Picking up on the debate surrounding digitization in fabrication and its impact on traditional crafts, Copenhagen-based SPACE10, the future-living laboratory created by IKEA, recently invited three architects—Yuan Chieh Yang, Benas Burdulis, and Emil Froege—to explore the potentials of CNC milling for traditional craft techniques. The architects came up with three divergent yet equally innovative solutions to address the fundamental issue that plagues digital production: an apparent lack of a "human touch." In a Post-Fordist world increasingly dominated by customization, this investigation holds obvious importance for a company which deals primarily in mass-produced ready-to-assemble products; however, with its advocation for the infusion of dying classical craft techniques into the digital manufacturing process, the experiment could be meaningful for many other reasons.
The project aimed to find a way to create objects with a distinct aesthetic: ones that had the unique touch and feel of something made by hand in spite of being digitally manufactured. This directed the three architects towards a study of traditional craft methods as they explored varying possibilities to expand on the current use of digital tools.
Taiwanese architect Yuan Chieh Yang, interested in the ancient Japanese craft of wood joinery, used the CNC milling machine to build a ten-meter-long wooden column without the use of any screws or hand tools. He observed the limitations of the cutting tools employed by the Japanese—the chisel could only produce straight cuts—and experimented in order to reinvent the 1000-year-old technique. The use of the machine enabled him to add subtle curves to the joinery, which he found made it easier to lock the parts together securely. Yang also suggested the use of laminated wooden pieces in order to make the process efficient and scalable to increase its applicability to the construction industry.
American architect Benas Burdulis, whose aesthetic is defined by his early upbringing around the sublime forests of Lithuania, applied the precision of the CNC milling machine to create a subtle fluted effect in a wall installation which accentuates the play of light and shadow in an interior space. He figured out a modular system to machine out a surface with a pattern—a varying curve along the entire length of the groove. This unique inherent quality, Burdulis believes, is the installation’s most effective. “When hit with direct light, it creates a subtle wave of shadow that emphasizes the fluid nature of the light... The goal is to make people more aware of their own perception and sensing of space,” he said.
Denmark-based architect Emil Froege’s interest in the poetics of architecture led him to focus on the use of copper as a light reflector “to tune the atmosphere in a space”. In an effort to understand the relationship between the digital and the natural, he explored the possibility of shaping copper, a classic craft material which has been shaped by hand for centuries, using the CNC milling machine instead. This required him to replace the machine’s cutting tool with a small metal ball, which resulted in the formation of a continuous spiral along the surface of the lamp. “You get the trace of the tool... which is quite mesmerizing,” he said.
What defines the bounds of craftsmanship—is it the process of production and the kind of tools used? Will craft perish at the heels of the digital world? “Craft is defined by intention and attention, by caring about the outcome and in relation, caring about the end-user,” declared Guy Horton in a 2013 column for ArchDaily. He believes the crux of the subject is humanism—digital fabrication can be reinvented if “it is no longer just a cold, distant, profit-generating process of production and consumption.” This is exactly what SPACE10 has achieved with this project, through the integration of classical craftsmanship with 21st-century digital tools. The subtle curve in the joinery of the wood column, the unique pattern in the grooves of the wall installation, and the continuous spiral along the surface of the copper lamp are all signature marks of the digital craftsman: produced by machines, yet harboring the imprint of the human creator.