Rebel Aesthetics


This was a talk that I gave at the Material Innovation Centre at OCAD University about my personal making processes and the materials which I use. Below is a small piece of my talk.

There is much talk in our fields about what materials should be used. There are economical, stability, durability, aesthetic and sustainability issues that need to be factored into the decisions that we make. What is sometimes overlooked is how the materials we use communicate meaning through the ways we physically work with them, how their meanings shift depending on the context within which they are read, not to mention the assumptions people hold about those materials and their usages.

I have turned more and more to working analogue as this forces me to continually work in a realm of uncertainty. The physicality involved in the making is unique to each individual. This is due to the fact that one must use their hands, and the dexterity and limitations of the hand differ from person to person. Hands and mind function together, working through materials, techniques and ideas to create an artefact. This artifact becomes a part of the maker’s signature and lends itself to the generation of a unique aesthetic voice.

The materials used hold meaning that becomes enmeshed with the object produced. Take the skirt that I am wearing as an example. On closer inspection it becomes apparent that it has been made from old clothing. This upcycling of used goods reveal the artisans worldview regarding the throw-away society we live in. The skirt itself is fairly rough–the seams are uneven, the stitching is not straight and the fabric is puckered in spots. This reveals the struggle of the artisan working with materials that were not meant for skirt making. This skirt also upholds my own personal philosophy and thus my buying it and wearing it gives me a certain satisfaction of supporting the artisan, having a unique style, buying loca, and delaying the introduction of these clothing articles into landfill sites.

When creating something by hand there can be unpredictable results, inconsistencies and even mistakes that cannot be undone. This is what David Pye classifies as the element of “risk” associated with handcraft. The computer on the other hand allows for multiple “undo’s” in order to fix the issues that arise while working. These issues can be deleted and redone. This is what Pye classifies as the workmanship of certainty.  

The patchwork posters seen here are created by hand-cutting, peeling the backing off the cardboard squares, assembling, and machine-sewing pieces of consumer product packaging and are a way of exploring the use of handcraft as both a technique and idea. The act of sewing and the materials used hold social, economic and cultural relevance which complement and contradict each other in the final artefacts.

Every piece that makes up a poster is carefully selected from commercial packaging based on colour and content and is placed in such a way as to spell out a word. For example the white poster that spells “LURE” is comprised of beauty packaging including makeup, makeup-remover, perfume, anti-aging, anti-acne and anti-odour products. The posters comment on the pressure society puts upon women in regards to their body, their appearance and their behavior and their need to look appealing to the opposite sex.

As Howard Risatti states: “the hand-made-ness of the craft object offers a meaningful alternative worldview to the one offered by the possibilities of unlimited material consumption that the limitlessness of machine production encourages. Thus the juxtaposition of consumer goods packaging with sewing encourages a rich discourse between the two modes of production. Each technique challenges the other for status within the artifact. In this poster series banal packaging are taken out of their usual context and turned into something unusual, making them extraordinary.

The act of sewing together pieces of consumer packaging is a comment on how corporate logos and slogans have become part of our homes (our domestic, private lives) and part of who we are. The posters expose how the consumption of products has become naturalized. The pieces making up the posters were selected for their content – the messages and issues that women are confronted with on a daily basis. By isolating certain text, colour or image from the package within the individual pieces allows the reader to pay greater attention to the details. The information contained in each square is given greater significance than when it is seen en mass within the context of the rest of the container. Thus handcrafts are medium-based activities and the materials that are used contain contextual meaning and a dimensionality that support and embody concepts.

Paula Owen states that objects link us to thoughts, memories, sensations, histories and relationships rather than being an end in themselves with a predetermined meaning. Instead they become catalysts for any number of unpredictable effects. Thus the process of making becomes an essential part of the objects’ identity. The fact that the pieces are sewn together is a way of utilizing traditional techniques of handcraft in an unconventional way.

Meaning is held in the labour and assembly and in the case of these posters the struggle. Machine-sewing paper patchwork leads to several technical problems. Much of the stitching is not straight. The pieces are not aligned. And the varying thicknesses and aspects of the collection of materials contained in each piece adds to the clumsiness and fragility of the artefacts. The end result is in direct contrast to the conventional notion of perfection in machine-made objects. The fact that these posters will not lie flat, they buckle and curl, could be seen as a disgrace, a lack of ability on the part of the maker but in fact directly co-relates to the rhetorical ideas that these posters suggest – that imperfection is ok.

The machine mass-produces many items that were handmade in the past and the computer is able to simulate many techniques of the handmade. If handcraft is no longer needed in Western society for essential everyday needs it is my conclusion that handcraft has been freed. It is no longer beholden to its traditional forms and functions. Handcraft techniques can be explored, reinvented and applied in unconventional ways in design practice. The physical nature of making handcrafted objects and the materials being used along with the historical connotations, social contexts and cultural relevance will remain ever-present but through its reinvention handcraft can be utilized to create multiple levels of discourse in the discipline of graphic design.