In a mixed economy, craft and mass production co-exist. We make different considerations when looking at both, although most of us are happy for them to be together: a handmade vase on an Ikea table. There is a relationship between these market concepts that has often been challenged, but perhaps not with such depth and breadth as with PostlerFerguson.
Martin Postler and Ian Ferguson met in 2005 while studying at the ICA. They had both been working in industry prior to their studies, in industrial design and architecture respectively, so had a shared understanding of why they were back in school. They also share a love of food. "Probably the first glimmers of mutual professional respect came when I noticed he had a copy of Larousse Gastronomique on his desk at school and he noticed that I knew what it was without seeing the cover."
After graduation in 2007, they were both invited to exhibit at Designersblock, deciding to combine their work into one show, The future on your plate. It was Chinese homewares producer Puzhen and creative publisher Gestaltlen that helped to get the business in motion; Puzhen hired the duo to design a new range of products, and Gestaltlen invited them to produce a full range of paper gun kits, following on from Postler's graduation work, a paper AK47. The new kit, a full-scale anti-aircraft gun, premiered at the Death Machines exhibition at Notting Hill's Craze Gallery, where fellow designers and artists were invited to customise the copied items. It's the play between two extremes, between industrialisation and craft, that profoundly influences the duo's work: Cafe Sonja, a new piece, is an entire cafe that can fit into aeroplane baggage.
Paper Oerlikon, 2008
Death Machines is, to Ferguson, "... about the balance between our attraction to a lifetime of exposure to iconic images of guns, the perfection of their design from a performance perspective, and then the unease you feel when you actually hold the assembled, 1:1 gun and point it at somebody and realize for the first time just what it might feel like... and they look real nice."
Scientific disciplines and principles, whether in the duo's exploration of new materials, their processes, or their thinking, clearly play an important role in the creation of new work. While Ferguson would relish the chance to work with more scientists, he admits that the work is not necessarily trying to educate anybody. "People have to discover their interest in things themselves. Of course, our work inescapably has the mark of our own interests and ways of looking at the world, but we'd much rather hear everyone's different reactions to it rather than our own ideas coming back at us."
The duo's website is very clear in their aims for what design can achieve: "Embracing messy, far-flung complexity... turns design into a useful tool for finding novel solutions to questions of policy, economics, social welfare, and technology." Ferguson feels that design practice – and designers - should do more to address, on a practical level, the inter-relationships of work within a broader ecosystem.
"It is so easy to fall into a didactic mode, where your projects become just about teaching people how [you think] the world should work. We are interested in ways that [work] create avenues for finding tangible approaches to immaterial goals, by connecting seemingly disparate social elements via a material relationship."
London Electric, a proposal for a personal electric vehicle, was not necessarily about the most obvious points of sustainability and freedom. This may be surprising, but the mode of thinking was somewhat against what one might expect on face value. "By getting away from a moral conversation and moving it to one of selling the business opportunities it could create, it becomes possible to get investment from a much wider community of interests." Ferguson qualifies this by giving the example of how the car could be produced locally, creating jobs and stimulating local public bodies to support certain types of manufacturing: rather like the CKD process in contemporary car production. Mathematically, he also makes the point that smaller cars means less road, although the continued view from public authorities that further roadbuilding is the sign of a healthy economy may take a while to overcome. However, this reframing of product design from social to commercial also suggests that further innovation is necessarily – at, perhaps, a time in our economic evolution when agility is the order of the day. Small public transport systems, as Ferguson, argues, should be a case for private – even community – investment, as much as public.
London Electric, 2010
This level of detail plays a key role in how the business intends to develop. It is about considering the impact of every decision taken in the design and manufacture of a product, taking "social responsibility" into a new dimension. However, there is more than just thinking here: PostlerFerguson is doing it. Papafoxtrot, one of their newest developments, is a sister company created by the duo and their associate Herman Cheung in Hong Kong. The intention is for the new company to manufacture wooden toys, designed by the duo and manufactured in Cheung's facility. "So now we have insights into what it is like to actually be the one trying to do the manufacturing, which is an interesting introduction to reality."
Working with overseas production units may suggest an eschewing of craft, relying on globalised mass production. However, Ferguson steadfastly believes that is not the case: a focus on the whole ecosystem, combined with a conscious belief that industrial production is a craft in itself, makes the concepts more convergent than one might think.
"To be honest, I never think about craft as opposed to mass production. They just occupy very different arenas. How perfectly crafted is a plastic bottle? Is a mass-produced wooden bowl hand-carved by a labourer in Thailand crafted? Most industrial production machines are essentially very well-crafted one-off pieces, not to mention satellites and scientific equipment like the Large Hadron Collider. The distinction seems to be less about the object and more about how the person producing it describes themselves, and in that sense I think there will always be a schism between the two. Because human nature certainly isn't changing much."
Back in London, perhaps the biggest recent change is the hosting of PostlerFerguson by the V&A, with the business being situated in the museum's Sackler Centre for six months. This has given the duo more space to experiment, and to have the space to accommodate more machinery, such as a laser cutter. Ferguson freely admits that the hosting of such production machines directly within a studio, fundamentally affects the production process. "... It seems a small thing, but the difference between having to send a piece off to be cut and being able to cut it yourself immediately is enormous. You can really experiment with materials & designs in a way that is just fantastically freeing."
PostlerFerguson's relationship with the V&A started with their Wunderboxes installation earlier in the year. When an opportunity to undertake a residency in the Sackler Centre came up, they pitched the idea that a residency would bridge the one-off work in the V&A's Power of Making, with the reality of manufacturing at mass scale. Now ensconced in the depths of the Sackler, they intend to explore how approaches to craft are changed when they are part of this ecosystem. One of their first projects at this scale is Make for London, inviting citizens to share suggestions for ways to improve life in the city, with the best turned into open source designs and business plans.
Again, this relationship between the crafted and the mass-produced runs deep. Ferguson sees the relationship as something that creates connections between the personal and the social; these connections are unexpected and been underexploited. While craft gives a solitary, personal interaction with work, making on a large scale can be extraordinarily social, with the ecosystem of customers, suppliers, and support networks involved at every step.
While PostlerFerguson are unrelenting in their testing, stretching, and playing with these connections, between personal craft and social manufacture, their work invites us to consider the impact of our own consideration of product, how we purchase and where from, and the trail that we leave through simple cycle of buying.
The macro will never totally absorb the micro, and the micro will never "defeat" the macro. They both have a role to play in the creative process, inviting designers to play with systems as well as the products. Ferguson's enthusiasm is unbounded, with PostlerFerguson's products displaying this energy, creativity, and confidence to examine the social, economic and environmental impact of work. There's an implicit invitation here, for consumers to make these considerations as part of their buying habits. They may end up with rather different, more exciting, answers.
Digital Design Weekend is on 24-25 September at the V&A's Sackler Centre. It is part of London Design Festival 2011.