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Designer x Factory

— Siôn Parkinson & Fi Duffy Scott

Dundee Design Festival producer Siôn Parkinson speaks with founder of Make Works, Fi Duffy-Scott, about their collaboration setting up the Designer x Residency programme, launched for the first time in this year.

Make Works are an open access online platform that allows anyone to find manufacturers, material suppliers and workshop facilities in their local area. Started in Scotland in 2012, Make Works now teaches other places, such as Birmingham, Bristol and Bath how to do the same thing.

Siôn and Fi met at Make Works HQ in Glasgow.

The interview

SP: Why did you start Make Works?

FDS: I was a frustrated product designer graduating from art school. I didn’t know where to get things made or find specialist materials. I spoke to a lot of people to find out if there was some secret little black book that I didn’t know of that tells you where to get stuff made. It turns out there definitely wasn’t one. I found that a lot of designers felt similarly frustrated. So, we thought of a hundred different ways to connect designers to factories, and the first one on the list was simply to make an open directory of local manufacturers.

SP: Tell me about the partnership between Make Works and Dundee Design Festival and your involvement in setting up the Designer x Factory Residency Programme?

FDS: It’s been amazing working with DDF this year. The idea of placing designers with factories instantly appealed to me. It’s important for designers to have better access to manufacturing and to have more of a supported placement. With Make Works, contact details for factories are completely open so designers have to pick up the phone and start building that relationship themselves. But this is the trickiest bit. It takes a lot of time, effort, and patience to do this from scratch. So being able to have a programme where there’s support to pair individuals with organisations that are receptive, to have a budget for technical advice, and to be able to offer designers time to spend on research, development and experimentation is amazing. I can’t wait to see what comes out of it.

SP: What kind of support did Make Works bring to the project?

FDS: Make Works brought experience of how to speak to manufacturers in Scotland and knowledge of the best people to speak to within each factory. Over the years we’ve developed some tactics of how best to approach factories, so being able to make the start of the relationship between designer and factory as smooth as possible was something we could share.

SP: Can you reveal any of those tactics? What advice would you give to any designers who want to work with manufacturers?

FDS: The first thing I would say to anyone approaching a factory is ‘pick up the phone’. People so often don’t look at their emails, or they see lots of text and struggle to get back to you, so my advice would be to first pick up the phone, then follow up with a short email. And if you do speak to someone, don’t get downhearted if they don’t respond enthusiastically straight away. Just ask if they know anyone else who might be able to help. I also do things like use my brother’s email address so they think I’m a man. <laughs> That works sometimes, which is depressing, but it’s a tactic I have used on occasion. But really, it’s all about finding the right person to speak to. That, patience, and perseverance. Make sure you have a long lead-in time for your project and that you have a clear sense of the budget you have to spend. Manufacturers are not going to give you lots of advice for free. They’re running a business and you need to respect that.

SP: With the DDF Factory Residency, the designers are not necessarily coming to the table with a clear or fixed idea of what they want to produce. What kind of facilitation did you need to make between the designers and manufacturers to allow them this opportunity to experiment?

FDS: In the first instance, we picked factories who we knew would be receptive to the spirit of experimentation. We knew some people working in several factories who we thought would be open to this, and then it was about giving designers confidence to get their foot in the door and just get going. The manufacturing sector can seem rather opaque and intimidating sometimes. But when a good foundation is set up for you, as it was in this project, the fear is taken away. The designers are then ready to get straight in there and start making.

SP: You were part of the panel to select the residents along with Old School Fabrications and Tom Pigeon. What attracted to the designers you finally selected?

FDS: It wasn’t an easy process. There were so many amazing designers we could have ended up selecting. The reasons the people we selected shone through was because we could envisage how their work would fit within a factory environment. All three residents are quite varied in the kinds of work they make. They come from very different backgrounds and the panel was excited about seeing a diversity of designers working with a range of fabrication techniques. It showed us the breadth of design practice in Scotland and the need for these kinds of partnerships to be forged.

With Florence Dwyer, for example, she presented us with these ceramic maquettes that she’d been making. They were very raw, but very appealing, and they instantly pointed towards rug design. There was a very clear translation between the two processes, so it was a good fit for her to be paired with someone like Turnberry Rugs in Ayrshire.

