Guerilla Furniture Design at one of the live stage tents. I also have learned a lot more about the maker economy and related fields in the intervening year, and have gained an appreciation for how epic it is to pull of an event like that. Along the way, I got to meet some makers and check out a lot of booths. Check out my favorites below. 

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William HolmanComment
Community Technology

Karl Hess was a complicated man. Raised by a single mother in 30's-era Washington, D.C., he dropped out of high school and got into the news business at age 15. By his early forties he was writing speeches for Barry Goldwater; he then swung to the other end of the spectrum, joining Students for Democratic Society (SDS) and collaborating with the Black Panther Party. Eventually, he struck out for unknown territory, espousing a radical form of libertarianism that bordered on anarchism. He wrote a number of books, including Community Technologywhich first came out in 1979 . 

I first learned about Hess in an article that used a term, shared machine shops, attributed to him. I got a used copy of Community Technology put out by Loompanics Unlimited, a reprint house covering topics like drugs, smuggling, anarchism, and survivalism. These titles proved controversial enough to attract the attention of the F.B.I., and they went out of business in 2006. These sit slightly to the outskirts of the sort of seventies-era DIY manuals that I have soft spot for -- ShelterHydroponics Hot HouseThe Passive Solar Dome GreenhouseThe Prodigious BuildersNomadic Furniture, and How to Build Your Own Living StructuresThey are all lightly political, explicitly practical, and more than a little self-righteous. 

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The Industrial Arts Collective

Just over a year ago, I was invited to exhibit and speak at Z0: Digital Fabrication and the New Language of Materiality at Gallery 788 in my home borough of Hampden here in Baltimore. The show was being organized by Fab Lab Baltimore, an open-access digital fabrication facility at Community College of Baltimore County-Catonsville. I had been visiting there over the preceding few months to prototype the Zip Tie Lounge Chair, which I exhibited as a whole object and with the exploded parts hung on the neighboring wall. The staff had been radically patient with me, through broken bits and dumb questions, and I was flattered to be asked to show my work. 

I was a little nervous -- still getting my public-speaking legs under me -- but I said yes, and spoke a bit about my history as a furniture designer, my (then-upcoming) book, and how was I was moving towards exploring digital fabrication. Afterwards, a Boh or three deep, I fell into conversation with Tom Burkett, of Baltimore Underground Science Space, and Jason Hardebeck, of the Baltimore Foundery. That conversation planted the first seeds for what would become the Industrial Arts Collective. 

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The (New) Company Town

Alongside the recent flood of news about the Baltimore Uprising, a trickle of stories has been appearing about Kevin Plank, co-founder and CEO of Under Armour, and his plans for Port Covington. A formerly industrial part of southwest Baltimore, including prime waterfront frontage, he faced little opposition and no legacy residents as he amassed 120 acres for $90 million. The acquisition has been done under the auspices of Sagamore Development, a UA-funded company that will also be spearheading construction on the new campus. Plank's vision includes new offices, a whiskey distillery, a makerspace, housing, horse stables, and possibly a new track for the Preakness

The project has glided along on a cushion of goodwill from politicians and business leaders, eager to see UA's job and tax footprint expand in the city. In general, press coverage has not been terribly critical, painting Plank as a Bloomberg-esque figure who is a forward-looking, tech-savvy, beneficent mogul looking to better Baltimore. In reality, he is hewing to a very old script, one with a tangled history of paternalism, racism, labor unrest, and the fragility of good intentions. 

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A couple of months ago, I was working on a dining table in a corner of a buddy's shop -- an old unheated warehouse, all concrete and dripping pipes. It was freezing cold, and he drove under the roll-up with his pick up truck, loaded with a vintage Shopsmith. As I helped him wrestle it out of the truck, he told me all about this amazing all-in-one shop. The beast was fifties-era, all steel, heavy as hell, and featured a table saw, a jig saw, a drill press, and a lathe. It was missing a few other parts, but apparently you could jack on an air compressor too. 

It sounded improbable. The imbalanced, spindly machine looked utterly incapable of doing much of anything. Over the next few weeks, my friend dusted it off, cleaned it up, and put it to work. I never saw it in direct action, but it was frequently snowcapped with sawdust, so I took him at his word. And, of course, it made me curious. I was skeptical (as I often am), imagining the work to reconfigure it for each separate task must outweigh its general utility and compactness. So, I went to the Internet (typical mistake) and fell down a rabbit hole of epic proportions.

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Defensive Urbanism: A Field Guide

On May 1st, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced charges, including murder, for six Baltimore police whose actions allegedly led to the death of Freddie Gray. A few days later, the National Guard had left the city and the curfew had been lifted. However, preliminary motions filed in the case have been combative, and protests continue. The struggle is playing on and through a landscape temporarily deformed by defensive infrastructure.

These tactical structures of exclusion have been under development for years, part of a creeping security state that bloomed in the aftermath of 9/11. Fragments of overseas misadventures -- war machines and veterans in our police forces -- have combined with a flood of federal dollars meant to insulate population centers against terrorism. The predicted Al Qaeda invasion never materialized, but the fortifications have risen ever higher. 

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William HolmanComment
Structures of Exclusion

On April 12th, West Baltimorean Freddie Gray was arrested, manhandled, and packed into a paddy wagon. Amateur video of the scene shows him screaming, legs dragging limply on the ground. After undergoing surgery on his spine, he lapsed into a coma and died on April 19th. Protests began immediately. On April 25th, altercations between drunken Orioles fans and protestors spiraled into violence. Two days later, public transportation was shut down, stranding hundreds of school kids at Mondawmin Mall, a major transport hub. Bricks and bottles began to rain down on officers, and the situation spiraled into fires, looting, and widespread violence. 

