Draw a Line and Follow It

May 30, 2009


One of my favorite art works is called “Zen for Head,” a performance piece by Nam Jun Paik. It is an interpretation of a ‘score’ by another artist, LaMonte Young, who was associated with the Fluxus movement of the 1950s and ’60s. This group was interested in putting the possibility of artmaking in the hands of ordinary people. Young’s “Composition 1960 No. 10” consisted entirely of the instruction: “draw a straight line and follow it.” A couple of years later, Paik did just that, dunking his head in a bowl of ink and dragging his hair like a giant brush along a scroll of paper.

It reminds me, too, of a piece by Rauschenberg (another artist working at the boundary between painting and performance) made collaboratively with John Cage, entitled “Automobile Tire Print.” It’s a direct “print” made by rolling a tire covered with black house paint over sheets of typewriter paper. Both Paik and Rauschenberg were referring to the tradition of Asian ink painting, with its scroll format and emphasis on the immediacy of the encounter between ink and paper.

I bring all this up because I’ve noticed recently a tendency towards “drawing a line and following it” in design practice. The goal is to make a product that actually looks like a sketch – with all the freshness and charm of a first hesitant preparatory drawing. Great idea, but how do you do it?

The answer turns out to digitally-aided design. We have an early example in the V&A: a drawing by Tom Dixon for his Pylon chair, designed in 1991. (Truth in advertising: Mr. Dixon is one of the current Trustees of the V&A.) Here’s the drawing we have in the collection, along with a detail:


And here is the finished chair. As you can see, in the final design the angular linearity of the computer rendering is transposed directly into 3D by using welded metal wire.

More recently, as digital design tools have become increasingly sophisticated and fluid, this idea of transposing a preparatory sketch directly into a finished product has gained ground. The best-known example is probably the “Sketch Furniture” project by the Swedish design collective Front, done in 2007. You can see the amazing video they produced alongside the furniture here.

This month’s Crafts magazine features an article on the group 1234Lab, who were trained in the Royal College of Art’s design-engineering department. For their recent project Hertz, the three men developed a means of transforming spoken words — such as “Age does not protect you from love, but love, to some extent, protects you from age” — into expressive line drawings via a rather mysterious “custom algorithm.” Then they make those computer drawings into jewellery in acrylic photopolymer. The results look like this:

As in Nam Jun Paik’s “Zen for Head,” the process of making this necklace involves both direct translation and free interpretation. Who exactly is the author here? The writer of the poetic line? The writer of the computer programming? The designer of the rapid prototyping process itself? In fact, the making of such a work is shared out among many hands, with the idea of the sketch pulling it all together. It’s a fascinatingly indirect means of creating a very immediate, even touching, object.

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