Electro Craft is an exhibition of electronic products created by a diverse group of designers who share a fascination with technology and beautifully made objects. Working in a field that sometimes seems overwhelmed by bland corporate products with very little aesthetic or artistic value. It seems a relevant moment to me to highlight some of the wonderful work that is also happening in the area of electronics. London is a hub of creativity and digital progress and this exhibition tries to give a flavour of some of this original thinking.

Tord Boontje, initiator of Electro Craft

 

Hand-making Complexity

Electro Craft is about the craft of electronics and electronics made as craft. It asks the question, ‘what are electrical products and appliances like when they are not designed primarily with mass-production in mind?’ The thirty-or-so works in the exhibition, by numerous emerging and established designers and studios, bring together the values of handcraft with the complexity of electrical technologies.

On the surface craft and electronics do not seem to have much in common. Crafting objects implies that makers give great attention to detail and to material qualities. It also suggests the objects are made for limited markets, or in small batches. While many makers of mass-produced products make claims for their quality, very few of them seek to make industrial products in small quantities for niche markets. The idea goes against the notion that mass-produced consumer goods are widely available and accessible to all.

Since Peter Behrens began designing for the German manufacturer AEG, for more than a century the character of electrical products has derived from their capacity to be mass-manufactured. Behrens designed AEG’s kettles and fans to be made in quantity for an eager and emerging mass-market, and his eye for ‘industrial art’ was formative of
modernism’s machine-led aesthetics. We live with this legacy today: electrical devices celebrate their machine-made qualities, which include values such as cheapness, repetition and predictable quality (or sometimes, lack thereof). The materials and techniques that are used to make our lamps, phones, speakers and other gadgets – plastics, synthetics, micro-electronic circuitry – were themselves conceived and developed to service mass-production.

Furthermore, the complexity and scale of manufacturing electric appliances develops products from marketing briefs, rather than from a design sensibility. As a manufacturer how can it be otherwise, if your product needs to penetrate global markets in order to succeed? But the products in this exhibition have come about quite differently. They are not necessarily conceived as prototypes for production (mass-, limited- or otherwise), but rather as experiments or speculations. Probably the earliest in this group is by Daniel Weil who customized electrical circuits for his 100 Objects collections in the early 1980s: he intended the works as a critical commentary on industrial design and in-so-doing he introduced a cultural approach to product design that is widely evident in more recent works in this show. Some of the designers have explored the potential of new and as-yet little-tested technologies (such as Yoav Reches and Nan Zhao). Others have hacked and customized existing techniques, or product typologies (for example Paul Cocksedge and Yuri Suzuki). Some just seem to be having fun (like Raw Edges Circular Train and greyworld’s playful interactive tails).

The objects in Electro Craft are almost all self-initiated works by the designers themselves. Making objects without a specific client in mind might characterize some art and craft, but it is not a tenet of mass-production. This varied collection of ideas invites electrical manufacturers to think differently about how products are conceived, designed, made and used, when the pressures and conventions of mass-production are sidestepped. Yamaha and ROLI (both in this exhibition) represent the kind of small(er) scale producer of high-end and high-spec electrical products where qualities of product performance are more important than the need to streamline and maximize production volumes. The objects also open up possibilities for designers to conceive new ways to use electronics as a craft medium, and for the rest of us, as consumers, to demand entirely new forms of electrical products and devices.

– Prof Gareth Williams, Head of Design, Middlesex University