Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, magician Ricky Jay, popular author Dave Eggers and Apple computer’s Jonathan Ive were among a stellar cast of innovative thinkers who convened in Pasadena for “Stories From the Source: Radical Craft,” the second design conference organized by Art Center College of Design.
More than 800 people from around the world came to hear panels exploring various forms of craft from literature, film, fashion and cartoons to computers, vehicles and space technology.
The College’s South Campus was transformed into a glamorous, hi-tech auditorium last weekend. The entrance to the 16,000-foot event space was curtained with a cascade of dry-ice on which a rainbow-colored welcome image was projected. Inside, black ergonomic chairs were mixed with leather ones and interspersed with lounge settings of velvet furniture and café-style tall tables and chairs in the back. Booming techno music called the audience to order and introduced each speaker. Huge screens on each side of the stage displayed powerpoint presentations, video footage and the speakers themselves as they talked.
Art Center President Richard Koshalek opened the conference Thursday evening by reminding the audience that the building in which they were sitting was entirely fitting with the theme of “Radical Craft.” It was the site of a former wind tunnel used to test transonic and supersonic airplane engines.
Keynote speaker Adam Gopnik, a writer with The New Yorker magazine and author of “Paris to the Moon,” tried to define the notion of “radical craft,” starting with historical distinctions between art and craft. Essentially, Gopnik concluded, craft is “imagination alloyed with function” or “the marriage of style and function.” That practicality — the fact that crafted objects depend on solving problems and serving functions — is what makes craft radical and cutting edge, he said.
In her opening remarks, Guest Program Director Chee Pearlman, former editor of I.D. Magazine, mentioned that the theme of this year’s conference was inspired by Director of Jet Propulsion Laboratory Charles Elachi’s presentation about JPL’s work with Mars rovers at the 2004 conference. She said that “the convergence of technology and handcraft, machine and manmade” made the spacecraft, which at that time had just landed on Mars, a prime example of “radical craft.”
Elachi made an unscheduled appearance Friday to give the audience what he called a “techno-fix.” He chronicled JPL’s accomplishments over the past 2 years, including establishing a permanent presence on Mars with two rovers and three orbiters, and he unveiled cut-outs of the new rover designs.
A panel about “Story Craft” followed. Local Academy Award-winning filmmaker Jessica Yu, whose 2004 film “In the Realms of the Unreal” explored the life of hermetic artist Henry Darger, discussed the art of the documentary. “Sometimes,” Yu told the audience, “it’s necessary to fabricate. I mean, not fabricate in the way of lying, but fabricate in the ‘crafty’ sense, the sense of making something coherent out of the pieces that you have.”
Afterward, Yu screened a clip of her new documentary, which parallels the lives of four men with concepts from Euripides’ tragedies. Their unrecorded memories are re-enacted in the film with the use of handmade puppets.
Yu told the Weekly she was intrigued by the theme of the conference and pointed out that a documentarian’s techniques for telling a story, for “depicting reality,” can be seen as “radical craft.”
“It’s been great to hear somebody who works in a completely different arena wrestling with the same creative issues,” said Yu.
In the same panel, Dave Eggers, author of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and editor of “McSweeney’s,” a literary journal, spoke about his network of tutoring and publishing centers for children ages 8 to 18. He started the first 826 Valencia, an “anti-school” place of learning, in New York with an unusual and intriguing storefront that sold pirate supplies, and he took the idea to San Francisco and Los Angeles. He’s planning to add a duty-free shop for time travelers to the LA center, which currently does not have a storefront.
In Saturday’s “Word Craft” panel, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, talked about this free online encyclopedia as a community project to compile “the sum of all human knowledge.” As the 12th most popular Web site, Wikipedia has a broader reach than CNN, The New York Times and other popular media combined, said Wales. The encyclopedia started in 2001 as something of a social innovation. Open to editing by all Web users, a system of checks and balances ensures the quality and accuracy of each entry. About 615 people are responsible for more than 50 percent of the edits in the English language entries.
Former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins concluded the “Word Craft” session. Collins has changed the face of poetry by writing accessible poems about everyday topics. His books of poetry are so popular that they have broken sales records. While he definitely sees his work as “a radical departure from incomprehensibility,” his poems, like all good literature, progress toward a meaningful, thought-provoking place.
Collins let his poetry speak for itself, reading several selections. The crowd erupted in laughter many times during his readings as if being entertained by a stand-up comic, albeit a highly literary one.
“Humor was kind of eliminated from poetry for centuries,” Collins told the Weekly, “but I think it’s back now, and just because a poem is funny doesn’t mean it’s lightweight or frivolous.”
The Master of Ceremonies throughout the conference was broadcast journalist John Hockenberry, whose quick wit and thoughtful questions rounded out the panelist’s presentations.
Hockenberry told the Weekly, “There’s kind of more excitement than I expected about people really celebrating and talking about these sort of arcane craft themes, whether it’s storytelling or making felt.”
The felt reference was to Claudy Jongstra, whose intricate and innovative wool and felt designs awed attendees of Saturday’s “Glamour Craft” panel. In an engaging Q and A session in that panel, flamboyant fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi discussed the traveling puppet theater he created in his basement as a kid and the nature of his art. The idea of success is relative, Mizrahi remarked to the crowd about his thriving career and collaboration with Target stores.
“Right now I feel so much like I am expressing something, you know,” Mizrahi said, “expressing the real something that I am supposed to express. Because to me that’s what design is, that’s what craft is — it’s a personality. If you give seven people the same sweater to knit, everybody’s sweater will be completely different.”
In many ways, the conference’s most noble accomplishment was it’s recognition of craft’s continuing presence in today’s age of mass reproduction. It offered acknowledgment and inspiration to designers across disparate fields and served as a reminder that the art of design can still play a prominent and meaningful role in a market seemingly monopolized by impersonal technology.
Case in point: Throughout the conference, notebooks and sketchpads were almost as ubiquitous as laptops and Treos.
Wendy Harrington, a landscape designer from Boston, pulled out her sketchpad during lunch. “Design comes from so many places,” she remarked. “You have to sort of go to these things to stay a little inspired because as a designer you work alone a lot.”
Joachim Layes, a designer from Tokyo’s Autodesk and a graduate of Art Center’s European campus, also attended the conference in 2004 and found it “very inspiring to see so many disciplines of people coming together.” Many of the projects people discuss at the conference are large, said Layes, not only in scale but also in the effect they have on people.
“Craft is an outlet for an individual craftsperson,” Hockenberry said, “but it’s also an invitation for a person to use an object in surprising ways. It’s something that the corporate culture has to again and again nurture and remind itself that it’s there. It has to celebrate it and make sure those people understand that from the top down, people really are aware that this kind of craftsmanship, this sort of skill, is really key to the identity of who we are.”