Design for download: an interview with Eventarchitectuur’s Herman Verkerk

Box-o-rama by Eventarchitectuur is one of the furniture pieces that will be available via Make Me - Droog's online platform for downloadable design which is expected to launch by the end of 2011.

Herman Verkerk and Tal Erez of Dutch architecture and design firm Eventarchitectuur pride themselves on their open and collaborative approach to design, a philosophy that led the studio to be chosen as one of the first to design for Droog’s new project – design for download (read an interview with Droog’s Agata Jaworska about the project here).
Vogue Living spoke to Herman Verkerk  about how design for download changes the role of the designer and why he thinks it is important to open up the design process to consumers for ‘Complete Fabrication’ , a story within Vogue Living Sept/Oct 2011.

Vogue Living: Prior to design for download, had Eventarchitectuur invited consumers to participate in the design process of other projects?

Herman Verkerk: Yes. I work in close collaboration with Tal Erez, I am also a teacher at the Design Academy Eindhoven, and that is where I met him, and he did a thesis on how design would change through, for example 3D printing and other ways of manufacturing. We did a project in 2010 focused on the design of a cupboard system that could be changed and adapted by the customer. This adaptability was long-term in that the user could take it with them to another place and rearrange it. So that was kind of the start for us thinking about open design. Basically we are interested in how downloadable design changes the whole interdependency between designers, manufacturers and clients and provides new opportunities.

VL: With that first project, did consumers customise the design for themselves via a digital program like in the Droog project?

HV: No the product was complete and then you could change it – it was about adaptability and the mobility of the pieces as opposed to downloadable design. You could build any kind of stuff from the components of the design. You could build a cupboard, but you could also build a desk, or a table or a chair, so it was really a little bit like Lego. Droog saw that project and asked us to participate in the downloadable design project because they saw that we had an interest in investigating open or collaborative design more.

Click on the image above to see details of how Droog's digital platform for downloadable design will operate.

VL: What do you and Tal perceive your role to be in an open design project? Are you still the designers or is there another term that you think is more appropriate?

HV: I think it’s more that we develop design tools that the customer can work with to finish the design. So our role is maybe less about control and more about facilitating design by the customer.

We would stress that we do not want people to be disappointed. So the level of design of the structure should be very simple and that’s why we work initially with two-dimensional shapes and take them into three dimensions. Basically we control the aesthetics or the spatial qualities. We don’t say anything about the materials or about the colouring. That should be left to the customer. We would also be happy to serve as an open platform for collaboration, so that the customers can also exchange their ideas. We are interested in consumers maybe taking over part of the design process because we see that a whole lot of things are being made and they don’t really fit the customer’s needs. There’s a lot of over production and I think its maybe more to the point if a customer can or would like to make decisions and customize a design to suit them, that he or she is able to do that.

VL: What about open design and the issue of aesthetics? Is it possible for someone to create something ugly using your interface? How do you as designers control aesthetics?

HV: We can’t control the final look, but can control the spatial quality or the spatial aesthetics – how it relates to a room or the surroundings and that’s basically our design quality. What we leave to the customer is really this really this freedom of interpreting this system.

VL: What else is different about design for download to designing more conventionally produced products?

HV: Basically what we learnt is that you really have to interact with who is making the web design or the interface for the project.

VL: And that was Studio Ludens?

HV: Yes. They are product designers and they have developed quite specific skills and changed their discipline to be able to design online tools for design. That’s what I find very interesting about open design platforms, there’s possibility for all kinds of new disciplines, designers can also become manufacturers, for example. Or maybe someone within another profession could become a manufacturer because a manufacturing company can be located in a small space, you don’t need a lot of equipment for these new digital technologies. It is all those things we really find quite interesting to be part of and to be part of this change.

VL: Your first design for download pieces were shown at an exhibition during Milan Design Week in April, visitors were able to modify and customise your designs using a computer program within the exhibition space. Were you surprised by the way people adapted the original designs – did they change them in ways that you perhaps wouldn’t have thought of yourself?

HV: What we found was that the design audience in Milan used the program to take design to extremes, for example they would manipulate a design so it would become only one box within a very big cupboard and those types of things that make it very interesting. People seemed to be looking for the limits of the system.

VL: Does the potential of downloadable designs to be more environmentally sustainable in their systems and delivery part of what prompted your interest in this area?

HV: Yes for sure. For instance just think of transport, if a manufacturer for downloadable design is located in an area local to a consumer then the need to transport the objects over long distances and maybe also the storage of the objects disappears. It is also more sustainable in the sense that consumers are able to produce what they need instead of there being over production and this complete abundance of consumer choice that actually is not necessary.

Another motivation for us was to question the emphasis in the design industry on the star designer and the way that design is often about luxury goods or extreme luxury. Nearly all downloadable design is about democratisation of design, these kind of projects draw attention to the fact that designing is about teamwork and show consumers the way designs are developed.

Pieces for Box-o-rama being cut using a Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) cutter.

