Creative Synergy: Technology blurs the line of making

Published Apr. 11, 2014

Today’s artists pair tradition with computer-driven methods

When inspiration strikes, jewelry artist Eunmi Han begins drawing an intricate sketch of the design idea using pencil on paper to meticulous detail. As she refines her drawing, the 
metalcrafts and jewelry graduate student from South Korea is ever mindful of the traditional techniques and tools that will help turn her idea into a work of art crafted from metals and recycled materials inside her Booth Hall studio.

To further the design process, she reaches for another tool—her laptop. Han uses a 3D modeling software program to create a virtual home for her future jewelry piece, using keystrokes and clicks on her computer to hone her design even further.

“When using the software, I have to be aware of how I will solder it and whether there will be hinges or other parts when the piece is more complex,” Han said. “It’s much easier to do that onscreen, which saves me time and materials.”

Han is among the growing number of craftspeople 
embracing computer-aided design—more commonly known 
as CAD—and other technologies in their work.

Whether it’s a computer-controlled mill for forming small objects out of hard wax in jewelry design; water jet cutting technology for glass, ceramics and other brittle materials; or high-tech devices such as CNC routers—computer-controlled shaping machines—in furniture design, technology is playing a vital role in fields that thrive on human creativity.

Graduate student Eunmi Han uses a 3D modeling software program to create a virtual home for her real-life pieces.

At RIT, School for American Crafts students and faculty 
are exploring ways to employ technology to enhance their projects. During the creative process, they walk a fine line when combining traditional ways with computer-driven methods. While incorporating technology can speed up their work, they endeavor to preserve their artistic integrity.

Craft is traditionally linked to manual processes, with 
the skillful hands of the maker at its core. As a result of the 
growing use of technology, however, the fine line between handmade craftsmanship and high-tech creativity is blurring.

“The nature of making, whether it’s individually or on an industrial scale, is changing rapidly,” said Robin Cass, administrative chair of the School for American Crafts in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences and a master glass blower. “Many of those involved in the manipulation of materials to create are seeking to engage with new technologies on their own terms. These are simply wonderful new ‘tools’ we can use to help 
envision and execute our ideas.”

In addition to using digital technology, Han employs traditional techniques and tools to turn her ideas into works of art.

Furniture design revolutionized

Today, the mass production of furniture has dramatically 
reduced its costs. Technological advances in furniture 
manufacturing processes are not the only change in furniture making, however.

The introduction of the CNC router—a computer 
numerically controlled tool—has revolutionized the design and manufacturing process by using computer software to drive a mechanical system. 
A chair and its wood parts, for example, can be designed using CAD software, enabling furniture designers to create virtual 3D models. The component parts can then be cut to high tolerances on the CNC, in whatever volume 
is required.

3D printing is becoming a game changer in the making world. 3D printer machines build up layers of extruded material—including plastics, ceramics, metals and even a wood filament—one thin layer at a time using CAD software. Artists and designers are able to fabricate models of designs, and sometimes even the designs themselves, more quickly and less costly using the machines, making the printers an attractive option to both the individual artist and commercial firms.

Furniture components can be cut with precision using the CNC router.

While use of technology can speed up the design and 
fabrication process, Rich Tannen, a furniture design professor in the School for American Crafts, says it is important that the technology not disconnect makers from their designs.

“All good design starts by hand with a design brief and sketches beginning what should be a very intensive and 
sophisticated design process,” said Tannen, who has written extensively about the use of digital technologies in furniture making. “Craftspeople need to have an intimate knowledge of materials and always be thinking about materials and process. ”

Moyu Zhang, a Chinese student currently in her thesis 
year of earning an MFA in furniture design, has been a 
regular user of the CNC in fabricating wooden serving bowls, drawers and other pieces this semester, but admits that she sometimes feels “a separation” from her work when working with her designs on the computer.

“The CNC speeds up the process, but it doesn’t have my imagination,” said Zhang, who gained previous experience with digital technologies and design while working with 
architectural firms in China and northern Europe before 
coming to RIT. “I still do a lot of sketching. I think the CNC 
has had a huge impact on traditional craft, but in the end it doesn’t change the importance of good design.”

A regular user of a CNC router, Moyu Zhang feels more connected to her furniture pieces when designing hands-on.

Fabiano Sarra, an artist-in-residence in furniture design from Greece, N.Y., recognizes the benefits of digital rendering when creating complex wooden pieces, but enjoys “the hands-on feel” he gets from using a hand plane or chisels in his work.

“I completely embrace the use of CNC and other 
technologies in my projects,” Sarra said. “While technology 
is definitely opening up a whole new and different world of 
design, I have found that—no matter what you can do with 
the CNC—a good design is always key.” 

Global marketplace

Beyond the design process, technology will enable School for American Crafts students and faculty to forge international collaborations with students and faculty in China and Helsinki, where students are exchanging virtual critiques with their counterparts at RIT.

Cass recently secured with Jane Shellenbarger, assistant professor of ceramics, a Provost Learning Innovation Grant to purchase 3D scanning and printing equipment and implement student projects exploring how digital design and fabrication can be incorporated into the SAC glass and ceramics curricula.

“We are well positioned to offer a cutting-edge educational experience for our students because of our extensive resources on campus, our partnerships with industry, and our 
collaborations abroad with other colleges and universities,” Cass said. “These are exciting times.”

As social networks continue to make the world even smaller, makers now have a global marketplace at their fingertips.

“With Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, artists have access to the world as our audience and potential clients,” said Mark Zeh, a second-year furniture design graduate student from Howell, N.J. “We no longer have to rely on the local economy for our client base. We can market ourselves and can be followed or found so much easier by so many more people.”

At their most powerful, digital technologies for design and rapid prototyping use are not “short cuts” or ways to bypass hands-on skills, but rather a powerful new set of tools and skills that can only help artists and designers realize their creative visions.

“In the case of the School for American Crafts, we understand that we need to continue to embrace new technology—especially being here at RIT—and continue to understand how these new tools can enrich our curriculum and empower our students,” Cass said. 

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