Open Source Design

London’s design scene has been dominated by designers working with craft techniques such as knitting. This has led to a kind of fetishisation of the handmade, a strange pre-reccession moment when the market for one-off handmade design bizarrely fed into a belief amongst young designers that they could somehow knit their way to providing to society’s needs. As long as we are a society we will have mass manufacturing. There is however room for some adaptation of this phenomena. In his book The Craftsman, Richard Sennett compared the open source world of Linux favourably with the world of Fordian manufacturing and posited it as an alternative model.

Unbeknownst to Sennett individuals in Canada, Belgium and the Netherlands have been copying that very Linux model of development, by planning and building structures and furniture using an agreed set of modules. Open Structures  is perhaps the best but other more established people like Droog are thinking along these lines too. The idea is that with a basic grid of 60cm x 60cm to be built upon and a 4cm x 4cm grid for structural supports or members.  

Open Structures website shows that a number of mutually compatible design components, brackets, plates, wheel joints and structural frames have been created by an ever widening group of designers. These can then be used to create larger objects. The idea is rather than using modules created hierarchically these are created using a network. I spoke to one of the projects devisers and champions, Thomas Lommee.

How did the idea for Open Structure emerge?
I was working on a project called World House, which looked into how we can construct in a more cyclical way. Thinking of objects not as static objects but adaptable. This moved on to thinking about how could systems thinking help this cyclical society. That’s actually where the open source idea emerged from. The main intention of the whole project about how could we construct in a more cyclical way so that we don’t design and produce things that we don’t conceive them as static objects, but in fact as dynamic puzzles. I began researching modularity. You see modular systems in a hiericarchical society, of course, but I wondered how would they work in a networked sociey. I saw that if you look on the internet, that’s where open modular thinking is already taking place. Wikipedia does it with knowledge and Linux does it with coding. If you look at the Wikipedia logo, that’s a puzzle, everyone adds a piece, it could be interesting to apply this to construction. I wondered whether you could design a script or a code (a kind of shared DNA for our built environment) for products and that’s how I came to this kind of grid that you try to share.

What was your main objective?

The main objective was how to design in a more sustainable way and that led to thinking  about modularity and then that led to thinking about what modularity means in today’s world which is not a hierarchical society but a network society.  It’s a logical condsequence of what is already happening today.

How did you make the practical decision about the size of the grid?
If you are going to build a grid you are going to have to think about the dimensions of that grid. What is it going to be inches or cm? And if it is centimetres is it going to be four or five centimetres. Before I made that decision I  measured everything I could find. I wanted to build on exisitng standards so that as a user could use modules from the past as well as the future. I found that one standard that reoccurs is the square of 60cm x 60cm that is frequently used in kitchen but also in transport. If you look at what, logistical infrastucture uses the pallette is generally 120cm x 80cm. More often than not the cardboard box is 60cm x 40cm so they can fit on a pallete. This expands up to the size of the container and ultimately the ship (at a certain point I even researched if there would be a relation between the dimensions of a sugarcane and a containership .. something like a giant babushka where one always fits perfectly into the next). So if you divide that 60cm x 60cm grid down by 15 you get 4cm x 4cm.

What impact did this decision have for the practicalities of furniture design and manufacture?
This was perfect for construction of furniture because it wasn’t too small and it wasn’t too big. If the unit becomes too small the options become too random and if the unit becomes too big the options become limited. Through experiementation I found that 4cm x 4cm was a good unit. You can also divide it by two easily. 4x4cm is a good dimenion if you want to make funiture in wood but 2cm x 2cm s a tue is good for metal. Not too thick and not too thin. There are basically a bunch of reasons why 60cm x 60cm works best and these emerged out of making prototypes and trying it out and talking with people. I think to pin down these codes took around a year of testing, experimentation and discusision. This was done with other people. The University of Brussels and all kinds of people.

