Industrial design in the postindustrial age

from Stefan Diez | Sep 8, 2014

“The discontent in postindustrial design” is the title of an article that Mario Carpo contributed to the catalog of the show “Konstantin Grcic – Panorama” at Vitra Design Museum. The essay discusses the role of the industrial designer in the postindustrial age, a relationship that is evidently out of kilter. Carpo describes the severe changes that design and product development are currently undergoing and that strongly influence my generation. The trend is driven by digital tools that in the age of postindustrial manufacturing turn the logic of industrial production on its head and in many areas are already replacing it. Digital tool include CAD programs, rendering and illustration programs, CNC machines, laser cutters, plotters, 3D printers, and of course robots. For our generation, a command of these tools has long since become an imperative.

Digital tools are irresistible in promise as regards state-of-the-art product development: They enable designers and engineers to be more precise in articulating their ideas, and new methods can be adopted for complex products and projects because the broadest array of resources converge in the digital network irrespective of their location. The trend is proceeding at a far more rapid pace than only 15 years ago, and in the end the entire process will become more cost-effective thanks to the shift to the digital level.

Alongside digital tools in general, Carpo also speak of “digital craftsmen”, meaning 3D printers, robots and CNC machines such as no longer need a mold or stencil to make an object and require exactly the same effort in each instance to turn out each copy or each copy with changed parameters, irrespective of the lot numbers involved. They are primarily responsible for the paradigm shift in manufacturing and today question the very logic of industrially-made products.

As always when the goal posts get changed, there are enthusiasts and there are critics: The ones fear a threat to their knowledge, based on longstanding experience, the others sense an opportunity to at long last overtake the established generation. Without doubt, the changes will lead to proven qualities disappearing – such as the inevitable crafts stages in analog product development processes. I’m thinking of the modelers, the model and mold makers, whose special experience and knowledge of the production process functioned almost as an automatic corrective when eliminating errors during the translation process from two to three dimensions, filling in free spaces along the way. Famous examples are Giovanni Sacchi, whose expertise in model-building certainly supported designers such as Marcello Nizzoli, Richard Sapper and Achille Castiglioni; or the Rosenthal Creative Center of the 1980s, which collaborated with designers such as Björn Wiinblad, Tapio Wirkkala, Jasper Morrison and Patricia Urquiola and thus helped porcelain production blossom at the time.

The dominant knowledge of the producers is increasingly disappearing because it is mainly the designers who are today in charge of the translation process and because many designers no longer work in an analog medium but directly create 3D models onscreen that a “digital craftsman” can then immediately realize. There is evidence to suggest then that the above-described changes will indeed open up those long-awaited new free spaces for us, and that we can fill them with innovative products that are emblematic of their time and less expensive – thanks to direct realization and distribution systems.

Less object, more process

One of the most exciting innovations at the end of the 1990s was the low-budget 3D program “Rhinoceros”. “Rhino” was not only able to generate surfaces of random complexity, but it also transformed these into polygonal surfaces and printed them out as patterns for cardboard models. Digital models and physical prototypes suddenly began to overlap – a truly fascinating experience for us during our student days. Together with Christophe de la Fontaine I worked on polygonal bodies that are made from folded surfaces. Playing around with different forms on Rhino is really simple, without a computer things get a lot harder, however. Depending on which parameters you set a surface can be made into a stool, an armchair, or a table. The important thing in parametric design is not so much the object itself, but the process that defines the rules for making it. After all, an object will only be realized if the relevant parameters have been set and there is a “digital craftsman” to produce it. As a consequence, the author of the process can pass some of the control on to the client, who is then able, within a specified framework, to complete the product to his or her personal preferences. Those were very exciting, indeed revolutionary possibilities. In 2003 the folded chair “Bent” premiered at imm Cologne in cooperation with Elmar Flötotto as the producer, however, the project was discontinued in the course of that same year. The reason was two-fold: Firstly, it did not quite concur with Flötotto’s traditional sales structure – production costs of around 100 euros per item and a retail price of at least 400 euros meant that the chair was too expensive. Secondly, at the time we could not think of a possibility to include the client in the design process, which was, after all, the main benefit offered by this new procedure. It was not until much later and by pure chance that Tobias Rehberger asked our firm to produce a special, adapted version of “Bent” for some of his installations.

The question of authorship

Even though items such as “Bent” can be made by “digital craftsmen”, they do not really benefit from the economy of scale offered by industrial production (i.e., the more an item is produced the cheaper it gets). In other words, post-industrially made products tend to be rather expensive for traditional distribution methods, which capitalize on high lot numbers. If the client happens to be a co-author, as was the case with Tobias Rehberger and “Bent”, then conventional distribution patterns are unsuitable as a client interface. Any designs that allow parametric changes to be made, or which are produced using “digital craftsmen” need to be licensed directly to the end consumer, who will use a local company to produce them at reasonable cost, including the licensing fee. Once the right of use is uncoupled from the physical product and sold separately, there remains the challenge of ensuring that the designers are paid their due, and it’s a tough challenge, but I am nonetheless convinced that sooner or later there will be online platforms offering clients these new possibilities and replacing parts of traditional merchandizing.

