DDD Episode 006

The Spectrum of Craft ft. Leah Buechley+Ron Rael

Susanne: [00:00:00] A man standing alone, in a field, on a rural Colorado farm is waving an ax into the camera of a laptop propped up on a pickup truck. The ax waving man is Ron Rael, a professor in Berkeley’s architecture department. The zoom class he’s waving his ax at? Berkeley’s master of design discourse class in which today’s topic is craft culture and technology.

In conversation with design technologists, Leah Buechley the subject of discussion is Ron’s ax, at some point in the life of Ron’s ax, it broke, and instead of getting a new ax, Ron hacked it back together with duct tape. Ron displays his ax in front of the camera. We can see the wad of gray duct tape around the handle has molded into the shape of Ron’s hand.

The ax looks robust, usable, and undeniably scrappy. What can a broken ax reanimated with duct tape tell us about technology design and the culture of craft? Ron explains that salvaging and transforming his ax is a craft. Specifically, the craft of rasquache. Rasquache is a Chicano term for doing the best with the least that you have. 

Susanne: [00:01:20] This is, The Spectrum of Craft, we are your hosts, Susanne, Mercedes and Penny.

Craft exists on a spectrum that encompasses disciplines, materials, tools, and cultures, all of which are constantly evolving craft can be seen in the resourceful nature of quickly hacking a tool like Ron Rael’s rasquache ax or in the decorative skilled craftsmanship of an object, like a Faberge egg.

Faberge eggs, one of a kind decorative objects crafted for the Russian Imperial family from 1885 to 1916 were made by highly skilled artists and craftsmen with unlimited funds and resources.  The purely decorative eggs were handcrafted over a period of two years using precious metals and gemstones and were status symbols of Imperial Russian pride. The current value of an original Faberge egg is around $9 million. If rasquache is the craft of doing the most with the least that you have than perhaps the craft of making a Faberge egg could be described as doing the most with the most that you have.

To explore the spectrum of craft and all of its permutations, the high and low end of craft, cultural linkages, traditions, tools, and materials, and the act of making we spoke with Ron Rael and Leah Buechley. Ron Rael is a professor of architecture at UC Berkeley and explores issues of the heritage and culture of craft.

Ron is also a pioneer in technology and craft, 3d printing earth and structures and clay objects with his partner, Virginia San Fratello. Leah Buechley as a technology designer and professor at the university of New Mexico, where she directs the hand and machine research group, exploring issues of culture, technology, and craft in her work.

I’d like to begin the conversation by exploring the value of craft, the hacker nature of Ron’s rasquache ax, or the skilled craftsmanship of a $9 million Faberge egg. We often question the perceived value of craft and the roles that they have in our society. We asked Leah for her thoughts on the power balance of the culture of craft in society. 

Leah Buechley: [00:03:44] People, human beings, we make things, we’re compelled to do that, and there are all of these rich traditions around the world of people making stuff for a variety of.  Kind of social cultural reasons some of those making traditions today have a lot of social status and approval and kind of power behind them and that is less true of other kind of traditions of making stuff. How much social attention we pay the different making traditions, how much prestige that they carry in our society often has little to do with things we think it does. So for example, it has little to do with the intellectual richness or complexity of what is made. It has little to do, even in fact, with the importance of the objects that are made and the roles that they play in our lives.

Penny: [00:04:41] Craft, whether a rasqueche axe or a Faberge egg, the broad spectrum of factors which shape a culture through to ages, craft has an important role to play. Leah insisted that what we think of as well-made due to complexity or creating a stuff to fulfill needs cannot be attributed to just utility. Since culture isn’t static and keeps changing under various influences. Craft also evolves under the traditional and artistic purview, making certain cultures more contemporary. 

One thing is clear, that craft will benefits from exploration, collaboration, and use of technology. If craft does not embrace and include technology it might risk going unnoticed. Similarly, if technologists are looked upon as outsiders, or there is no mutual appreciation, craft may remain deprived of a chance to move forwards with the pace of society. So in order to build “thoughtful bridges”, craft needs to be inclusive and cater to the needs of everyone. The crossing of cultural boundaries have to be mutual and on “equal footing” too.

Craft has never been so dependent on or influenced by technology as it is today. In an era of mass production and knockoffs, creativity uses different vehicles from time to time in order to stay relevant. Of course, with the use of software, sensors, chips etc., artists or designers are not restricted to the body of work they were accustomed to or the usual playing field. Lilypad arduino, created by Leah Buechley, has been hailed as a groundbreaking innovation that facilitated artists, craftsman, and designers to walk alongside technologists and create variable electronics, which not only tries to do away with apprehension most non-technical people have about taking up electronics, but also in a way challenges the roles of handcrafts and traditional tools. 

For us, the most groundbreaking achievement of Leah’s was,” being able to do his paper and pen where we can do with electronics”. As designers, we do not have a choice but to embrace technology but is that the same for craft? Leah’s work is making many connection between electronics and traditional craft, we asked her to share her thoughts.

