The 'smart' set's new pastime: technocrafting

A new how-to book sheds (LED) light on the modern art of combining traditional crafts such as sewing and furniture-making with state-of-the-art technology, Danny Sinopoli writes

August 30, 2008—In the fast-paced, knowledge-based economies of today, "smart" is in when it comes to design and marketing.

We have smart cars on our roads, smart homes in every neighbourhood, smart phones at our fingertips and smart foods in our refrigerators.

Now, get ready for smart crafting.

Yes, even the world of basket weavers and crochet artists is embracing the digital age, employing LED lights, conductive threads and yarns, electroluminescent inks and even fibre optics to turn out furniture, clothing, jewellery and art that is both handmade and hi-tech, steeped in tradition and ultra modern.

While it might seem odd for disciplines that embrace age-old techniques and processes to leap from hand cutting to the cutting edge, crafting has always made use of specialized, often revolutionary tools and materials, says U.S. writer Syuzi Pakhchyan, the author of a new how-to book on the subject, Fashioning Technology: A DIY Intro to Smart Crafting.

"Historically, craft has always embraced technology," she writes. "Every craft uses a unique set of technologies to shape and manipulate materials."

In the past, these technologies have included metalsmithing tools, crochet needles and sewing machines. Today, it's magnetic paint, conductive epoxy and energy-converting solar cells that provide "an excellent... renewable power source for projects."

Okay, the thought of working with solar cells may seem daunting, but it shouldn't, says Pakhchyan, whose book offers a comprehensive list of online sources for materials such as industrial felt and phosphorescent ink. In her view, working with the range of innovative tools and materials available to crafters today is no more difficult than mastering the techniques and processes of yore.

A case in point: one of the showstoppers of her book, a luminescent chipboard-and-plexiglass tea table featuring a decorative pattern coated with glow-in-the-dark ink. Although the project looks complex - the pattern absorbs sunshine during the day and emits light at night - it doesn't require any electricity to work and is basically an exercise in elementary screen-printing and Ikea-style furniture assembly.

Even the most complicated technocrafts, such as a pair of compact lo-fi mat-board travel speakers, involve nothing more elaborate than simple circuitry work and a nine-volt battery. Like all crafting guides, Pakhchyan's includes detailed tool and materials lists and easy-to-follow templates.

At the same time, it also provides a DIY entry into a style of decor that has permeated the market for a number of years now. From Kouji Iwasaki's To:Ca LED clock (which looks like a plain block of blond wood when the power is off) to Takeshi Ishiguro's collapsible Book of Lights lamp (a transformer-powered paper fixture that pops up from a book), hi-tech products that look deceptively crafty have been springing from the studios of numerous designers. Many of them, as Ishiguro and Iwasaki illustrate, hail from Japan, where robotics are a popular design tool yet traditional techniques such as silk screening and origami still hold sway. And now a growing number of North American outfits are running with the trend.

As part of its U+ studio collection, for instance, Canadian-based Umbra is offering Sativa Turner's photoart clock, a paint-by-numbers timepiece that encourages buyers to finish off its ornate floral design themselves. (A brush, paint set and instruction sheet are included.)

Toronto retailer Made, meanwhile, sells Caroline Arsenault's Crochet Lamps, sleek porcelain hanging lamps sporting incongruously cozy knitted-wool borders at their bases. Arsenault, who graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design two years ago, is a member of Joe & Josephine, a collective of seven young craftspeople whose creations mix industrial design with such lo-tech disciplines as ceramics and printmaking.

As the breadth of these crafty combos suggests, traditional arts and crafts remain popular and indeed vital in an age when the handmade and authentic are increasingly elusive. But designers are also clearly intrigued by the new and exciting technologies at their disposal. According to Pakhchyan, these two areas need not be exclusive. And she and others like her are taking their cases to crafters and consumers directly.

"Today's digital technologies," she writes in Fashioning Technology, "allow us to print our own textiles with an inkjet printer, knit arm warmers with a knitting machine and share, discover and connect through the objects of our own making with online social communities. The old is integrated with the new, resulting in innovative objects blended with rich narratives of the past and the moment."

And, one might add, of the future, too.

Tools of the technocrafting trade

PHOSPHORESCENT INKS

Materials such as inks, paints and thread that emit light after absorbing sunshine and other UV sources can be used to create luminous skins and decorative textures.

MAGNETIC PAINT

Magnetic paint is a lead-free, water-based latex primer mixed with metal particles. Use it to convert walls and furniture into magnetic surfaces.

LED LIGHTS

Common in commercial products, light-emitting diodes can now be purchased by crafters to create decorative, ambient and programmable lighting.

SOLAR CELLS

Made of a refined, highly purified form of silicon, solar cells are excellent renewable power sources and can act as light sensors.

CONDUCTIVE EPOXY

Traditionally used to repair traces on circuit boards, this conductive adhesive with copper and silver filaments is ideal for sticking components onto textiles, paper and other non-traditional materials to build circuitry.

Source: Syuzi Pakhchyan's

Fashioning Technology:

A DIY Intro to Smart Crafting

(O'Reilly, 2008).