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Highly communicative objects

Kate Foster
Simple interfaces might save us time - but they also hide secrets. We spoke to two makers about their seamful, handmade designs

Milton Glaser, designer of the iconic ‘I heart NY’ logo, once said: “To design is to communicate clearly by whatever means you can control or master”. Donald Norman’s 1988 The Design of Everyday Things – the design industry’s bible - extends the sentiment, asserting that design serves as the communication between object and user.

Since then, user-centred has design emerged as the language of creating, as epitomised by the iPhone revolution with its smooth user interfaces. But as Libertine’s Kate Mew observed in ‘The Used Future Manifesto, in attempting to become seamless, design became closed and secretive. This probably wasn’t what Glaser and Norman had in mind.

The fact is, user-centred design isn’t seamless by default. A new swathe of designers argue that it’s the seamful-ness of their work – applying traditional, familiar skills in new fields to create highly communicative objects whose crafting tells a story – that makes their products authentically user-centred. It’s an approach that doesn’t just foster communication between user, designer and object, but dialogue, they argue.

New traditions

Caren Hartley trained at the Royal College of Arts as a jewellery designer and later worked as a sculptor on large public art projects. A dedicated commuter-cyclist, she decided to have a crack at building her own bike frame to her own specification. She liked it so much, she founded Hartley Cycles, creating bespoke, handmade frames.

The shift from jewellery to bicycles seemed like a natural progression. “I love working with metal. I understand it.” While Hartley acknowledges she has plenty to learn, her background in the aesthetic and the intricate brings something new to the workbench. “I approach it differently because I have a different skillset. I’m coming at it from a maker’s point of view rather than an engineer…there’s more beauty, little flourishes, more things by hand.”


Porkeur Hartley, photography by Sebastien Klein

Form and function

Hartley’s bikes are already winning her plaudits for both form and function (which she insists are a steady 50/50 in her book). Her elegant trademark Art Deco solid silver motif is brazed onto each frame, whose constituent parts have been painstakingly tweaked to a matter of millimetres to ensure everything performs for its eventual rider.

Bespoke design, of course, necessitates lengthy dialogue with the user, taking into account likes, dislikes and needs. Hartley’s just completed a special commission, her first all-terrain “fat bike” (“the wheels are huge and the forks need to clear them…but I still wanted it to look nice”), and relishes the problem-solving aspects of her adopted craft. “For me, it’s nice for [building frames] to have parameters, because in fine art there are no parameters. That was daunting.”


Photography by Jim Holland

Maker movement

Hartley relates closely to the Maker movement, citing her desire to “make things you use, that you’ll build a relationship with”. Helen Bakunowicz, another maker, trained and began her career as a textile designer in Italy and New York before returning to London to work as a colour and trend forecaster. On moving to the West Country she founded The Bakemonger, where she applies her obsession with texture and colour to baking, creating sculptural and fantastical cakes that wouldn’t look out of place in an art gallery.

Bakunowicz is adamant that food isn’t exempt from progressive design principles. She applies them rigorously, teaching herself new techniques in chocolate tempering, fruit and vegetable dehydration, edible gilding and baking to create objects that are not only multi-textural and visually arresting, but tell a seasonal story and taste incredible. She cites her trends background as pushing her “to forge ahead creatively.”


3D tapestries

Taking prompts from seasonal and cultural themes, Bakunowicz create cakes that resonate with the here-and-now. Last year’s greatest hit a was Frozen-inspired, towering multi-layer blueberry creation encased in shards pale blue ‘edible glass’. “What I make now links back closely to the textiles I used to make. I was always interested in using modern materials—like new types of yarn made of cork or leather—and the more I experiment with baking, the closer it gets to those kinds of 3D tapestries.”

“So many art forms are transitory or impermanent installations. Why can’t edible objects be art? Why shouldn’t cakes be found in an art gallery?”


Seamful design

While Bakunowicz talks of her love for alchemic visual themes, there’s no secrecy in what she creates and how she creates it. An exuberant, lifelike daffodil is, at second glance (or first bite) gently dehydrated mango. As intricate as her food tapestries are, each element is recognisable.

The same can be said of Hartley’s bespoke bicycle frames. There’s no secret in the detail. The newly learned skills Hartley has applied – sometimes from blog posts or YouTube videos shared by the small but burgeoning bespoke bicycle community – evolve the design, too. Hartley will share what she’s learned with other frame builders over time.

This strikes me as design at its best. Function, form and openness in equal measure. You could, if you so chose, deconstruct each constituent part, see how it works and put it back together again. Or you could just enjoy it.

I think Milton Glaser would heart that.

Kate Foster is a Somerset-based writer and tweets far too much as @ginandting.

Image gallery, #1: Porkeur Fork Crown, photography by Sebastien Klein; #2: Hartley Cycles workshop, photography by Ollie Hammick; #3: Frozen cake, The Bakemonger

You could, if you so chose, deconstruct each constituent part, see how it works and put it back together again



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