In a couple weeks, on November 13th, I will be giving a class on how to make fruit bowls from old license plates.  It is planned and organized by Dabble, an internet startup located right here in Chicago,  and will be held at the ReBuilding Exchange, at the corner of Ashland and Webster.  Dabble provides a platform for experts in any field to design, pitch, and deliver a class on just about anything.  They have a full slate of lectures and demonstrations on how to brew beer, make pasta, speak in public, build your online business, and get in shape.  It is a  great idea for a start-up, connecting audiences with folks who have something to share.

In 2008, with the acquisition of my first road sign, I started experimenting with home-brew metal-bending techniques.  Sheet metal, mostly aluminum or thin-gauge steel, is typically manipulated with a brake.  However, breaks are big, heavy machines and cost quite a bit, especially box-and-pan brakes, which allow you to make more complex, 3-D shapes.  So, my first attempts revolved around drilling a series of 3/8" holes, 1" on center, then beating the signs into the desired shape with a rubber mallet.  To hold the folds, I pinned them in place with machine bolts.  I made chairs, tables, and fruit bowls this way.  However, it was a laborious process that burned through drills, bits, and my back.  Each fruit bowl, at only 10" x 15", required 62 holes.

The Nine Square Chair, my first road-sign experiment.


Lost Places

Recently, I read a fascinating article in Design Observer, by photographer Brian Ulrich.  After September 11th, capitalizing on the rare mood of national unity, President Bush urged Americans to go shopping to help boost the economy.  In the short term, our dollars would provide the overall economy, tax revenues, and GDP with a bump; however, in the long term, we were only stealing from ourselves.  The growth of the consumer economy since WWII has led to surreal outcomes: the "standard of living" keeps increasing, but real wealth, savings, and exports keep decreasing.  

Bush's mistake was calling for an era of greater consumption rather than the shared sacrifice of thrift that had characterized the home front in previous conflicts.  That consumption compounded our problems -- all that stuff Bush was urging us to go buy was made overseas, shipped here on a river of oil pumped out of countries that don't have our best interests in mind.  We ended up in debt.  Obviously, many other things contributed to that debt, but at its core, that argument -- we can spend our way out of a depression -- is a fallacy.  It's like an alcoholic saying he can drink his way out of drinking.  

Ulrich has documented this phenomenon through photographs of abandoned shopping malls, dead department stores, and isolated, vacant houses.  Each image is an eerie note, held a little too long, slowly fading into silence.  Part of the reason I found them so compelling is that they stood out in this era of "disaster porn", as the internet is flooded with haunting images of abandoned buildings in decaying cities.  Many come from the burgeoning field of urban exploration, wherein folks explore old subway tunnels and shuttered mental hospitals.  While these pictures are beautiful, they all blur together after awhile.  Ulrich has documented a specific piece of the recession, illustrating a larger point about the illusory nature of our economy.  

My own disaster porn, taken at the old abandoned chicken factory in Greensboro, AL.


Alley Walkin'

I've long been a walker, hiking all over the eastern seaboard and the Appalachian Trail as a kid.  It is a slow, exploratory, head-clearing exercise, allowing one to experience the world at a human pace and a human scale, unfiltered by car windows or unnatural speed.   

As long as I can remember walking, I can remember taking shortcuts.  It never seemed logical to me as a child to follow sidewalks if I didn't have to.  For one thing, the street I grew up on didn't have sidewalks, leaving me at the mercy of cars cutting through our neighborhood to avoid traffic elsewhere.  Walking also allows a freedom that cars can't match -- your feet can take you on the straightest urban line, exploiting the gaps and seams of public space.  

Chicago is a city of alleys, providing a service network that keeps cars off the streets and trash from accumulating in front of buildings.  Several people have commented on this since I've moved here, pointing out with pride that Chicago is so much cleaner than New York.  It also means that people leave great volumes of useable stuff out in the alleys, a boon to a practiced dumpster-diver like myself.  All of the appliances and metal trash is immediately scooped up by a competitive, hard-hustling population of scrappers, who comb the alleys with shopping carts, trucks, and bikes in search of metal they can recycle.

This past weekend, I undertook some low-level urban exploration, wandering the alleys of my neighborhood for about two hours, perusing the garbage, checking out the fantastic garage-roof decks, and collecting some pictures of the resources available.  I hope to make a regular practice of this photographic hunting, and post some of the prizes here.  

Proof, contrary to some commenting critics, that milk crates exist, free for the taking, without stealing them from behind stores.


Open Source Design

In 2008, near the end of my time at Arcosanti, I was searching the web for some directions on how to make kombucha, a fermented tea some of my roommates were making, claiming great health benefits.  One of the first links in the search engine was a site called Instructables, a place where you could put up a short, photo-illustrated journal about a project and how someone might replicate it.  I quickly forgot about fermenting tea and delved into their furniture section, which was full of innovative, home-grown chairs, tables, and shelves.  

Instructables was cooked up at Squid Labs, a think tank that spun off of the MIT Media Lab, a famous incubator of new ideas.  Eric Wilhelm and Saul Griffith developed a number of new technologies and concepts there, one of which was a free, open-source website for sharing instructions on how to do just about anything.  In 2005, Instructables went online, crowd-sourcing innovation from swarms of tech-oriented tinkerers.  Articles there are published under a Creative Commons Copyright license, which states that the content creator allows anyone to use their work for free as long as they are credited.  This idea runs counter to the whole body of copyright law, which is primarily concerned with preserving the profitability of content creators, and therefore incentivizing innovation and artistry.

I was a perfect fit for Instructables: my projects had no value to be protected under copyright or patent as they weren’t necessarily blindingly original; none of the technology or techniques used were proprietary or new; and they served me best as a tool to publicize my work.  In other words, the product itself wasn’t as inherently valuable as the idea of the product; the value lay strictly in it being consumed as information by the world.  

My first Instructable, the Flagman Table.