Process is Toast

Starting from complementary design strategies, two young graduates question the process of industrial production. While Gaspard Tiné-Berès concentrates on dismantling and reassembly, Jess Howard uses DIY assemblage and manuals.

This article was originally published in Domus 963 / November 2012

In the past few years, conversation about design has been increasingly dominated by a certain theme: the generative process. Standardised form, or even pure form itself, seems almost aimless in comparison to a new kind of object that is unique within a consciously imperfect series. For the user, these curious mutations represent a special type of commodity, receptive to the infusion of value and memory. Process, it would seem, is a kind of elixir, curing design fatigue and consumerist shame without sacrificing a whit of aesthetic consciousness.

Thus there is something uncannily marketable about this phenomenon. In theory, the notion of process suggests a broad range of transformations, transactions and assemblies in the course of an object's life. In practice, however, the situation is otherwise. Process-based design tends to delineate a precise timeframe, one that begins when prepared materials are obtained and ends the moment the object emerges from its mould. During this span, the designer is often the sole agent of change; the studio, like a hermetic laboratory, is often the sole context for manufacture. When these defiantly non-homogeneous objects leave the workshop for the "real world", they are primed for direct consumption, "inherent value" already included.
Top: The new toasters by
Tiné-Berès and Howard,
compared with the pioneer
design by Thomas Thwaites. Photo by Antonio Ottomanelli. Above: Jesse Howard, Industrial Toaster, from the <em>Transparent Tools</em> series. The toaster’s switch plate is 3D
printed, and the side panels are
milled from MDF. The possibility to
print out parts of an appliance when
one needs replacement (or a superior
material becomes available) leads
to a culture in which repair is valued
over disposability and transparency
in function is valued over automation
Top: The new toasters by Tiné-Berès and Howard, compared with the pioneer design by Thomas Thwaites. Photo by Antonio Ottomanelli. Above: Jesse Howard, Industrial Toaster, from the Transparent Tools series. The toaster’s switch plate is 3D printed, and the side panels are milled from MDF. The possibility to print out parts of an appliance when one needs replacement (or a superior material becomes available) leads to a culture in which repair is valued over disposability and transparency in function is valued over automation
In fact, for all the discussion of process-based design, there is often little thought given to the process of acquiring an object: extracting the materials, connecting the parts, putting it into use, and finally disposing of it when it is no longer needed. Certainly, these events may lack the cinematic quality of a scripted making process in which the object is incarnated, like magic, without the direct handling of the designer: the work of practices like Studio Glithero make it clear that the film of the process itself is just as much a design product as a clay pot — and perhaps even more. In contrast, the scenes in a broader definition of process are rather mundane: selecting a product in a shop, tinkering with its parts, patching up the cracks, putting the defunct bits in the right bins, and so on.
Jesse Howard, Coffee Grinder, from the <em>Transparent Tools</em> series
Jesse Howard, Coffee Grinder, from the Transparent Tools series
For all the apparent banality of these actions, there are a growing number of designers who embrace them as full-fledged stages in how things take shape. These individuals construct their design intervention as merely one of many inputs into a material, functional outcome alongside the user, the market, the political economy, the environment and society's customs. Given this position, it is unsurprising that many of them focus on household appliances. More than chairs or teapots, these electric agents operate on a much larger scale, conditioned by the peculiarities of globalised production.