Leah Buechley: [00:07:12] What I have have done in my work or I’ve tried to do is kind of mix up different making traditions and the route through that kind of the technical route to that is to make up mix up different materials. So to work with different kinds of materials and different kind of material techniques and that, but that kind of carries along with it, a lot of mixing up of cultures and a mixing up of approaches and a mixing up of people.

And I think that overlap between materials and culture and making is really interesting and powerful and also an incredibly rich and under explored source for like, technological innovation. And I’m not sure I’m I love those terms, but there’s so much kind of brilliance and creativity and expertise kind of hidden in making traditions that are off of our radar. So those mixtures, those intersections are compelling for all sorts of reasons. So cultural, political, like social and also purely kind of creatively and technological.

Penny: [00:08:31] Leah explains how her journey and experimentation with mixing various traditions, material techniques, or cultural practices resulted in very interesting results. This blending of various approaches also promotes the mixing of people, and therefore ideas. As more people from various fields works together, the resulting work will be far superior and vastly different from what has been produced till now. When people see the power of this process and benefits will be visible over both short-term and long-term periods.

Mercedes: [00:09:06] Like Leah, Ron Real also has a collaborative team that creates products and  spaces that go beyond what we know as craft. He has founded Emerging Objects with his partner, Virginia San Fratello, where they explore the overlap between materials and manufacturing culture for the creation of new crafts. They have created new expressions of 3D printed objects where ceramics take the appearance of textiles with details that could not be achieved by hand. Ron and Virginia’s work is not only focused on tiny detail objects but also in the design of big complex solutions, like 3D printed houses, where they created structural and insulative  walls from fired micacious clay learned from traditions from different cultures, like Taos y Picuris Pueblos.  They have traveled around the world, looking and learning from buildings made out of different types of soils, what lead them to work in a series of objects 3D printed in different clays, like porcelain, terra-cotta, and recycled clay. Together, they have explored the creative potential of designing with G-code pushing 3d printers beyond what we commonly associate with a printed piece. 

Ron, your work in architecture and clay explores the areas of traditional craft of building techniques with earthen materials. Yet, you’re also exploring new projects with these same materials in additive building techniques, using 3D printing technology and craft. We would love to know more about what influenced you to start working in these earthen materials, and how your work influences the craft of traditions?   

Ron Rael: [00:10:45] I think my interest in building in mud and hay comes from what’s right behind me, which this is where I grew up on a ranch where all the houses are built as mud. And you pick up hay all summer long. And when you spend a lot of time stacking bales  and stacking mud bricks, and he realized that robots exist in the world, there’s some obvious connections  to be made.

But you said something that I was thinking about, which is how do you influence  craft traditions, maybe?  It’s by making tools is one way to do that. And we accidentally influenced the craft tradition in ceramics by inventing a tool. So about six years ago, when we started wiggling around in clay, then we made this tool and I think that’s one way that could have influences to share the tools that allow for certain kinds of ways of making to exist.

Mercedes: [00:11:39] As Ron mentioned, technology is a tool to influence craft traditions through his work, he has honored craft, by not only making tools, but also by recovering urban heritage and experimenting with materials rich in culture.  Understanding how something is made, and why it was made that  away, can lead us to learn the value of objects. Craft is a language of material, making, and provenance. Material selection plays an important role in a craft; besides mechanical attributions, materials influence the form and content of a handcraft;  and help to create an effective composition that conveys a clear message to the audience.

Mud, an element from the earth, a sticky semi-liquid mixture  of soil and water, has been used as a building material for thousands of years.  The use of mud in North America earthen architecture dates back to the indigenous Mogollon culture of 200 AD to 1450 AD . Mogollon architecture is defined by excavated pit houses and above ground adobe  structures. These ancient hand-crafted  structures inspired the design of Mud Frontiers producing a mix of Indigenous- Hispanic cultures. 

Mud Frontiers was created to explore the possibilities of mud architecture and traditional craft clay. Ron developed four mud structures and over 170 ceramics vessels by 3d printed material. This project brought together participants for these regions to collaborate and debate about the story and the future of mud.

“Hearth” is one of the structures that  stands out for the use of sticks that protrude in the outside and  join two walls together on the inside. These stunning 3D  printed buildings made of mud have a distinctive design. The advances in earthen  materials, combined with developments in additive manufacturing, could be found inside the spectrum of craft.  Ron Rael’s work in Mud Frontier is inspired by the rasquache-like way of the Mogollon’s early earthen  building practices. Mud Frontiers, use this simple material of mud and evolves the craft of earthen  architecture to a higher level using technology and new design practices. Ron is making the most with the most that he has, a similar practice of the faberge eggs. Thanks to technology applied to craft, we’re allowed to understand the material more fully.

Something that surprises us a lot is how this material, mud from the ground that we take for granted, that we walk on it, can be molded into large scale structures. What is more basic than dirt? We believe that, in the area of crafts, the selection of materials goes beyond what an object will look like and that is also focuses on the manufacture, history, and interpretation of the objects. Ron, what is the most significant difference when the material is worked by hand to  when it is made with technology? Can the same values of a material prevail if it’s made in  different ways? 

