Hands-On — Generated in Italy

Craft & Design
ESCAPING THE MODULE: Designer Giorgio Olivero’s algorithmically germinated creations are locally grown, laser-harvested, and hand-assembled in Italy.

Giorgio Olivero is fresh back from that digital fabrication workshop in Berlin — four months of work done in just ten 14-hour days!

Olivero is the tall, bony, curly-haired, gleaming-eyed creative director of TODO (todo.to.it), an up-and-coming Italian media design studio. Phones ring. Glossy magazines pile up. Olivero’s studio is clad in bright, wriggly, digitally designed wallpaper. There’s a huge plastic kiosk unplugged in the back room, the relic of a wealthy client.

Olivero punctuates his conversation by tapping cigarette ashes perilously near his keyboard. “Beyond the screen,” he says, that’s the way Marius Watz framed it, over there in Berlin, at the Transmediale. In tomorrow’s world beyond the screen, software engineers will become product engineers. With digital 3D printers, of course. With CNC mills. Laser cutters. Yes!

Or maybe — Olivero is staring at the lozenges on the wall through his steely designer glasses — maybe it’s really all about the interaction between the artist and the fabricator. Forget giving the device some super-intricate plan to cut — that’s “boring” (a favorite Olivero term). Instead there’s a man-machine dialogue there. An elegant language. A generative dialogue that makes stuff.

The digital control of numerical tools makes complexity so easy. You can cut a Mandelbrot set out of plywood if you’re willing to sit around for a couple of years while the laser traces its endless fractal curls. But at the end, what have you made? Just a replica, not a truly original thing in itself. It’s time to get past that old idea of fabs as “rapid prototype machines” and find something unique to that design language.

An interactive, semiautonomous pattern generation machine that makes real artifacts. Yes! They’re here, they’re now, they’re almost cheap, and Olivero knows how to program them. He could generate random screen-saver patterns, throw a million designs at the wall like spaghetti, but no! Being Italian, being European, a craftsman, a human being,

Olivero has to ask himself: what does it all mean?

Olivero’s office is in downtown Torino, a city rife with the fruitily Baroque extravagances of royal Savoy architects. Guarino Guarini and Filippo Juvarra were mystical masons who piled ornaments together like conic sections of whipped cream. Weird mathematical structures, therefore, bore Olivero — been there, done that, in the late 1600s!

What’s interesting is a computer reforming industrial production. The mass-produced assembly line stripped away decor and ornament. It stripped away the handcrafted parts of the Italian city landscape, too. But here comes the computer to restore decoration and ornament — not the old-fashioned William Morris kind, of wallpaper so full of little birds and vines that it makes your eyes bleed, but unprecedented decoration and ornament. The 21st-century kind!

Take — Olivero points over a colleague’s head as the guy pounds away manfully at his screen — take that module, there! Decoration and ornament are made from modules. Modules are elements of a repeating pattern changed in harmonious ways —

flipped, rotated, inverted, tiled — you can do that by hand, and that’s easy to program, but what’s really interesting is a new language for doing that. How?

An old Arts and Crafts decorator, like Morris, went out into Nature like a good Pre-Raphaelite, to copy, say, a grapevine, and then extracted graphic elements of that grapevine into something human hands could make.

But that’s so over! So what if — Olivero digs around for an overstuffed graphics file on his screen and pops it open — what if you start abstracting the math behind the growth of vines instead? You map growth patterns, constraints, the basic forces … then you can generate digitally varying modules of ornament, you “escape the module” with a process that generates decorative objects! And with industrial value!

We’re studying an interwoven black-and-white checkerboard that has exploded into a basket of tendrils. It’s a glossy, writhing cylinder fringed like an electrified straw hat.

It also looks Italian. Somehow. Definitely. It’s a brand-new object that frankly looks like nothing else on Earth, but I’ve been in Italy quite a while now and this fabject definitely looks Italian. Gina Lollobrigida looks less Italian than this newly generated thing.

“Melting plastic isn’t enough any more!” Olivero declares with infectious glee. Conventional industrial design is collapsing in Europe, the assembly lines are all heading for China, and there’s a tidal wave of design grads coming out of the schools! Meanwhile, Italy’s dotted all over with small tech companies with exquisitely high-end digital equipment, and they’re not using their full production capacity!

So that makes sense, but just one problem there. Nobody’s got a clue how to talk to machines with their own digital tools.

What this situation calls for are some real software engineers with skills and sensibilities. Arduino chip guys! Computational aesthetic Processing gods like Reas and Fry and Marius Watz! They’re digital artists making one-of-a-kind fine-art sculptures, electronic art you can feed right into the fine art market, collectible, beautiful!

That’s the new horizon! Because it’s organically grown out of the computer graphics world, the interaction design world, and you can print it out and put it right there on the table next to the olive oil! It’s a real-time sculptural medium with static pieces that have kinetic value — no, they’ve got use value, they might even turn out to be industrially practical!

Or maybe — Olivero says it with a sophisticate’s shrug — maybe it’s all a collective hallucination.

So, as the creative director of his growing young firm, does he jump on that train, or not? That’s the question. And that’s not a boring question. That’s interesting.

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Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling is a science fiction writer and part-time design professor.

View more articles by Bruce Sterling


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