The Tea Break

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There is a danger in reporting on aspects of a shared project (or in this case a shared break in practical activity) that the tales told are only of interest to those there at the time.

So running the risk of reminiscing/ romancing / post-rationalising the chit chat that takes place in the studio of the Designers in Residence at Northumbria University, the intention here is report on some of the often accidently profound moments that emerge over “a brew” in a design studio.

More specifically the aim is to show how the topics of conversation at these times have helped to shape the Tools for Everyday Life project.  For while a cleaned up, bullet-pointed version of events or a reliance on photographs of things being made and completed might neaten up the story of the design and curatorial processes involved in running a project such as this, it wouldn’t be altogether accurate.  The tea-breaks that interrupt the design and make continuum, reflect more accurately the rather more messy reality of a project, where designers often instinctively make use of their skills and experiences (not always confidently), talk about it (not always freely) to create something with which they are happy (but not always).  Wide ranging topics of salesmanship, technology, egg washing in the United States and sketching more often than not merge to a point where meaningful conclusions are impossible. These discussions, however, have had a profound effect on the content of the project and the spirit in which it is carried out. One could go as far as to say that this whole project is fuelled by the interest in the issues talked about at approximately 10am and 3pm.

The following selected subjects have been summarized.  In some cases they are the basis for further ‘features’ that may appear on this website and in others they merit no more than a quick mention.

Topic: Food…

The nostalgic tone of conversations about favourite childhood biscuits (cookies) leads to observations of the power of branding and the links between memory and taste. The corporate takeovers and ownership of the beloved heritage brands (McVities) by likes of United Biscuits and Nabisco, are glossed over for fear of spoiling the enjoyment of the wheat based snacks that are part and parcel of a break.  In the Designers in Residence hub the plain and reassuringly unchanged Digestive is currently the biscuit of choice.

Topic: Designers/makers selling things at trade fairs…

The subject of shy retiring types interested in making the stuff but not that bothered in explaining it or indeed sometimes, rather strangely, selling it, rears it’s head as a topic part in jest but maybe also because the designing and making process is sometimes an enjoyable end in itself. Tactics for how designers can avoid eye contact and brush off casual as opposed to real interest in their work, have been discussed frequently since the beginning of the Tools for Everyday Life adventure.  This topic of conversation has led to the semi fictional ‘piece’ by Philip Luscombe (also featured in this Journal section of the site). It reveals much about the dilemmas designers/makers find themselves in when showing/ selling their work in public.

Topic: Domestic 3d printing…

The Tools for Everyday life project’s aim of celebrating the designing and making process is currently framed by much talk of the potential of 3d printing and how these technologies can compress the distance between an idea for a product and its manufacture. As Sam Jacob the architectural director of FAT notes in a recent ‘column’ for the design blog Dezeen, “The overarching narrative surrounding 3D printing presents it as a liberating technology. It argues that the technology will free us from organised, centralised production of the industrial era.” Over tea and sweet baked goods in the designers in residence studio too there is a healthy skeptisim of a three dimenionally printed future. For while the designers connected with the Tools for Everyday Life project commonly use digital technologies and rapid prototyping as part of their practice (as well as embracing innovations around e-commerce and opportunities presented by funding platforms such as Kickstarter), these innovations and developments are viewed as supplements to the knowledge and understanding bound up in making things. Their suspicion of 3d printed future is not fuelled by either a wish to take a nostalgic retreat to ‘simpler’ pre-industrial times or celebrate the aesthetics of mid 20th century modernism, rather it is driven by concern that a blind faith in exciting technological developments can separate skilled manufacture from both the idea for a product and its ultimate enjoyment/use. Just as the internet, the communication it enables and the access to information it brings, has not freed the world from the trappings of corporate driven consumerisim it’s unlikely that 3d printing technology in itself will right the wrongs of material culture. Comfort was taken by those drinking milky tea in the arguments of Jacob and his assertion that rather than look to a 3d printed liberation from the ills of contemporary culture ”… it is [more useful] to recognize… [as Morris and Ruskin did]… that objects are not simply form but intrinsically politicised artifacts. And so are the technologies we use to produce them”.

This potentially complex multilayered debate that deals with projected futures of people printing out their own goods and the reduction of skilled manufacture to the tap of a print icon was dealt most efficiently by one of the designers with this profound comment:

“I’ve got a printer at home but I still buy Christmas Cards”.

Debate over. It will probably never catch on.

Topic: Nonsense…

Given the checkered past of several of the designers involved in the project (and one in particular) conversation often drifts toward what life was like working at sea where chance encounters with large fleshy fish and the smuggling of precious stones do colour your world view.

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