Design, Individuality and Manufacturing

It seems really interesting to me the kind of macro-trends in styling that happen over time and how style really boils down to functions of manufacturing capabilities. I guess what I am getting at is that it seems the looks of things are really being driven by process more than anything else. This has brought on a really interesting arc.

The story seems to start out at the time when most items were really hand crafted. In this instance, I mean really made-by-hand manufacturing  – not what kind of passes as ‘hand-crafted’ nowadays. There were actually people making each one of whatever with essentially hand tools or something slightly larger. What is great about hand-made items is that it lends very easily to customization and embellishment. If you wanted something to fit only you or made in just a certain way, you could get it – within the capabilities of the craftsmen you’d have available.

When the industrial revolution finally worked its way through most of the industries, customization was wiped out but on balance, we all received far better products in trade. While we gained quality and interchangeable parts, we also lost quite a bit of artistry and personalization as it cost more to increase the complexity. Of course, there were other factors, we had trends like streamlining of the Art Deco years and so forth to add to the mix.

Luckily, modernism kind of took over, and fomented this state of styling cleanliness. I think manufacturers and designers also figured out that ‘modern’ could also be cost-effective (rather than modern being made *to be* cost-effective), so things moved toward cheap while being swaddled in ‘modern’ for quite some time.

Angularity was the flavor of the time. Angles are easier to draw and machine than curves  – especially compound ones. While everything was produced by machines, both the drawings and the tooling was still made by hand. It was hard and time-consuming to make complex shapes. Things got square. Products became a function of stacking and bracketing components together. Artistry and personality took a back seat to manufacturing efficiency.

Then, we discovered the wonder of computers. While they, as a product, never really felt the change, the computer allowed us to design things and control machines to make far more complex shapes. CAD programs and CNC made it possible to create the tooling for sensuous curves and more ergonomic shapes. The system allowed us to remove curve transitions, hide parting lines and generally work toward nearly seamless product orbs.

Well, what happens now? It seems that these very same tools are helping us move toward customization and intricacy once again – and away from our one-size-fits-all manufacturing world. Only this time, they will also give us the speed and capability to customize and detail at nearly the speed of mass production. Any shape we can think of (and even many that we can’t, like these great columns by Michael Hansmeyer, below) can be made easily in a one-off or short run scenario now without the all of the need for expensive tradespeople or the need for large factories.

Granted this little foray I just walked you through is certainly watered down, I think that these new capabilities will bring back the want for intricacy and detail that was strained out by large-scale manufacturing. Many call this mass customization but I think it will lead far past where this term ends. I think it could usher in a time of vast artistry where the clean modern world will seem dull in comparison to the individuality that will take its place.


One Reply to “Design, Individuality and Manufacturing”

  1. Incredible looking columns, rich in detail, sensuous forms, organic structure resembling crystal or stalactite formations. Reminds me of columns designed by Alfredo Gaudi in Spain, from the Art Deco styling, but in architecture he broke away from the mold, decades ahead of his time. Fascinating how we’re coming back to that & I’m loving it ! But more important that that, these intricate shapes have a way of attracting people’s attention much in the same way that nature fascinates human beings …

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