Icon of polygonal aesthetic

When I worked for Konstantin Grcic as a student, one of his projects was “Chair One”, a bucket seat made of die-cast aluminum for Magis. Working on our first models, which consisted of chicken wire and papier-mâché, we were unable to control the complex form sufficiently, let alone reproduce it. Eventually we decided use Rhino and construct the chicken-wire model from polygons, which we then recreated in cardboard. So in a sense Konstantin froze the polygonal aesthetic of those working models, turning what was essentially a planned interim step into a product proper.
The huge success of “Chair One”, and because we were not the only ones working with 3D programs, lead to the rapid proliferation of that special look-and-feel of polygonal structures, with objects conceived from polygonal surfaces popping up everywhere in those days. Today “Chair One” is considered an icon of the aesthetic of the early Noughties, which marked the dawn of a new design dimension that readdressed the notion of formal complexity – and mastered it. Digital tools made a splash in particular where they were not yet fully integrated, leaving innovative traces in the form, which strangely continued to echo for some time in the world of architecture.

Decentralized globalized production

Initially made possible through the rise of digital working methods, global and decentralized production has today established itself the world over. Ironically, it was the outsourcing by traditional manufacturers that drove this trend – with young brands jumping on the bandwagon. Today the latter are increasingly causing problems for the old-established ones. Companies such as the German label Sitzfeldt, which neither has its own production nor a traditional distribution system and thus fully relies on outsourced, global manufacturers, direct marketing and own showrooms, are able to keep the prices down, thus attracting a young clientele.

The Danish brand Hay is another example. At Hay it is absolutely common practice to have products made by different manufacturers scattered around the globe, and have them distributed globally as well – via flagship stores and online platforms. Hay products tend to be cheaper than those by established brands, precisely because they are not handcrafted or produced using the latest digital production methods, but instead are made conventionally, and in high lot numbers. It is their entrepreneurial prowess, which Mette and Rolf Hay summon up for every new project launch, paired with their extensive portfolio, which made outsourced production possible in the first place, that wins their customers.

Far too many new products

Thanks to digital tools today’s designers have become faster and more productive. Not only do we fill new free spaces and mastermind the design, but we are also responsible for the “engineering” side of things, model making, visual language, and sometimes even the marketing of new products. The publishers, on the other hand, are increasingly abandoning industrial manufacturing processes in favor of manual and digital manufacturing. Firstly to minimize the financial risk of a new project. And secondly, to be able to present new ideas to the media in every season. That way, they are not only evading the responsibility they have towards the designers, who tend to bear the brunt of the risk of a new development (at trade fairs it is common practice to display designers’ prototypes which they produced at their own cost), but they also miss the benefits offered by carefully conceived industrial products, such as independence, functional safety, and low production costs in the case of high lot numbers.

And because the number of products sold decreases with each new model, the present situation spells a financial disaster for those designers who have a share in the net-sales on the basis of licenses. The kneejerk reaction to produce ever more products ever more swiftly only sprouts masses of items that have no substance. It is long since known that the majority of new releases only get to enjoy a brief appearance in the media and blogs, but never make it to the analog market.

The semantics of sampling

This means that out of sheer necessity designers have become incredibly productive, however, this is not to say that this equally applies to their creativity. The present generation of designers has for quite some time now looked to the old masters for inspiration, remaking most of the designs that were once successful. Which gives a bad example to their younger colleagues, who quite often only know the very basics of sampling. Instead they operate according to the “open source” principle as if they were part of a digital collective. As a result, inspiration and product flow seamlessly into each other, turning into ever smaller fragments that make up the semantic repertoire of our time.

In a sense, industrial production is responsible for this interplay of vastly different intellectual and workmanship skills, as well as entrepreneurial chutzpah – and for this very reason has brought forth some extraordinary progressive products. Post-industrial production, on the other hand, is caught in a trap, for bringing together the intellectual assets and entrepreneurial capital required for a single project is extremely difficult, which is why it rarely succeeds. Once the production volume of everyday items is scaled down to artisanal quantities, then the design sector will be destined to return to its pre-Industrial Revolution realm: handicraft.
Thanks to the CAD-programme „Rhino“ Stefan Diez and his colleague Christophe de la Fontaine (in the picture) created „Bent“…Photo © Stefan Diez Office
… a chair made of polygon-geometrics, printed like a pattern. Photo © Stefan Diez Office
Hay produces all over the world to offer affordable products – that are premium in terms of quality and design. Photo © Stefan Diez Office
A explicit „online- chair“: „Kitt“ by Stefan Diez for Hay, demountable and therefore easy to send. Photo © Stefan Diez Office
The input from model maker who are a corrective is indispensable, Diez says. Photo © Stefan Diez Office
Without own developments no advantages: For “New order” Stefan Diez doesn’t use fixtures from suppliers but created them by himself. Photo © Stefan Diez Office
For the contract business: „That“ by Stefan Diez for e15 from the series „This That Other“ – lower complex in the production than “Houdini”. Photo © Stefan Diez Office
For „Houdini“ for e15 Stefan Diez preferred handcrafted production – but with the use of CNC-mills. Photo © Stefan Diez Office