As I write this, on April 29th, the city is on a 10 PM curfew. A massive (peaceful) march has ended at City Hall, with thousands chanting for change. The Jones Falls Expressway, out my window, is eerily quiet, normal traffic noise replaced by the thwack-thwack of helicopter blades. National Guardsmen line the streets. The Orioles played the White Sox to an empty stadium today. The city feels like it is on a war footing.

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The Nomadic Workshop

This winter, I built a large dining table out of reclaimed Douglas Fir. I started that adventure at the Station North Tool Library, milling the planks and gluing up the top. For the rest of the process, I moved the table to the massive, unheated basement of a semi-vacant building nearby. A friend of mine had a shop in there, so there were a few tools and the occasionally coffee, but it was definitely a guerilla setup.

Over the years, I've built furniture all over the place. Guerilla Furniture Design mentions some of these ad-hoc shops -- basements, driveways, garages, living rooms -- but didn't really get into nomadic workshop design. As my tool collection has expanded, it has become more unwieldy, outgrowing a collection of bags and store-bought solutions. Faced with a long-distance move, I decided to consolidate my stuff into four plastic break-pack totes. However, after months of projects and reshufflings, I ended up with five disorganized totes and a pile of homeless gear. 

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Hairpinned Table

A few months ago, my cousin approached me about building a dining room table for her and her family. They had recently moved into a newly rehabbed house, just outside D.C. A spec builder took the top off a small sixties rancher on the edge of a steep site and expanded up. The main level has clean-lined built-ins, with great views of a wooded park and an open floor plan. They wanted a sleek form rendered in reclaimed material, similar to the Douglas Fir conference tables I made for Hattery a few years back. In order to match their other furniture, they also wanted to reference the mid-century aesthetic of Eames and Bertoia. 

I rarely take on jobs like this -- I don't have my own shop, and no longer work in a shop for my day job. However, this was a great opportunity to make an heirloom piece, for family,  at a scale at which I rarely get to work. I knew I could figure some guerilla solutions to my lack of facilities. 

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R Credenza

For a little over a year now, I've been chasing around some concepts about flat-pack design: its history, its widespread adoption, and design research into modern methods. Parallel to these explorations, I've been using a CNC router and digital file hosting to test out new methods of manufacturing. My first product, the Zip TIe Lounge Chair, went live on OpenDesk last May. Made from a half-sheet of plywood and 44 zip ties, it uses common industrial materials and a universal design language that can be digitally distributed and modified. It was my first open-source object. I was optimistic about its possibilities, imagining a future where Amazon would CNC furniture right in its distribution warehouses for same-day delivery. 

I was lucky enough to have it crop up on a few design blogs and featured in Make magazine. Released for free under a Creative Commons license, it has accumulated 2,000 downloads over 10 months. Via social media, I found that at least two people have built one, in Barcelona and Ohio (both using makerspaces). The miserable download-to-build ratio (.09%) illustrates the trouble with truly open-source, digitally fabricated furniture: it's still a lot of work, using machines that are not widely accessible. The chair looked too severe, shaped by the machining method and material constraints. More than a few commenters took issue with the durability and aesthetic of the zip-tie fastening. Six weeks in a gallery show proved their point, as UV light and lots of sitters broke the ties across the front of the seat.  

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Object Guerilla: The Book III

A little less than two years ago, I submitted my first manuscriptGuerilla Furniture Design, to Storey Publishing. After six months of editing, we completed the photography and illustrations. I am now pleased to announce it is up for pre-sale on Amazon, and hits bookstores April 7th (barring shipping issues). During two-year process I have learned a great deal, moved halfway across the country, and worked to explore new methods of writing, research, and open source design.  Instructables, the site that launched my writing career seven years ago, is now sponsoring a contest based on the book, with prize packs featuring furniture and posters designed by my (beautiful and brilliant) wife,  Amanda Buck

Amanda and I had the good fortune to hand-screen the posters at Baltimore Print Studios, run by our friends Kim and Kyle. BPS is a full-service letterpress and screen printing shop, offering workshops, press rental, and custom runs. 

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The Passive Solar Dome Greenhouse

The term "global warming" was first used in 1975, two years after the first oil shock slugged the U.S. economy. Four years later, a second shock coincided with the Iranian Revolution. That same year, John Fontanetta and Al Heller published The Passive Solar Dome Greenhouse Book A thrift-store edition, bright green and yellow, fell into my hands a few years ago. It was the result of a research project at Fordham University called FUSES: Fordham Urban EcoSystem. The project seemed to stir up some real excitement -- my first edition copy has a quote from Buckminster himself on the back, bolstered by New York Magazine and CBS. 

At times dismissed as kitsch, or embarrassing in its earnestness, I've long had an affinity for seventies design. Ken IsaacsBuckminster Fuller, Steve BaerPaolo SoleriLloyd KahnJersey DevilThe Prickly Mountain boys -- instead of just fiddling with the formal aspects, they tackled architecture in all its complexities, approaching it with craftsman's sensibility and a DIY spirit. They questioned assumptions about community, social justice, building techniques, and environmental responsibility. The results were wildly uneven. It was kinetic. It was weird. It didn't cost much, and a lot of it didn't last. Today, warped by digital speed, economic instability, and climate change, strains of that old anarchic spirit are punching through again. 

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