to imagine new models. The trend we’re seeing
is high-value products being made locally and—
expanding beyond traditional craft—often
designed or customized by the consumer.
Makerversity’s most notable success story,
Unmade, has rewritten software used to run
industrial knitting machines. Customers can
direct the design of knitwear items—changing
colours, patterns and lines—and the clothing is
assembled to order. This exemplifies the rise of
“distributed manufacturing” as a method of
creating limited-edition, high-value items—a
big step beyond the early days of churning out
pixelated plastic on 3-D printers. In this model,
the “maker” shifts from creator of objects to
creator of processes that create objects. The
craft in Unmade’s business is in the technical
skill that goes into writing interactive, intuitive
software that is easily manipulated by the
customer (or co-maker).
W hat does this mean for the future of
traditional craftsmanship—often less produc-
tive, less cost-e;ective, less reliable and less
flexible than digital making? Craftspeople
still have one advantage we greatly value,
which the Japanese purveyors at Wardlow
Mires demonstrate brilliantly. Each pot they
make in their workshop in Japan is unique,
and therefore desirable. Di;erences in the pH
of the water they use to make the pottery, or
in the type of wood they use to fire their kilns,
change the complexion of their work. With
such variables, a potter produces an object
with an indelible fingerprint, a piece that
cannot be replicated by man or machine.
However beautiful, customized or finely made,
a digitally produced object currently lacks the
personality of something made in transient
conditions by an imperfect human hand.
Technology may one day be able to capture
this elusive, wabi-sabi character, allowing for
infinite variety in inputs, techniques or raw
materials. As master craftspeople gain access
to sophisticated digital tools, products and
processes will evolve. But today, the most
exciting, nuanced advances are arising in how
distributed manufacturing incorporates individual consumer input. The first product from
Makerversity member Mayku is a tool that
plugs into a home vacuum cleaner; suction lets
users create custom moulds for casting objects.
Not all consumers will want the levels of
participation that modern making allows.
Even with Nike ID, the longest-standing mass-customization programme available, most
people, when thrust into the role of designer,
create horrible sneakers. Many prefer to buy a
product created by a trained, practised expert.
Yet even those who don’t wish to have full
creative control might like to collaborate with
a pro, which they can do via technologies being
developed by modern makers. Customers
of Unmade can now manipulate styles created
by professional fashion designers, striking
a sweet spot bet ween the credibility and
desirability of renowned designers and the
choice and individualism of customization.
It’s this very democratization of maker
culture that characterizes 21st-century forms
of craft. There are more entry points than ever
for potential makers. Whether you want to
tweak an existing product or bring to life your
own fully formed idea—without possessing the
raw materials, machinery or experience to do
so—you can now have a hand in creation. This
is the evolution of the craft tradition. ;
Tom Tobia is the founder of London- and Amsterdam-based Makerversity, named to Nesta/ The Observer ’s
2016 list of “New Radicals” making a di;erence in society.
;;;; ;;;;;;, you’ll find me in the
Peak District, a wild and rugged blob
of moorland in northern England,
as it plays host to the Wardlow
Mires Pottery & Food Festival. From a tent
in a muddy field, ceramicists from across the
U. K. and occasionally further (four Japanese
potters made the trip this year) flog their
wares to a modest but committed crowd. The
event is run by acclaimed potter Geo; Fuller,
an eccentric character whose work is uniquely
his, in foible as much as in craft and skill.
The sights and sounds at Wardlow Mires
are a far cry from those of my day-to-day life.
In 2013, I founded Makerversity in London,
a campus for new making businesses with an
emphasis on emerging technologies. Focused
on the nascent digital manufacturing sector
(for which the most common reference point
is the 3-D printer), we give designers, scientists and creators space to work, access to
digital manufacturing tools and encouragement to develop 21st-century forms of craft.
In addition to using new tools, our most
interesting creators are subverting existing processes and consumer-producer relationships
Will the rise of “digital making” change our perceptions about the
value of handcrafting—or even the definition of craft itself?
By Tom Tobia Illustration by Greg Betza
110 As master craftspeople gain access to digital tools, products and processes will evolve.“