In the seminal Toaster Project , in which he reverse-engineered the ubiquitous kitchen device and reconstructed it from the ground up, London designer Thomas Thwaites discovered, for example, that 30 per cent of the world's total nickel production (more than 1 million tons per year) can be traced to a single mine in Norilsk, Siberia. The heating element in every toaster is made of nickel. If Thwaites was a pioneer in the field, using design as an investigative tool, then recent graduates Jesse Howard (Gerrit Rietveld Academy, 2012) and Gaspard Tiné-Berès (Royal College of Art, 2012) may represent the next phase, in which design becomes a participatory and reparative force.
For all the apparent banality of these actions, there are a growing number of designers who embrace them as full-fledged stages in how things take shape. These individuals construct their design intervention as merely one of many inputs into a material, functional outcome alongside the user, the market, the political economy, the environment and society's customs
Jesse Howard, Coffee Grinder, from the <em>Transparent Tools</em> series. Each appliance relies on a
small number of technical
components. It can be
reproduced mainly by using
3D printers and automated
fabrication tools
Jesse Howard, Coffee Grinder, from the Transparent Tools series. Each appliance relies on a small number of technical components. It can be reproduced mainly by using 3D printers and automated fabrication tools
Jesse Howard, best known for the OpenStructures Waterboiler he designed with Thomas Lommée , is the creator of Transparent Tools , a project that redefines the way one might shop for a vacuum cleaner or coffee grinder. These tools do not arrive in a cardboard box, batteries included; each one exists only as a simple assembly drawing on a single sheet of paper. These manuals apply the ethos of DIY to a linked, ad-hoc culture of production: Howard references the various parts with eBay search phrases, hardware store terminology and URLs to download models for 3D printing. The design instructions almost assume that adaptations will be made; in the kettle, for example, the recuperated glass pitcher may be replaced by a ceramic jug, a metal thermos or any other heat-resistant vessel that fits the 3d-printed lid, which could itself be modified to work with another container. Some working prototypes of Transparent Tools have been made, of course, but these seem to imply only what might be; with the growth of this system and the contributions of many authors, it has the potential to be much more.
Jesse Howard, Industrial Toaster, from the <em>Transparent Tools</em> series
Jesse Howard, Industrial Toaster, from the Transparent Tools series
Where Howard looks to assembly as the impetus for design, Gaspard Tiné-Berès mobilises a process of disassembly to generate the appliances in his Short-Circuit series. The project grew out of his collaboration with Bright Sparks , a project initiated by London's Islington Council to comply with EU legislature on the disposal of electronic waste. At Bright Sparks, volunteers repair broken or simply discarded electric devices and resell them at a fraction of the retail price (although they probably cannot compete with the economy of massive corporations like Argos, the producer of Thomas Thwaites's original 3.99-pound toaster). While some products may be salvaged, others are too piecemeal to mend. Short-Circuit provides new housing for these orphaned elements, using standardised glassware such as wine bottles and laboratory vessels fitted with a framework of natural cork that can be CNC-milled at a local FabLab. The toaster, water boiler and coffee-maker designed by Tiné-Berès are just a few examples of these repurposed electrical assemblies, which extend the financial viability of social enterprises like Bright Sparks.
Left, Toaster from
the <em>Short-Circuit</em> collection,
designed by Gaspard Tiné-
Berès in collaboration with
the London-based Bright
Sparks and made of cork
and borosilicate. Right, Jesse Howard, Kettle, from the <em>Transparent Tools</em> series
Left, Toaster from the Short-Circuit collection, designed by Gaspard Tiné- Berès in collaboration with the London-based Bright Sparks and made of cork and borosilicate. Right, Jesse Howard, Kettle, from the Transparent Tools series
If Transparent Tools and Short-Circuit are unusual design products, it is not because they are trying to appear unique. On the contrary, these designs rely on a high degree of homogeneity and mutual accord between components. If no two toasters are identical, it is because they have been made with the most appropriate resources at hand, not because they are celebrating the enigmatic outcomes of theatrical design processes. O'Neil Howell, the manager of Bright Sparks, offers perhaps the most acute rejoinder to the contemporary obsession with unique forms: "Although they look different, kettles are all quite the same in their basic function and the elements that they use." The contemporary conversation about design would be more to the point if it adopted such pragmatic language. Tamar Shafrir, design and architecture writer (@tamarshafrir)
 Jesse Howard, Kettle, from the <em>Transparent Tools</em> series
Jesse Howard, Kettle, from the Transparent Tools series
Kettle and coffee-maker from
the <em>Short-Circuit</em> collection,
designed by Gaspard Tiné-
Berès in collaboration with
the London-based Bright
Sparks and made of cork
and borosilicate
Kettle and coffee-maker from the Short-Circuit collection, designed by Gaspard Tiné- Berès in collaboration with the London-based Bright Sparks and made of cork and borosilicate
Jesse Howard, Improvised Vacuum, from the <em>Transparent Tools</em> series. The overall form of the
vacuum cleaner is defined
by the size and shape of the
motor. Functionally, the
speed controls are replaced
by a single switch, and the
elaborate cord-retracting
mechanism is eliminated
Jesse Howard, Improvised Vacuum, from the Transparent Tools series. The overall form of the vacuum cleaner is defined by the size and shape of the motor. Functionally, the speed controls are replaced by a single switch, and the elaborate cord-retracting mechanism is eliminated
Jesse Howard, Improvised Vacuum, from the <em>Transparent Tools</em> series
Jesse Howard, Improvised Vacuum, from the Transparent Tools series
By disassemblig existing
appliances,
Howard could envision ways
in which the function of each
object or component could be
made more transparent
By disassemblig existing appliances, Howard could envision ways in which the function of each object or component could be made more transparent
Each appliace of the
<em>Transparent Tools</em> series
can be built following the
instructions of a DIY manual
Each appliace of the Transparent Tools series can be built following the instructions of a DIY manual

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