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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The Open Source Object

The term "planned obsolescence" was supposedly coined by Milwaukee-based industrial designer Brooks Stevens in 1954 for a presentation in Minneapolis. However, a search onGoogle's Ngram tool, which tracks the prevalence of phrases in books over time, traces the first appearance of the expression to 1929. Stevens couched its use in different terms than it has come to be understood today: “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” He thought of planned obsolescence not as a set of design flaws time-delayed into the infrastructure of a product, but more of a marketing ploy meant to make the old versions look out-of-date. Car companies, with their yearly model changeovers, are masters at this; phone companies have aped their success at a cheaper price point.

In the era of software, executing planned obsolescence has become easier than ever. An operating system update pushed out to devices with little or no choice from users can savage functionality. The practice of "instilling desire in the buyer a little sooner than necessary" is now a centralized, push-button operation. These software manipulations are inextricably linked into a whole ecosystem of difficult-to-repair hardware built with proprietary fasteners, edge-to-edge screens, and finicky, expensive batteries. Recently, I wrote a post on this sad back-and-forth, as illustrated through designer Thomas Thwaites' attempt to build a toaster from scratch.

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The Toaster Paradox

For the past few months, I have been engaged in the (stupidly) ambitious project of reading Sigfried Giedion's 1948 tome Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous HistoryMuch like my last self-assigned homework reading, The Prodigious Builders, the author's non-native English and the age of the book makes for some unconventional prose. Gideon traces the history of manufacturing from the earliest rumblings of the Industrial Revolution on through World War II, covering every conceivable process along the way. For instance, he goes into not only mechanized reaping, but grain milling and bread-baking and packaging and preservatives and so on. The detail is exhaustive, well-illustrated with patent drawings.

Giedion was born in 1888, and his lifetime spanned many of the great leaps in manufacturing technology that have made modern life possible. He was able to document many of those changes in real time, writing and lecturing extensively on the growth of modern design, the Bauhaus, and architects of the International Style. Since his death, in 1968, technology has continued its relentless march forward, but many of the processes he chronicled in Mechanization Takes Command have remained archaic. Minerals still must be wrenched from the earth and refined into something useful with great heat and pressure. Today, we've replaced some of that brutal labor with machines, or even robots, but the basic story is unchanging.

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I am conflicted about the great American mishmash of traditions around this time of year now colloquially termed "The Holidays." On the one hand, I love a good feast, hanging with family, and some time off as much as anyone. On the other, I am depressed by the raw consumerist havoc represented by Black Friday and the gift-wrapped garbage aftermath of Christmas Day. To deal, I sometimes veer off into ranting. More constructively, I like to retreat into the comforting arms of anti-consumptive media.

My family, on both sides, has some roots in Appalachia. My paternal grandfather grew up hard in Memphis and went to college in North Carolina; my maternal grandfather grew up hard on a small farm in eastern Tennessee. I grew up pretty easy in the suburbs of Baltimore, but my mother's cooking, taste in music, and at times, her accent, retained a strong affinity for the South. We had a book on the shelf growing up, Foxfire, with an all-text cover promising coverage of topics including "hog dressing, log cabin building, moonshining . . . and other affairs of plain living." It was one of the first editions, with big type and grainy black-and-white photos. I probably read it a dozen times. 

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The Prodigious Builders

When I was a kid, I was a prodigious fort builder. It started indoors, as it always does, with pillows and couch cushions. Once a little older, I headed into the badlands of the backyard. I shot passages through clusters of boxwoods by clearing out undergrowth and strategically snapping branches. I dug trenches with a shovel I could barely handle and roofed them with sticks, crawling into the little hollows and listening to the traffic eroding down the road. Eventually, with much help from my father, I put up a treehouse that survived a decade in a half-rotten mulberry, complete with rope ladder and rickety rail. 

Even as a teenager, I found occasion for constructing a temporary refuge. As a Boy Scout, for my Wilderness Survival badge, I built a lean-to and spent a miserable, sweaty night inside, warding off the rain wrapped in a poncho. The next day, my left eye was swelled shut with poison ivy contracted while I foraged for materials. I put all of these together before I had any formal training in architecture or building. The term of art for this practice is "vernacular" --  of or pertaining to the common style of a time or place, especially the common building style of a time or place.

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My last post, on the World Maker Faire (alas, too long ago, but many a project beckon), was largely commentary-free. In the intervening weeks, a number of articles have aligned into a constellation of push-back against the maker movement. Most center around the rise of 3-D printing: seductive as additive manufacturing may be, it is currently crippled by an inability to do much real work. ABS and PLA, the dominant printing materials, coupled with current common build volumes, represent real physical limits to what 3D printing can accomplish right now. These limits, coupled with radical open access to both software and print files, has slashed the brake lines that limit consumption. We are living in the dawn of the age of The Crapject. 

