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Blurring the Lines

Mongolian barbeque meets consumer-designed goods at Yerba Buena’s newest exhibition, TechnoCRAFT: Hackers, Modders, Fabbers, Tweakers and Design in the Age of Individuality. And no, this is certainly not a food exhibition.

But just like the Mongolian barbeque, where each individual cooks his or her meat according to personal taste, so to is everyone from the lay person to tech entrepreneurs to shoe, car, and T-shirt companies cooking up everyday products to suit individual preferences.

Curated by acclaimed industrial designer, Yves Behar, the design exhibition offers a thought-provoking view on the current relationship between consumer and designer. Lines are becoming more and more blurred as the design of mass-produced goods is placed in the hands of the consumer. Sure, we can go the store and simply buy affordable, high-quality T-shirts straight off the racks or cars direct from the lots. But now, more than ever, we also have the option to try our hand at designing the goods ourselves from numerous companies such Threadless or Local Motors.

Spanning four continents, the designers, companies and projects featured in TechnoCRAFT illustrate this growing trend of modifying, tweaking, and manipulating goods for our own personal needs and functionality.

Droog’s “Do Hit Chair” by Marijn Van Der Poll is just as the name implies. We see a man (via video installation) taking a sledgehammer to a giant metal box and smashing, hitting, and pounding it into a custom “chair” for himself. I thought this was just a creative illustration of the exhibit concept, but was simultaneously shocked and tickled to learn you can actually buy it, sledgehammer included!

Popular sneaker brand, Puma displays its cleverly named project, “Puma Mongolian Shoe BBQ,” which enables consumers to design their own shoes from scratch. Puma highly encourages you to, “Grab your chef hat and ... taste the art of shoe-making.” You can groan all you want at the pun, but you literally get to make every design decision on every component of the sneaker by choosing from a vast array of colors and fabrics.

And speaking of making objects your own, the folks in the slammer have gotten pretty resourceful with all that time on their hands. San Quentin Prison Museum for Prison Hacks features such prisoner-made-items as: a toothbrush-turned-shank via removing the bristles and sharpening the ends (I guess brushing your teeth now kills more than just plaque!); a coat hanger made from cardboard, masking tape, and soap (glue); and dice made from toilet paper and water (for Monopoly or wager games).

But one of the most visually intriguing/bizarre exhibits is the high-end, iconic Eames chair repurposed into a highchair via two holes cut in the seat and a baby tray. The other eye-shocker is Martino Gamper’s “100 Chairs in 100 Days” project in which he deconstructed and then reconstructed 100 chairs using completely different stylistic or structural elements.

Ambiguity plays a key role in TechnoCRAFT leaving the viewer with a lot more questions than answers. What does this trend really mean? Is it a cultural rebellion against capitalism, mass-production and mass-consumerism whereby individuals are seeking to go back to pre-industrialization times before buying ready-made was an option and personally making our own stuff was a necessity? Or is this a prime illustration of how advanced we are technologically in that we are not only capable of making affordable, high-quality mass-produced goods, but we can also do it on such a personal note?

Furthermore, what impact does this have for professional designers and the industry as a whole? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Should design of goods really be left in the hands of the amateur masses?

If you like high-concept modern-art exhibits that spark new thoughts and ideas (and force you to read the wall descriptions so you understand what you’re looking at), you’ll definitely be intrigued by TechnoCRAFT. And if adding cool, new apps to your iPhone, or personalizing your MySpace and Facebook pages is more your speed, make note: this is exactly what is meant by “Design in the Age of Individuality.”