VL: You were saying you and Tal are interested in the positive impact that new systems like this could have for manufacturers and designers, what benefit might a manufacturer accrue by producing products designed for download?

HV: Design for download creates a direct link between the customer and the manufacturer and sometimes of course the customer is the manufacturer. I think that with CNC cutting and also 3D printing there is the possibility that if you were to invest a little bit of money you could become a manufacturer of downloadable design objects, without a lot of knowledge about the wood or any kind of material you could start a manufacturing business. That’s what I find very interesting and in the States it is already happening, people are using old garages to begin small manufacturing businesses in suburban or urban areas.

VL: So you see downloadable design potentially facilitating a return to local manufacturing?

HV: Yes. Absolutely.

VL: Most designers are very protective of their ideas and have strong ideas about the ownership of ideas and would find it difficult to relinquish control over a product. How do your peers respond when you tell them about your projects for Droog and how you are trying to make consumers collaborators in the design process?

HV: They’re really sarcastic because they seem to need the mysticism around the design discipline. I understand where that desire comes from but I totally disagree. I think a design’s quality exists in how it is perceived and how it’s used. From the start of my design career I was really aware that the customer finishes the product and that’s always the case.

Some of the configurations of the Box-o-rama shelving system that it is possible for customers to create using Droog's software for downloadable design

VL: When you were designing Box-o-rama and other downloadable designs for Droog, did you create prototypes and experiment with configurations of the designs in the real world?

HV: Absolutely and that process was important, we found out that for example, with Box-o-rama you need a certain amount of legs when you stretch the design out or it won’t work. So we then had to build in all these kind of rules about the legs into the program. We did this of course through trial and error, so by building physical prototypes we could through trial and error ensure that manufactured pieces weren’t a disappointment by adding rules into the program to prevent them from failing. Our role really is to check the tools. We create the tools but we also have to make sure they’re ready to make all these kind of possibilities available.

VL: You experimented with physical prototypes, does that mean you still create sketches on paper as opposed to just designing via computer programs?

HV: Yes. I think that design for download is really about what you can communicate through digital media and design. It’s really a link between the very tactile world of the object and the digital communication tools. So while the designs are developed in the digital realm their form doesn’t necessarily represent the digital media in itself. The products tend to look a little bit handcrafted. People end up with a very physical and maybe even archetypal result

VL: What materials can products designed for download be produced in?

HV: There’s no limit. There’s glass, ceramics, plastics and metal…

VL: Although you won’t be dealing directly with the manufacturers of your pieces, did knowledge of manufacturing processes still inform your designs for download?

HV: Yes of course. It’s in our blood. It’s the way we were trained. That’s the first thing that we investigated. We looked at all these manufacturing techniques that use digital blue prints to see how communication of the design to the end of the line works. We made sure that we could anticipate the outcome.

You need that expertise in manufacturing I think to design for download. I think that is one of the things that is really necessary, so as a designer you have a knowledge of aesthetics and how things work with gravity. Also you need to know the manufacturing hierarchy and the follow up order, that you make one piece first and then the other and then you connect them. So there is a kind of hierarchy also in how things are going to be connected. And that’s of course something that we still take into account when we offer downloadable design.

The pieces in the Box-o-rama shelving system laid out for assembly. It was an aim of the project to it possible for consumers to assemble their own design on delivery.

VL: If someone was putting it together a product themselves or taking it to a manufacturer, what would the blue prints that they would be send look like? Would you get sent files or a booklet of instructions?

HV: It’s a physical file. It’s really a digital drawing with actual form size, thickness and all this stuff. Maybe even you have a plate size and you would be able to put the different parts on the plate size you know those kind of economic things.

VL: And should people if they get these pieces cut using those files should they be able to then assemble something like a bookcase fairly easy?

HV: Yes, they could screw it together themselves. That’s basically our wish. So it’s just with a little bit of glue and they are connected. The instructions will contain instructions on the order in which the product is put together, like Lego when you were a child you would have this manual to make a castle, for example.

VL: What do you see as the essential and important difference between Droog’s design for download project and other websites and production platforms for open design like Shapeways, for example?

HV: For me I wasn’t interested in what I saw on those sites. I think Droog’s program provides you with something that is quite physical and simple and doesn’t deviate that much from the thing you normally buy or need. I think that other websites are often based around gadgets and producing stuff that you actually don’t need.

We wanted to normalise design for download and make these new media and manufacturing techniques and production systems usable for the general public.

VL: Thanks Herman for your time.

To read more about downloadable design and digital fabrication technologies read ‘Complete Fabrication’ a story within Vogue Living Sept/Oct 2011.

Interview: Madeleine Hinchy
Photographs: Eventarchitectuur

2 Responses to “Design for download: an interview with Eventarchitectuur’s Herman Verkerk”
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  1. […] technologies read ‘Complete Fabrication’ a story within Vogue Living Sept/Oct 2011. Visit here to read an interview with Eventarchitectuur’s founder Herman […]

  2. […] Vogue Living also interviewed designer Herman Verkerk of Eventarchitectuur. Read the article here. […]

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