By Jenny Florence
In a 1993 interview, Italian designer Michele De Lucchi reflected on the uniquely independent career he’d cultivated, remarking, “I very much like the idea of design, although industrial, being created and developed outside of industry.” Two new documentaries shown at the Architecture and Design Film Festival in October, Why a Film About Michele De Lucchi (2013) and Maker (2014), focus on individuals and communities engaged in creative production for the sake of innovation, education and expression, and demonstrate the tremendous potential of invention unfettered by industry.
Maker, a feature-length documentary on the Maker Movement by Taipei-based director Mu-Ming Tsai, makes a strong case for industry led by a lateral network of producer/consumers who are also industrial designers, programmers and biotechnologists, electrical engineers, teachers, and craftspeople. Evolving from the convergence of Do-It-Yourself culture and the Digital Revolution, the Maker Movement relies on online, open-source instruction coupled with easy access to materials and hardware; as one of the documentary’s interviewees puts it, “the web generation meets the real world.” Since the mid-2000s, it has grown from a fringe subculture of tinkerers, hackers and hobbyists into a global community presenting some of the most compelling models for innovative social, economic and industrial orders.
Tsai gives a thorough survey of the current state of the movement by interviewing an extensive list of its supporters, including, in true Maker form, participants and CEOs alike. It’s clear the movement has gone far beyond the software and circuit boards the uninitiated may equate it with. Bay Area-based BioCurious, for example, is a member-driven biology lab. Formed in 2010 by six individuals led by Eri Gentry (herself an alumna of several medical and biology-related start-ups, including the Livly, an independent non-profit dedicated to cancer research), BioCurious teaches amateur scientists to produce bioluminescent bacteria and print live cells using a modified ink-jet printer. It also provides an open hackerspace for self-initiated exploration. In a sense, the existence of BioCurious is one of the strongest arguments for the vitality of the Maker Movement, showing where it has already broken into unexpected territory and hinting at the ground it could still cover.
Another startup, Maker’s Row, co-founded by Tanya Menendez, Matthew Burnett and Scott Weiner, is meant to democratize the manufacturing process. Menendez conceived the idea when a previous venture – an apparel business she started with Burnett – stalled because of difficulty connecting with reliable vendors. Putting the fashion line on hold, the pair, along with Weiner, developed Maker’s Row as an online marketplace that matches designers and entrepreneurs directly to American pattern-makers, suppliers and factories. It also acts as a knowledge pool, hosting forums where neophytes can learn from experts or each other. Focusing on apparel during its first two years, Maker’s Row has recently added furniture manufacturers to its roster of vendors.
Democratization, whether of information or manufacturing, is central to the Maker Movement, and Tsai shows that this ethos has bled into other, more unlikely fields such as finance, in which crowdfunding through platforms like Kickstarter has become a powerful means of raising capital for everything from nascent businesses and publishing projects, to concept albums and documentary films (Maker was funded through Kickstarter, receiving $32,373 in funding from 746 backers. BioCurious also launched with funding earned from a Kickstarter campaign). Besides providing an alternative way of raising capital, crowdfunding lets fledgling ventures set the rewards for backers, allowing them to maintain creative independence.
Alessio Bozzer’s documentary, Why a Film About Michele De Lucchi, examines the career of a designer who extolled the virtues of independent exploration forty years before the appearance of the Maker Movement. “The design culture must be nourished through a continual discussion,” De Lucchi wrote, “particularly through personal experiments, through exhibitions, through provocation.” Bozzer’s documentary traces De Lucchi’s personal experiments and provocations beginning with his time as a student in Florence during the heydey of Radical Design in the late 1960s and early 70s, a period that saw avant-garde collectives such as Superstudio and Archizoom emerging to offer a counterpoint to what they considered the overbearing rationalism of modern architecture. De Lucchi fell in with the movement, teaming up with other young designers to organize workshops, projects, performances and happenings to provoke debate. Bozzer, Italian himself, animates the documentary with archival photographs and super-8 footage, capturing the spirit of the Radical designers as they throw themselves into their architectural experiments, upending and expanding the field with their antics. De Lucchi appears in a 1973 photograph outside the Triennale di Milano, costumed as “Designer in Generale” in a Napoleonic military uniform with a t-square leaning on one epaulette, donning a shorter version of the beard that would become his signature.
Relocating to Milan, De Lucchi joined the Studio Alchimia designers and worked alongside Ettore Sottsass, who would become an important mentor and through whom De Lucchi would achieve a major professional coup, becoming a design consultant for Olivetti, the Italian electronics manufacturer famed for its attention to design. De Lucchi’s closest association with Sottsass, however, would come in December 1980 with the founding of Memphis, a group of architects and designers whose exuberant, irreverent designs for furniture, lighting, textiles, ceramics, and glassware broke from the prevailing fashion for Bauhaus-inspired minimalist functionalism. With forms and motifs culled from a range of sources from honky-tonk vernacular architecture to African textiles, and veneered in laminates featuring bright colors, pastel shades, or quirky, deliberately gauche patterns, Memphis furniture broadcast a playful, optimistic attitude that would come to define Postmodern design. “We wanted to be provocative,” explains De Lucchi. “We wanted to get on the establishment’s nerves.”
Bozzer’s film provides a full account of De Lucchi’s accomplishments, but its true success comes from the director’s generosity toward his subject. Bozzer gives the soft-spoken De Lucchi space to narrate his own story through a series of intimate interviews, keeping production minimal (a more brash, stylized approach would be unsuited to the reserved De Lucchi, who you would happily lean in to hear). De Lucchi makes palpable the creative excitement of the young designers orbiting Sottsass, and the nights of discussion, “of wine and music”, that would lead to Memphis, named one of those evenings after a Bob Dylan track played on repeat. De Lucchi’s affection for his long-time mentor, Sottsass, is also clear, as is the acute loss he experienced when Sottsass declared, in 1985, that he was leaving Memphis.
Bozzer also communicates De Lucchi’s brilliance as a designer by having him describe the thinking behind designs such as the Tolomeo lamp. De Lucchi explains the lamp’s features while drawing fluid sketches: the lamp is held together by tension provided by a hidden spring, requiring no screws and allowing its floating shade to be easily adjusted to any position; a feat of elegant construction inspired by fishermen’s trebuchets. In one of the most exhilarating sequences of the film, De Lucchi recounts the development of his bridge for Tbilisi, Georgia, a soaring sinusoidal steel and glass structure outfitted with LEDs that illuminate in a series of patterns and sweep across the walkway as pedestrians cross. The bridge is dazzling, and De Lucchi’s triumph and satisfaction at having realized it are clear.
Considered alongside one another, Why a Film About Michele De Lucchi and Maker form a narrative of ingenuity thriving outside the status quo. De Lucchi’s early rebellion against prescriptivist modernism resulted in a career of ardently humanist design. Bozzer approaches De Lucchi with admiration and sensitivity, conveying the spirit of his work without overwhelming it, and creating an invigorating portrait of a designer who proves that joy and generosity can be as integral to good design as form and function. By the same token, the Maker Movement widens access to previously esoteric fields and encourages investigation led purely by passion and curiosity. Assuming the enthusiasm, energy and drive of the individuals that appear in Maker is characteristic of all makers, it’s difficult to leave the film not feeling as if we are at the beginning of a sea change. The Maker Movement has been referred to as the next Industrial Revolution, and Tsai capably demonstrates this may not be hyperbole.
Jenny Florence is a New York-based art, architecture and design historian and writer.