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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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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