It’s sometimes tough to tell where reality ends and satire begins in today’s artisanal-obsessed economy. A new exhibit called The Low-Tech Factory, by Industrial Design students at University of Art and Design Lausanne, is a little bit of both.
Installed in a temporarily converted Swiss carpet factory as part of the 25-year-old Designer’s Saturday exhibition, The Low-Tech Factory is exactly what it sounds like: a series of six tiny "factories" that churn out consumer goods at a snail’s pace. Each manufacturing line can be operated by a team of 1-4 participants, and are entirely human-powered (with the exception of a heated mold in one installation). The idea is to examine the underlying value systems we apply to objects we own, both mass-produced and hand-made.
Oncle Sam, for example, is a mechanism that pops single kernels of popcorn one at a time using an elaborate steel lattice of moving parts and a single tea light. Animal Growth is a set of tools that makes simple foam animal toys, while Marbelous makes a marbled mirror. Swing is particularly awesome: the user inserts a piece of fabric between a sharp mold and an off-kilter top, then balances above it as their weight cuts through the fabric in a pattern that turns it into an expandable mesh bag. Equally useful, Stamp transforms a piece of plastic mesh into a portable work lamp with a heated mold. At first glance, Rocking Knit looks like a rocking chair with some sort of generator hanging over the sitter. In fact, it’s an elaborate system of cogs and needles that knits bright red beanies (Zissou style) with energy generated from the rocking.
Besides being absolutely brilliant pieces of design, the Factory toys with our current thinking about consumer goods. Does popcorn really taste better if it’s popped over a tiny open flame, one kernel at a time? Probably not. But in the context of today’s consumer culture, it could be considered a more "valuable" experience. Leave it to good old Friedrich Engels to explain: "The final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in men’s better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production." In other words, we are not only defined by what we make, but how we make.