Experimentation and Research

One of the main obstacles to innovation in a production oriented environment is the lack of time and funding for trial-and-error experiments with new materials and processes.  A lack of familiarity with the ever-expanding list of materials at our disposal leads designers and craftsmen to stick to what they know best.  Even when a new material or finish can be used successfully, there is always a degree of trepidation involved in sending it out without seeing how it behaves over time and use.  

Part of what sets LiveWork apart from other production oriented spaces is a constant drive to innovate in all phases of design and construction.  Each material and process gets evaluated on its own merits (suitability, workability, economy, longevity, sustainability, toxicity, etc.) without falling into the common traps of habit, seduction, convenience, or sentimentality.  With knowledge and access to a wide variety of materials and processes, successful designs can emerge in a number of ways.  Some designs may be directly inspired by a certain material or process, while others may emerge fully formed before beginning the search for a suitable medium.  

Designers must always be cognizant of what we might call the “expensive decision” in the design process.  During this process, designers encounter a long and often complex series of decisions.  Seemingly insignificant changes to the design often turn out to have larger implications later on the process. One of the key ways in which designers can become more efficient and effective is to reverse engineer their finished products, looking for the expensive decisions along the way.  Sometimes these decisions cannot be avoided, but often a simple change of dimension, material, fastener, or finish can have a dramatic effect on the cost, efficiency, and elegance of the finished product.  This can often be accomplished through an honest approach to materials.  Exploiting the inherent qualities of a material instead of constantly struggling against its nature will always yield a more graceful result.  

I’ve recently been thinking about modernist minimalism and what I’m coming to see as its tendency towards dishonesty.  I was looking at an image of a beautiful cantilevered staircase (a simple dotted line of dark treads against a white wall, unbroken by risers, balusters, or even handrails). The image was stark and simple, but all I could think of was the amount of engineering that must have been hidden inside the wall in order to accomplish such a feat.  That’s not minimalism.  That’s maximalism with a plaster veneer.  What if the other side of that wall had held a mirror-image staircase so that the treads were simply slotted through the wall and the cantilever was equally balanced on the opposite side?  That would be minimalist in both form and execution.  And it would have been a whole lot cheaper and easier to accomplish.  Just as I find over and over again in my own writing, the point at which you think you’ve said something really clever is where you need to stop and get out the editor’s scissors.  True simplicity always has its beauty, but complexity disguised as simplicity is just you being clever.