Coined by Scott Smith, of the Changeist, the term crapject refers to the uniquely useless stuff spawned by the rise of 3D printing. One of my favorite design writers, Allison Arieff, recently wrote an eloquent piece on this phenomenon on Medium, entitled Yes We Can. But Should We? Both Smith and Arieff question whether "desktop manufacturing" is a good thing, and with good reason. The history of manufacturing is a dirty, dark, dangerous thing. Raw materials were wrenched from the earth under great duress and transformed, often crudely, into consumables. Progress had a cost. That cost has fallen exponentially over the last five hundred years, and now we can summon object from the ether with the press of a button.

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World Maker Faire 2014

This past weekend I got a chance to go to the World Maker Faire in New York for work, researching makerspaces and their citizens. I was unprepared for the sheer size of the event: if last year's event is any predictor, it was tens of thousands of people. It helped that the weather was great and they were inhabiting the site of the 1964 World's Fair. A V-2 rocket loomed over the exhibits just as it did when my father visited as a 15-year old. Supposed to be Robert Moses' crowning achievement, it was instead crippled by his intransigence, and has now been converted into the New York Hall of Science. SITU Studio has built out some Design Labs in the museum as permanent exhibits. 

The Maker Faire could be seen as a revival of that spirit, but honed in on a narrower audience. This year continued long-standing exhibits such as the Power Racing series and 3D Printing Row, as well expanded into new ones, like a group of Kickstartered small businesses. Following are some pictures and videos of my favorites.

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Bar Cart

Cocktail "culture". The general revival of all things handmade, especially in the food world, has brought us this linguistic gem. It enters the hipster lexicon right alongside artisanal, farm-to-table, and single-bean origin, a signifier of accessible sophistication with the ability to inspire endless un-winnable arguments about doing it right. Ordering a beer at certain bars guarantees sloppy service from hirsute, inked barmen, convinced you are an unredeemable philistine. 

I myself have always been more of a beer man. Beer is a little easier to comprehend, cheaper to get into, and requires no work. But it has fallen prey to the general tides of taste -- for the better, I agree -- and is now a treacherous minefield of choices. I have a few favorites, and beyond that, I fall back on my design education and pick the ones with the best labels. But even that tried-and-true method has come under attack, as label quality has become superlative across the craft beer world. What is a simple man to do?

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10 x 10

Recently, browsing the unremitting, unceasing id of the internet that is Twitter, I stumbled across an interesting gem posted by the good folks over at Houslets. It was a link to an obscure 13th-century Japanese text by a Bhuddist ascetic, Kamo no Chōmei. Once a successful and wealthy poet for the imperial court, a series of political setbacks and natural disasters gradually pushed Chōmei into seclusion. The essay, The Ten Foot Square Hut (Hōjōki), describes his sequential downsizing, from his father's house, to a cabin by the river, and, eventually, at the age of sixty, a hut just ten feet to a side. 

Often described as an Eastern analogue to Henry David Thoreau's WaldenHōjōki is similarly famous for its opening lines:

"Though the river's current never fails, the water passing, moment by moment, is never the same. Where the current pools, bubbles form on the surface, bursting and disappearing as others rise to replace them, none lasting long. In this world, people and their dwelling places are like that, always changing."

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I can see the Jones Falls Expressway from my living room. As I write this, tail lights streak through the trees, accompanied by the whine of motorcycles ripping up the road. During rush hour, the noise kind of blurs together into an approximation of flowing water. The sound of the actual river running between building and road is drowned out by the traffic. In between the river and the road runs the Light Rail, zipping back and forth rather indifferently.

Each morning I take the JFX out of the city to my suburban office. On the other side, heading into the city, traffic backs up all the way to the Beltway. The road, originally designed for 200,000 cars a day, can barely handle 120,000, due to various design flaws and spikes in usage. Largely elevated, the highway cuts a twisted path, making for tight turns, narrow shoulders, and complex exits. This, in turn, slows down traffic, lowers visibility, and increases accidents. For much of its ten-mile route, the JFX buries or shades the river it's named for, making for a grim, post-apocalyptic corridor that I've described before.

So why was it built? And why might it be taken out?

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DIY TV 2.0

I last wrote about DIY TV shows a few months ago and ended that post with a bit about Jimmy DiResta, a craftsman in New York that puts out a YouTube video every week for MAKE magazine. Those videos sent me spinning down a YouTube rabbit hole of vast proportions. Each show I found led somehow to another, until I racked up a dozen subscriptions to various channels.

Most take the form of a tutorial, shot from a tripod by sole proprietors, following a single project from start to finish. However, cheap equipment and new techniques have led to some interesting evolutions of the form. It has also given rise to a new sort of freelance content creator able to make a living off of multiple trickles of income: YouTube ad revenuetool sponsorshipsAmazon Associate tie-ins; site subscriptions; merchandise sales and kit sales on Etsy or Cargo Collective; or straight-up donations through platforms like Patreon

Here's a quick selection of some YouTube channels I've been watching lately. I've been picking up project ideas, finding interesting new makers to follow, and learning how to evolve my own DIY tutorial game. 

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