What is your background?
My background is in Industrial Design which I studied at the Design Academy Eindhoven. Rather than making a physical object for my thesis, I graduated with a future vision – a book which contained all kinds of ideas about the future and about how we as a society would relate to the network, about the interrelations that could emerge between hardware and software, 3D and 2D. This was in 2002. Afterwards I started at a graphic design agency – and was generally working on how to use graphics to communciate ideas. I worked thefore 4 or 5 years and then I joined the Institute Without Bourndaries in 2006. They had just been working on the Massive Change project with Bruce Mau, but I worked on the World House project with them. I did some research in post-graduate capacity for about one year. This refined my scope towards systems thinking. I began thinking not only about the ojbect, but also the service, and the interaction between the software and hardware of design and archtiecture as it where.

 What methods are you emplying to try and attract people to using the system? 
Actually I don’t. My ambition in the whole process is understand the network as well as is possible. The best way is to work with it. By doing this project, by inviting people I know and by making prototypes, it is making me understand how a community functions, how networks function. One of the things I learned within a network socitety is that if an idea is good, it will be picked up. It’s a more organic process. It’s more interesting to observe and follow how this idea is eveolving. I am not making the recipe, I’m designing the kitchen so other people can cook.

How did you test this idea of a network initially?
The first thing I did was ask people around me, personal friends working in the field of design and architecture. People who make things, a friend of mine has a bike shop for example and he is super handy. I asked other people from all different fields to contribute in 2008 so we could make our first presentation in 2009. I gave them a grid and asked them to do things. They came back with different objects and these were exhibited. There was then interest from design schools in Belgium and Holland. I came in and gave it to the students and they worked with it. I think the tutors like to see how they could experiment with this way of thinking. And actually at this point, the thing travelled and began to take on a life.

What are the plans for the next stage?
I decided to take all the objects apart and make a physical data base of them. The next step will be to make a small physical space in Brussels where people can come and puzzle with the parts and maybe make new parts,. So next to the online database of objects there will be a physical space. It is an update of a second hand store, providing not just objects but component and parts. This is my interest now. Think around this system. What kind of new public spaces will emerge? What kind of distribution networks will it need. It makes it more tangible.

Are people uploading stuff?
It happens but not very often. At this point, it’s not that the stysme is alinve and working, it’s not alive and generating it’s own economy. I am not sure if we are going to get there. I hope so. It’s more of a questions than an answer. It poses the question ‘can this kind of system work?’ rather than saying that this how we will make things in the future

The value of the whole experiement is to show people how to approach things diferently. It’s a different way of thinking firstly but of course I would think it was great if it grew from an idea that was shown in galleries, to a system which people used to make things. I thought that this showed the real value of centres for art and architeture (e.g. Z33 in Belgium and Stroom, Den Haag, they gave me a lot of structural support in the early stages of the project) as well, this is where ideas can get the oxygen they need to develop. I would love it if the idea sprawled into society.

 What is your ambition for the project both in the short term and the long term?
In the short term my hope is to better understand the network. My long term ambition is in a way I suppse to alter the relationship between user and object. If we now see objects as static monoliths, I could imagine a world where objects become more modular so you look at it and you don’t say, ‘I like it’ or ‘Idon’t like it,’ but you say ‘how do we alter it so that we would like it, so that it would become useful for us’. I am interested in the idea that you see an object in the street and you take it home, take it apart, and salvage pieces. A modular networked system of design would generate an incentive to use, to update and adapt. And to become more involved rather than just consuming an object, and throwing it away when it breaks down.

It facilitates the user and encourages him or her to interact with it, to use it, to exchange parts, to stimulate conversations. If I don’t ned a part I can give it to someone else., so I can see a way for micro-economies to be generated. It is also a good start for younger designers because you don’t have to creat a full modular sysetm. Previously a system was closed and if I was a young designer I would have to design the whole system. You don’t have to deisgn a whole stysem now you are contributing one part and creating one of the micro-ecnomies of a larger system. 


About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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