Sunday, January 8, 2012

Filtering Design

Serengeti Mosaic

When starting a trip as I am now, even after twenty years, I am still filled with anticipation of the things to come.  While there is the list of things that I must review to make sure actual production is looking like the initial samples, which in this industry can be tricky; as well as a myriad of other, gritty details, mostly I am thinking about the new things I have in the works, both on paper and in my head; as well as, the fun surprises which usually turn up.  
The hunt for something new and fresh which has not yet been seen in the marketplace is basically the Holy Grail for a designer;   like looking for truffles in the forest lurking just beneath the surface.  And like a truffle; on its own, without a skilled chef who understands how to unlock its true flavor, a new finish or technique would be just that, something raw and wonderful with unrealized potential.  This becomes the challenge; to take this potentially fresh new technique and create something that will resonate with the marketplace.  
Let’s face it, it’s hard enough for an American designer to divine what might appeal to the American consumer, let alone a factory thousands of miles away steeped in its own history, and customs. The American taste level is not a global certainty; that is, what works in America will not necessarily work in other countries; and what works in other countries will certainly not always work in America;   which is why I routinely question whether a factory should devote resources to product development per se, or rather work on developing new techniques and finishes which can be used by designers everywhere, regardless of culture or country.  This is where the role of what I call the “tinkerer” becomes so critical.  Someone who is usually directly connected to the factory, and quite literally tinkers with different techniques, components, and finishes at their disposal. 
I remember walking into a showroom not too long ago, and being hit by the familiar and wonderful aroma; a mélange of paint, spice, dust, incense, and in this case the unmistakable air of the tinkerer.  There was a lady in the showroom who unlike the other factory people kept her distance.   She seemed to sense that I preferred to be alone when working in a showroom (which I do) so that I can ponder the possibilities.   I finally plucked up the courage to ask her if she was the creative genius responsible for all of these marvelous investigations, and of course she was (the tinkerer), along with being the owners wife.    
A really great tinkerer is like a great actor; they come at a problem from a variety of perspectives; making investigations if you will, and this lady was as good as I have ever seen.  In her case, that of mosaics, there are many types of materials to play with and combine using gold leaf, transparent color, patinas, and shell; a virtually limitless palette of colors, materials, and techniques.  Without the tinkerer they would just be bottles of paint, and bits of glass and gold.   And while I might not be able to use the items in their current form, they can lay the groundwork for what will become new items in my collections; as soon as I’ve made some decisions that is.
 A businessman, who’s achievements I admire greatly (we’ll call him D.R.) once referred to me as a filter.  As you might imagine, my first thought was, oh great a filter; thanks a lot D.R.!   Coffee anyone!   After thinking about it for a while I realized that it was in fact a compliment.  When a designer is traveling overseas visiting factories (some with tinkerers and some without), he or she is being bombarded with a shower of visual information; shapes, colors, fabrics, metals, glass, ceramic, jewelry, etc., and must able to assess each item, see any potential, and take something to the next level or leave it lay; hence the filtering process.  It’s not a very glamorous thing to be sure but crucial to a good designers work, because nearly everything I see on a trip has some potential of one kind or another; the question becomes, can I use it effectively?  Is it new enough or will it only be a variation on something that I’ve already done? Will it work for the American market, or should I use it for our other customers overseas; perhaps South America or the Middle East?  In the end it’s the combination and synergy of many components to bring an item to fruition; a great new technique or finish (from the tinkerer), a bit of filtering with some design acumen, and hopefully some market savvy thrown in for good measure, but alas this cannot be accomplished at home.
Therefore; once again, I find myself, this New Year’s Eve, on a fourteen hour flight racing across the Pacific at 40,000 feet, because I have a show coming up, and meetings with customers who expect to see something fresh and exciting.  On arrival, I will, as always pour over the usual tedious production details; which must be “poured over” as they ARE important, but in the back of my mind, what I’m really thinking about are the new factories I’m going to visit, because it’s there that I will find a tinkerer, if I’m lucky, so that I can filter, and design the next new thing.