On craft in modern times with Nicholas O’Donnell-Hoare

Nicholas O’Donnell-Hoare is a graduate of Goldsmiths’ MA in Design: Critical Practice who has returned as a visiting tutor; this summer, he will run “Processes of Making”, a short craft-oriented course for the Design department at Goldsmiths, alongside another Goldsmiths MA graduate, Rebecca Steiner. (You can read more about the course and enroll here.) We thought this would be a good moment to get to know him better, so here we are with an interview of him! Nicholas has agreed to chat with us about his work with the multidisciplinary design group Saint-H, his guiding principles and the meaning and changes of craft in contemporary times. Nicholas is very committed to ecology and sustainability in his practice, and believes that design is capable of overturning the contemporary consumer culture from the inside in a more responsible direction.

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Q: Can you give some examples of ways in which design can sneak “trojan horses” of sustainability into our lives? How can we convey the importance of ecology and thinking long-term through design to the average consumer, who is living in the now?

A: It kind is of the golden question. UNEP (The United Nations Environment Agenda) disclosed a while back that marketing has fundamentally failed the sustainable agenda, which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. We have become numb to marketers’ unbelievably efficient advertising. Conveying the importance of ecology and thinking long term is, I believe, routed in education and disruptive technologies working for sustainability. Trojans in design do not have to be sneaky; their agenda should be transparent, but they can be disruptive and pick apart a system from the inside out for the better. This is something which rarely happens. Think about what iTunes did to the CD.

Q: What is Saint H, how did it start and what does it do differently from other design groups?

A:Saint H believes down to our core in working for positive social and environmental change through clever design. As a multidisciplinary team, we all met at Goldsmiths on the Masters in Design and Critical Practice course. We are bound by friendship and common goals to do better for our world. As readers of different areas of research from typography, technology and ecology to dystopian sci fi, we embody critical theory in our every step along the way and listen to those who know best.

Q: If you had to choose only one project of yours to present yourself, what would it be? What are you most proud of?

A: Our Trojan Egg project, proposed to the Microsoft Research Labs in 2010, has so far been the most successful in demonstrating how new technology can work with us to make food networks more transparent. It is intended to encourage accountability in farming practices as well as to find ways of bringing information to the consumer via mobile technology. The blend of agriculture with digital culture centers around a traceability system, enabling the consumer to make ethical choices. Let’s take eggs for instance… We propose to print a BEETAG on the egg that, when scanned with a mobile phone, gives access to the Trojan Egg portal. In our portal, consumers can see in real time and immediately where their food is produced, by whom, and under which conditions. We aim to help busy consumers in making enlightened choices on the spot, bringing them virtually to the producer.

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Craft in the 21st Century

Q: I was intrigued by your use of 3D printing in jewelry design. How does 3D printing (which we perceive as “machine-made”) fit in with craft (handmade, one-of-a-kind, etc)?

A: 3D printing is changing the face of craft, I strongly feel 3D printing should be there to improve what our hand can do, rather than replace. It’s an extension of our hand.

You can still make one of a kind, and potentially, 3D printing changes the way we understand ‘one of a kind’ where customizable objects allow everything to be one of a kind. But it not going to be easy to better the great jewelry masters with new tech, there is something wonderful that comes with handmade objects which just can’t be replaced.

Craft is making something with skill. Counter to what many people, especially hard core handmade types think, I actually believe craft breaches in the coding, engineering and teaching, to name a few. It’s not the process that matters to others, it’s the ‘making’ specifically, whereas I’m interested in the process.

Q: In fact, while we’re at it- what does craft mean in contemporary times?

A: It’s a big question… What does it to mean to you? I guess that’s the most important bit.

Craft is a process. It means the same today as it did at the beginning. We add tools the area which craft covers which progresses what is possible. The most interesting part about craft in contemporary times is that technology is moving at a fast pace, so new disciplines are being added to the craft umbrella.

Q: The items most associated with your name on the web are the Tapestry spectacles, which can be customized by the user by weaving colored wool into the 3D-printed frames. Do you think there’s commercial potential for this kind of items that require active collaboration from the customer?

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A: Yes, that’s the idea. We give them the frames and the customers deploy their own craft onto the glasses. In my and Chloe McCormick’s eyes (Chloe is Nick’s collaborator on this project), these glasses demonstrate exactly what we have been talking about. It’s collaboration between technology and people. The technology involved in the glasses is only there to push where tapestry can be applied. After these glasses were designed, you will notice people have started designing cross stich mobile phone cases and other creations which force the user to deploy a craft to add their own personal touch on their items.

Processes of Making

Q: What attracts you to the environment at Goldsmiths- where you have returned as a visiting lecturer after studying for an MA?

A: It’s a great place to explore ideas and have conversations about hard hitting topics. The people that are around all the time have always got something to contribute to a discussion. People are not afraid of taking on big ideas and there is a fantastic community of thinkers and doers.

Q: How did the idea for the summer short course start? What kind of students are you expecting and what should they expect to gain from the course?

A: Coming from a craft background myself, and now having a carrier in technology based ideas, I can see both sides of the topic, which makes this course pretty unique. I was asked to put together some ideas for a summer course. We discussed all the areas, which we wish we had been taught, and areas which are only on offer at Goldsmiths. Importantly, we spoke about what we need as creative to have a fulfilling carrier. We then bent the rules of what you can do, in order to produce a course of such high value in craft that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else.

We really want a wide range of students. This course isn’t just for jewelers, weavers and ceramicists. It’s for designers, coders and everyone else who would like to explore their own discipline within the realm of craft.

Tools are not always physical either, so building your own tools is a super exciting area, when making your own tools and understanding others allows you to really making something with skill.

We really want people to leave with a critical understanding of their discipline and be able to take a tool kit away with them which can help them further themselves and their own practice as a whole.

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