And with Tommy Perman and Simon Kirby going to work with FifeX, again, we could see how that relationship would be a positive one. It was about how a truly imaginative pair of individuals could lean on the expertise of someone else.

The first two partnerships happened very quickly, partly because we knew FifeX and Turnberry Rugs well and knew they were up for new ways of working. It was trickier for Dawn (Youll). The selection panel all instantly loved Dawn’s work. She had specifically mentioned that she wanted to work with glass and neon, which we all agreed was an exciting development for her practice. We had approached a few scientific glassblowers, but we were coming to them cold. Eventually, a factory in Stirling put us in touch with a glassblower at the chemistry department in the University of Glasgow, who was very excited to have Dawn in to their workshop and teach her how to produce high-spec glassware. After six months of working with the material herself, she’ll be prepared to go out and meet with other glassware manufactures in Scotland with specialist knowledge of her own.

SP: You’ve been busy mapping the manufacturing sector in Scotland over the last five years. What’s your take on the state of manufacturing in the country right now?

FDS: I think it’s clear that manufacturing in Scotland is still at the heart of our economy. We’re still producing things of significant quality. And there’s a whole host of new companies starting up in the fields of digital fabrication. I’ve always seen the manufacturing industry as something that moves forward in small steps. To futureproof that industry, we need to challenge the idea of reaching for large-scale mass manufacture, and instead aim for small-scale, localised —networks, where not just designers but consumers are able to have the things that they need in their lives made or fixed by a factory that’s close to them. To walk into a factory now with that concept, you’re just going to get the door slammed in your face. But we are slowly moving towards a scenario where people have more access to the way that things are made. But it’s a slow process.

I have a lot of respect for the manufacturing industry. There are a lot of people employed because of it, and there’s a lot of amazing skills to be found there. But I wonder if there is an alternative way to produce things.

SP: There’s something that you’ve evidently picked up on, and that Dundee Design Festival is focusing on this year with its theme of ‘factory floor’, and that’s a kind of design practice that borrows from industry and takes it back to the studio. And with the work you’re doing teaching others how to use the Make Works model in their towns and cities, there is clearly a global desire to connect more with manufacturing. Why do you think this is?

FDS: I think it’s important to understand that the Maker Movement generally is about local networks, about people wanting to build things close-to-home. I think people are increasingly frustrated with the consumer model as it stands. Of course, there are moments where it’s more expedient to just buy an item of furniture, an Ikea coffee table, for example, pre-made and off-the-shelf. There is a well-established consumer system to satisfy that. Yet it appears more and more that people are less satisfied by this model. People are more engaged when they understand where a thing comes from, even more so when they make that thing for themselves. There’s a real joy in turning stuff into something useful. I mean, making feels amazing. It’s like vegetables: they taste so much sweeter when you’ve grown them yourself.  It’s certainly a more sustainable way to consume.

SP: And yet it seems contrary to talk about ‘making more’ and ‘sustainability’, doesn’t it? How do you square that?

FDS: I struggle with this all the time. When you say ‘manufacturing’ there is an image of businesses that are high-growth, large-scale, and producing for a mass market. But I’ve learned to associate manufacturing with enabling people to have control over what they want to produce, in being able to have a say in how we want our things to be made. For me, manufacturing can be small-scale, localised production. Yes, it can seem counter-intuitive to say that we’re encouraging people to make more things. Do we need to make anything more at all? Probably not. But we do still need the skills to be able to repair things. We do still need to understand the properties of materials to fully comprehend the world around us. And we do still need creativity if we are to survive and thrive. I mean, do we need more sculpture? Do we need more art? When is the art we have ever enough? Creativity will continue to manifest in physical form; I doubt it will ever find its way to being purely digital or immaterial. Humans connect to each other via physical objects. I can’t imagine a time when we’ll stop doing so. But I can imagine a time when we’ll choose to have more ownership over how our objects are made, maybe on a smaller scale, a time when we’ll begin to just make what we need.

Designer x Factory Residency Programme is a unique partnership between the organisers of the festival, UNESCO City of Design Dundee, and Make Works.

Beginning in May and running for over six months, Designer x Factory offers three designers time and space with Scotland-based manufacturers to test new ideas, improvise with materials and experiment with different production techniques.

An exhibition of the work made by the designers during the residency will go on display in Autumn 2017.



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