5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Things About Matthew Borgatti

matthew borgattiMatthew Borgatti and his pillow mace. Photo by Shutters Open.

Matthew Borgatti‘s body of work is impressive not only for his sleek designs and out-of-the-box thinking, but for the sheer variety. He’s done everything from building monsters for movies you’ve seen, to making a mobile, open source, MIDI-controlled pipe organ, to producing his own fashion accessory line. He’s also a prototyper, teacher, graphic designer, illustrator, and product designer whose latest obsession is soft robots. When he installed his Anywhere Organ at Maker Faire New York, a local robotics team used it to rock a rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Borgatti inspires.

One project you’re particularly proud of:

1. Soft robots. I’ve had the idea of doing soft robots for years. I think they could be a really important technology if there were good methods for prototyping and testing them. My recent experiments have come along really rapidly and I might have a working quadrupedal robot by the end of this month. Chances are you’ve seen my most recent prototype. I’m figuring out good ways to make them cheaply and quickly, and publishing what I find so people can follow along and make their own soft bots.


Two past mistakes you’ve learned the most from:

1. Forgetting to reach out. I’m lucky to be friends with some amazing and inspiring people. It’s hard reconciling the urge to shut off the rest of the world and go be alone in the shop for weeks at a time with keeping close enough to people that they’ll tell me when I’ve gone tissue-box-shoes mental from spending too much time isolated. I’ve learned to reach out and personally ask for help when I’m in a bad cycle. I’ve found actually scheduling mental health time as if it were a coworking meeting or appointment to be the right way forward. That way, it’s concrete that you need help, you don’t feel the anxiety of encumbering somebody out of the blue, and almost anyone is willing to give you an hour of their time if they know you need it.

2. Getting lost in the amusement park. I’m an epic tinkerer. I play and tweak and wander off to find the next important/interesting/challenging thing at all times. This has been a huge asset when it comes to building and designing, as a lifetime of distraction has given me a strange education. It also means when there’s bills to pay, administrative work to do, or suppliers to chew out over botched shipments, there’s always an interesting new paper right there on the top of my pile, and through some kind of black magic, it ends up getting read in exchange of all that boring managerial stuff. Ingraining habits, hiring assistants when the burden gets too much, and having people to help me hold myself accountable for the business end of what I do helps keep the slacking and avoiding down to a minimum.

borgatti spaceman lampBorgatti’s Little Spaceman Lamp.

Three new ideas that have excited you most lately:

1. The hacker/makerspace boom. The idea of hackerspaces, makerspaces, and coworking shops has caught on with such force that there is now a wide foundation of literature on how to set up new spaces, organizations to help them get started, and data to pore through to diagnose how failed spaces went up in flames. It means that there’s territory for even stranger and more difficult models, like community CNC shops, safe spaces for underserved hackers and makers, and community labs where resources are scarce.

2. Big and small players collaborating. I’m seeing large organizations and universities paying more attention to work coming from outside their direct line of sight, consulting with experts from disparate fields, and looking to hackathons for new ideas.

3. Public data. There seems to be a lot of momentum gaining around public access to research and data that was gathered using public funding. Currently, unless researchers release their results personally, research data is wrapped up in a complex and bureaucratic journal system. This ends up with tinkerers like myself seeing the results of cool robotics research as a video on TechCrunch, but never having access to the research that lead to the design decisions in the first place. However, this is starting to shift.

borgatti hackerspace passportBorgatti’s Hackerspace Passport design.

Four tools you can’t live without:

As a contractor, jumping from shop to shop, I’ve learned to be pretty tool agnostic. However, there are a few tools that I want around no matter what.

1. Laser cutter. I have been laser cutting for so long that I think in flat pack. I actually designed the Anywhere Organ around flat pack construction partially because it was easy to picture and come up with construction methods. Now that I’ve got one in my shop, it gets used for everything from organizing tools to building testing platforms. Even if I’m far from home and there isn’t a laser cutter where I’m working, I can still get things cut through services like Ponoko using engineered materials I can predict down to a few thousandths. It makes iterating and experimenting very simple.

2. MacBook. My laptop has been around the world a half dozen times. I’ve used it to power my pipe organ, control tentacles, and design almost everything I’ve made in the past year. It’s pretty and I suspect it could stop a bullet.

3. SolidWorks. It’s going to bite me in the butt one day, but I’m obscenely attached to one big, complicated, expensive CAD package. It’s the one I use for just about every job and I’ll even break it out if I need to do some math or mock up simple laser-cut boxes. Having a zippy laptop that runs SolidWorks means being a little mobile engineering studio.

4. My old Makita. About 10 years back, I bought myself a battery-powered Makita drill on the advice of some folks at a machine shop where I was working. Cooks have their own set of knives, seamstresses have their own scissors, and machinists have their power drill. Unlike 90% of my battery-powered things, this one hasn’t crapped out yet and its battery life isn’t bad at all. It’s great for everything but driving screws, which I think should be left up to an impact driver.

tumblr_m4yrmuyFXV1qd99kbo5_1280Borgatti with the Anywhere Organ installed in the wild.

Five people/things that have inspired your work:

1. Chris Eckart. Chris executes his ideas so well and with such a high level of finish that little details become prominent. He’s very honest and thorough about his methods and construction techniques. I really respect an artist whose work is pretty conceptual but is still open about the fact that the art is constructed and doesn’t just appear in a gallery one day.

2. Miss Monster. She is devoted to her craft so hard that her idea of a vacation is taking time off from designing monsters for her store to design monsters for herself. She’s always documenting, updating, and keeping her fans in the loop with her next project. It’s inspiring looking through almost a decade of documentation on her Flickr and watching the progress from someone with an intense hobby to a full-on full-time monster maker.

3. Bruce Shapiro. My first brush with real programming and circuitry was an egg plotter I built back in college based off of Bruce’s designs. It was driven by an old Win 95 laptop feeding data from QBasic out through the parallel port. I never got it to amount to much, but it paved the way for some more extensive and sophisticated experiments with machines. Bruce’s work always inspired me to see robotics and automation as a means of elevating your concept, not as an end in itself.

4. Arthur Ganson. His sculptures combine narrative with technical execution in a way I’ve never seen anyone pull off. Arthur makes moving stories out mechanical linkages. This sculpture pretty much sums it up.

5. Mike Estee. Mike has been a big inspiration when it comes to using technology to improve art. I really like seeing the thread in his work of: “Hey, opaque and incomprehensible system, let’s make some tests and experiments to see how you work.” And then the research gets rolled into creating better art.

borgatti pipe organ brass knucklesBorgatti’s pipe organ brass knuckles, “the most complex and difficult” of his Anywhere Organ Kickstarter rewards.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at snowgoli@gmail.com or via @snowgoli.

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