Our dear Emily was recently contacted by a graduate student that interviewed me several months back as part of his thesis research. She read the forwarded transcript and was prompted to remark, “You know, as much as I’ve heard you speak over the past six years, this is probably the most interesting stuff you’ve said.” Of course, this registers as one of the finer back-handed compliments I’ve been served in quite some time. The cockles of my heart are duly warmed!
So without further ado, here is an excerpt from the interview:
This is an abridged transcript of a conversation between Nikolas Weinstein and Aaron Willette, a graduate student in the Masters of Science in Architecture, Digital Technologies, and Material Systems program at the University of Michigan on February 20, 2012.
Aaron Willette: In your work does the tool become an active player in the design process? I’m personally interested in the idea of machines and software participating in the design process rather than just being a production tool.
Nikolas Weinstein: We’re a top-down as well as bottom-up practice. By that I mean we usually don’t try and figure out what we can make for a space based on what we already know how to do. I’d say design is the principal driver. But at the same time it’s an iterative process where we’ll come up with an idea and then try and figure out how to make it; the technological constraints and possibilities push back and change the design and it keeps going back and forth.
Frei Otto is an obvious example of someone designing and doing a lot of monkeying around in the studio, trying things and letting the design evolve based on what he’s learned. That’s probably a pretty good description for how we work here. I obviously like technology a lot and we use it here a lot, but the technology is not really a part of the final piece. It allows the final artworks to be produced but it’s not a subject of the finished sculptures.
I’d say that here the way that the technology plays itself out is that the final pieces are expressions of the problems we find interesting. If we come up with or encounter a weird process or a cool mistake we’ll try to understand it better and play with it. To that extent the technology drives some of the design, but it’s really secondary. A very important element, but still secondary.
AW: Your studio is the only precedent we’ve been able to find for someone doing similar work with these [types] of technologies.
NW: There’s a company called North Sail that does stuff like this and there are technical precedents in the auto industry for forming windshields with a type of pin mold.
AW: At what level do you personally engage with the technology in the design process?
NW: When we were a smaller shop and everyone was less competent, I was more principally involved throughout the whole project. Now that we have a strong team and they know my shtick, a lot of the projects are informed more by whom I have working for me than the technologies I’m interested in. The projects tend to develop around core competencies. If we’re strong at one point in a mechanical mode of thinking, the projects tend to develop around solutions that are mechanical. If we’re strong in coding, a lot of the solutions will tend to develop around that. We’re usually doing a couple of projects at once so the structure of the studio is probably more like a traditional professional arts studio where you’ll have a design director, like me who articulates the aesthetic intent and technical approach, and project managers, who help the project through logistics and completion.
AW: Now that you’ve invested the time to develop and explore these digital processes, how often are you or your team working without them?
NW: Most of the processes that we come up with are never completely controlled solutions and I’m not really interested in creating completely controlled solutions. As a designer, I don’t find the idea of developing an idea and then exactly producing it overly interesting. I’m not interested in making projects that are exactly rendered in the computer and then exactly expressed. For example, technologies like rapid prototyping don’t interest me beyond their use to make a component to work with. I tend to think of most of the projects we do as setting up a sculptural ecosystem along with the rules that govern that ecosystem.
It’s helpful to think of it like a closed terrarium where there are some basic laws of physics and a couple of different organisms that you lock up in a box. Once you’ve defined those parameters, you control the rules of the game but you don’t control what the outcome is. However, I’m not interested in it in the same way that Brian Eno or John Cage would be interested in it. I don’t find the idea of random play interesting in itself.
In 19th century literature, there was a school called Naturalism where you would choose your characters and consider their attributes – —the novel itself was putting those characters…. Click here to read the full transcript.