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Craft brew

When tech meets touch, the mixture can be intoxicating

My first opportunity to see the connection between handcraft and new technology was in the summer of 1999. I remember the moment clearly because, in retrospect, my perception of what was possible was so far off the mark.

I was standing on the deck by the main office of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine, and had just been introduced to Mitchel Resnick, who was visiting the island. Resnick is a professor and head of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group of the Media Lab at MIT. As soon as I heard “MIT,” my response was that an intensive craft workshop program and one of the nation’s preeminent technology centers didn’t have much in common. Although we were still in a pre-smartphone era, it was clear that digital technology had already begun making rapid advances in our culture. For me, Haystack—where we emphasized the process of discovery through working with materials—was an antidote to technological changes that were replacing human touch.

I commented to Resnick that our institutions were pretty far apart in how we looked at the world. He said that he thought we actually had a lot in common. I was skeptical. MIT represented the latest technology, all wired intensity driving technological

innovation in the heart of Cambridge; Haystack, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes and built in 1960 on a spectacular sloping site overlooking Jericho Bay, was a place of retreat, where time seemed to slow down as makers experimented with clay, glass, metals, textiles, wood, and other materials. This doesn’t mean that Haystack wasn’t contemporary. Francis Merritt, its founding director, was an innovative programmer who brought in craftspeople from Asia, Africa, and Europe and partnered with makers from other fields—including visionary architect Paolo Soleri at Arcosanti. But all our work had been connected with what we perceived as what made us human, and that centered on an intimate relationship between maker and material.

Still, I realized that Haystack should begin to examine this uneasy relationship between the analog and digital worlds and initiated conversations with Resnick and others at MIT about a symposium that would bring the two together.

In 2002, Digital Dialogues: Technology and the Hand, convened 60 or so makers, thinkers, designers, and educators for lectures and hands-on activities. Half the group was selected by Haystack, the other half, by MIT. In each of our six studios, we created impromptu labs and selected one craft representative and one new technology representative to develop projects together.

It was a bit overwhelming to see the arrival of the MIT contingent—loaded down with computers. It felt like two mismatched families gathering for a wedding or a visiting sports team from a much bigger school coming to play.

​Above and featured below: Wood and Styrofoam, routed using Haystack’s ShopBot, transformed at the workshop with mit Media Lab students. Photos: Courtesy Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine

In our blacksmithing shop we paired MacArthur Award–winning blacksmith and sculptor Tom Joyce with Justine Cassell, at the time a professor in the Gesture and Narrative Language Group at the Media Lab. They decided to make a vessel in forged steel that would “tell” the story of its own making by placing sensors in the finished vessel. This involved recording audio and video during the making of the piece. I visited the studio late one evening. Joyce and others were working at the glowing red coal fires while grad students from MIT were working in the cool blue light of their laptops, creating the computer program needed for the project. It was at that moment that I made a connection to humans as inventors and makers—beginning with the mythic fires of the forge and continuing on to a digital world. What connected our two groups were ingenuity and a relationship with materials—a human story that is ancient and new at the same time.

My programming ideas continued to evolve, and I began inviting makers who used digital technologies, such as Diane Willow and Christopher Csíkszentmihályi, to be visiting artists during the summer sessions. Then, in 2009, I developed a conference at the school to investigate how artists’ work was evolving with technology. I called it Making: Past, Present, and Future and invited Neil Gershenfeld from the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms to speak. I was fascinated by his pioneering ideas about digital fabrication and a future he envisioned in which things would replicate them­selves. In addition to speaking, he wanted to bring a portable fab lab with him—digital equipment such as a computer numeric control (CNC) router, laser cutter, and vinyl cutter—so that our conference participants would have a hands-on look at the next generation of fabrication.

Gershenfeld says that when he got to Haystack with his digital equipment, it reminded him of Bob Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival. He sensed an outrage among some of our conference participants, who believed that this kind of equipment didn’t belong in the world of craft. But by then, it seemed to me a natural evolution of understanding the best way to use the tools at our disposal.

I invited Gershenfeld back in 2010 to be a visiting scientist for two weeks, and we continued to explore digital fabrication. The following year Haystack built a fab lab of its own, becoming one of hundreds of fab labs in the Center for Bits and Atoms network.

What distinguished the Haystack lab was a program rooted in craft and materials. It may be true that you can make almost anything digitally; what craft brings is a deep regard for the material. It’s not just enough to make something— each material has its own properties and history and aesthetics, and the craft maker understands and honors this. Since craft understands this continuum of technology and creativity—think of how firing clay evolved from open pits to brick kilns—it also understands that there are many ways to make things. If technology pushes us sometimes to assume faster and newer is better, craft asks us to think about how we’re going about making something. Sometimes that answer is a laser cutter; other times, it’s a pair of scissors.

As part of our orientation at the beginning of each workshop session, I would talk to students and faculty about how they could use the equipment, emphasizing the experimental nature of our program. The lab was staffed by “gurus”— often MIT doctoral students—so the conversations that we began with our Digital Dialogues symposium continued. For some people, the idea of using a 3-D printer to create work was astounding; they had been introduced to a brave new world beyond comprehension. For others, it presented exciting possibilities for expanding their vocabulary as makers. And for a mostly younger generation of makers accustomed to creating vector files and using programs such as Adobe Illustrator, it was simply another tool.

Increasingly, makers see digital tools as just another way of working. The challenge is how we use these tools. Just as potter’s wheels and table saws are only as good as the minds and hands that put them to use, a laser cutter or CNC is neutral, too. The challenge of all art and design—to get beneath the surface, to give a new voice to the age-old dialog between maker and material—is with us no matter what the technology. Faster and newer aren’t necessarily better. Craft—the slower work of the hand—may not be part of our day-to-day world now, but it exists for us as a metaphor. It says that a maker who understands materials, who employs skill, knowledge, and ingenuity, can build a human world with balance and harmony.

It also says that touch—meaning the hand and the knowledge embodied in it—is an essential part of being human. One of the enduring images from our Digital Dialogues conference was watching the MIT doctoral students late at night in our ceramics studio, enthusiastically attempting to center lumps of clay on kick wheels, the first step in forming a vessel. The clay is centered when your hands can rest on it without moving—a moment when human, material, and technology are in balance. May all creative journeys begin in places like that. ■