Ron Rael: [00:14:46] We’re engaging our hands quite a bit, as much as we are engaging machines and we are making machines with our hands and we are writing software that controls those machines. So there’s kind of an intimacy that I often think was lost during the industrial revolution when you’re thinking about something and then it’s off to the factory and they made a thousand times or a million times.

Those who make things are sourcing the material. They’re feeling the material there. And there’s a lot of innovation because often those technologies were sort of standardized in the way that maybe within a model of mass production.

The meaning of materials is something that’s very important and materials are, filled with what’s culture, some might call this understanding material, ecology, and others might call it material culture. That means that any material that you pick up in the world has a legacy and a provenance that extends much further than the material you’re holding in your hand. It might’ve been imported from a country very far away, it might be very, very old,  and  all those things, all those meanings have the ability to permeate the work and give the work new meaning  that’s, what’s really exciting about making things and being very conscious of the materials that you use  because then they imbue a power to that object or that thing that can can really speak and, and have a message , beyond the form of the object beyond the aesthetic of the object  the 3d printer only prints the material it’s supposed to print. But what happens when you put all kinds of other weird materials in it, or the laser cutter has five materials? I think that that’s where innovation is born.

Mercedes: [00:16:27] Ron has different approach to the  material. That is a skill that leads him to innovation in craft. His focus of working conveys not only in historical ideas, but also new ideas about the material, which turns his architectural work into something meaningful to the evolution of craft.

Penny: [00:16:46] Ron, I want to continue the conversation about craft and technology that we discussed with Leah before. In your work in particular, you were making new connections between technologists and traditional craft. What are your thoughts on the relationship between new tools and handmade crafts? 

Ron Rael: [00:17:04] There’s, some things that you can make with your hand itself, but if you hold a chisel, that elevates the craft and the chisel is the kind of technology the Potter’s wheel is a kind of technology.

It’s always an advantage to create new kinds of tools. I think what’s happening in the digital era is those tools are not always related to the hand anymore and, that’s just interesting. I think a software is a tool and it’s not related to the hand necessarily. Maybe there’s some coordination between your mouse or a stylist and program or your fingers and the words you type and how fast you can type them versus how fast you write them by using a stylist or pen or a robot there’s a disconnection there between the hand I think it’s a very different paradigm of craft that we’re witnessing and experiencing.

 Penny: [00:17:53] Making things by hand has always been a source of satisfaction for humans. Tools have aided this process, but a purist definition would exclude such objects from being called hand-made. According to Ron things might not necessarily be made entirely by hand and yet display craftsmanship, and the tools or devices that we harness to enhance our creativity or reduced physical work are only making a creative process easier and more accessible to individuals. Traditionally even handcrafts thousands of years old, such as pottery or weaving have employs some sort of tools or technology. So we should be willing to consider modern gadgets as enablers that allow us to perform and produce at levels that match our  creative output.

Susanne: [00:18:42] It is important to remember that the evolution of craft is more than exploring new materials and technology, allowing ourselves to explore the art of craft, using familiar materials and tools in ingenious, new ways, affords us the room to explore our own creative corners and the inherent beauty of resourcefulness, like in the art and craft of rasquache.

In our conversation, Ron speaks about the craft of rasquache and the potential for elegant design outcomes by using everyday materials like duct tape. 

Ron Rael: [00:19:18] There’s a lot of resourcefulness and ingenuity in this idea of rasquache , I think it’s what we do in design anyway, all the time when I tried to solve problems but the expression of it is much more raw and much less refined. And in that lack of refinement, I think there’s a real beauty to those responses, you never see a product sold with duct tape on it, but what if the design problem was that you could design something  but say, okay, you have design a computer mouse and it has to have duct tape on it. Duct tape is what you use to hold it together. Like you would start to think about all the beautiful ways and elegant ways that you could use duct tape and the lines and orientation of that material. And that could be a really beautiful project, but is it crafted? I would argue yes.

Is an elegant I would argue. Yes. I think it’s how elegantly you solve the problem, given the resources that you have in front of you. And I think most of the design, we have so many reasons resources in front of us because those who commissioned design have resources, but we don’t often work with communities or clients.

We don’t have a lot of resources and it’s in those cases that we have to be much more resourceful and And maybe use a little rasquache. 

Susanne: [00:20:48] Whether it’s Ron Rael’s exploration of additive earthen architecture or Leah Buechley’s work integrating technology into textiles, both educators establish links to cultural heritage while applying new tools and technologies along the entire spectrum of craft. 

Craft, whether made out of necessity or decoration, crafted by hand, or by programmed machines, made of clay, duct tape or gilded in gold, the through-line of craft is our inherent human need to make artifacts. Our desire to create and make objects is one of the essential traits of humanity. Our exploration of emerging tools, materials and processes will continue to advance the spectrum of craft into culturally rich and unexplored territory. 

You have just listen to “The Spectrum of Craft” from the Design Despite Disciplines podcast series. Over the course of the Spring 2021 semester, eight teams of MDes students researched, interviewed, presented and produced episodes featuring invited speakers from the colloquium. We’d like to thank Leah Buechley and Ron Rael for sharing your time and insights with our class. To learn more about debates in design and the Berkeley master of design program, visit design.berkeley.edu.