Charlotte Abrahams meets Make:Shift speakers Professor Mark Miodownik and Dr Zoe Laughlin
The Crafts Council’s Make:Shift conference opens with a series of discussions on the theme of materials. Two of these sessions involve founders of the Institute of Making: director Professor Mark Miodownik (in conversation with product designer Mark Champkins) and creative director and curator of materials Dr Zoe Laughlin, who hosts a discussion between Heatherwick Studio, designer and materials engineer Sarat Babu and multi-disciplinary designer Julia Lohmann.
The Institute of Making was established in 2003 and is a multi-disciplinary club for everyone interested in the made world. Based at University College London, it is also home to the Materials Library, a research wonderland containing thousands of materials ranging from aerogel to zinc via ferrofluid – a liquid that alters its viscosity as a result of magnetic interference – and a naturally occurring optical fibre known as TV Rock.
‘Materials research is very broad-based, and breakthroughs happen when different people with different skills come together,’ says Miodownik, ‘so what we are trying to do at the Institute of Making is bring together jewellers and robotics engineers, chemists and artists and enable them to experience each other’s disciplines.’ And he regards all of them as craftspeople. ‘To me, the word “craft” doesn’t mean a practice enshrined in tradition, but is rather a particular way of making things – a cup of tea, a piece of software, a surgical procedure. The people who do those things well are all craftspeople.’
The Institute of Making’s non-hierarchical, inter-disciplinary culture starts at the top. Miodownik is a materials scientist, director of making Martin Conreen is an artist and designer, and Zoe Laughlin is an artist and maker with a PhD in Materials taken within the Division of Engineering at King’s College London (as well as Maker Trustee of the Crafts Council). This means that their work is driven by materials and process, rather than disciplines. (Although Miodownik is keen to make clear that he believes in specialised disciplines: ‘We are surrounded by pure physics and pure art,’ he says, ‘and if those single disciplines didn’t exist then we wouldn’t have the fuel we need for our work. We’re not competing with specialisms, we’re extra.’)
Laughlin’s current projects of interest are the Sound of Materials, the Taste of Materials and the Performativity of Matter, which all encompass both theoretical scientific research and hands-on design. ‘The Taste of Materials project began by asking what the spooniest spoon would be made of,’ she says. ‘We did formal theoretical research into the taste of materials and also made sets of spoons from seven different materials. We worked with a Michelin-starred chef who created a seven-course meal to be eaten with the spoons and an airline looking to re-design the cutlery and eating objects for its fleet.’ What they found was that different materials suited different foods (copper for example brings a hint of bitterness, while silver spoils acidic food) but that 24 carat gold is the best. ‘It is totally inert,’ Laughlin explains, ‘but also brings an element of sweetness, which is probably the background taste of the user’s own mouth.’
The Sound of Materials project, which saw her making tuning forks from 20 different materials and then analysing the sounds they produced, stemmed from a desire to bring the public’s consciousness of materiality to the fore. ‘When someone actually picks an object up, this provokes a certain kind of understanding about the material it’s made from,’ Laughlin says.
Engendering involvement with materials is one of the Institute of Making’s founding principles. All three directors are passionate about the importance of stuff. ‘Materials are the fundamental buildings blocks of culture,’ says Miodownik. ‘We invented the material world and it’s what makes us what we are.’ He also believes that the deindustrialisation of the developed world has devalued making, something that is not only sad but also potentially dangerous. ‘Making is not just an economic activity, it is the equal of literature, performance or mathematics as a form of human expression,’ he wrote in a recent article for the Observer. ‘By eschewing material knowledge we cease to understand the world around us.’
Both Miodownik and Laughlin hope that the Make:Shift conference encourages a re-engagement with materials and making. ‘I want to get across a certain sense of inter-disciplinarity and to make connections,’ says Laughlin. ‘When lots of different people come together interesting things happen, and that begins with the kind of conversations we will be having here.’
Dr Zoe Laughlin will host Panel Discussion 1 in the Long Space, 2.40 to 4.10pm, Thursday 20 November. Professor Mark Miodownik will be In Conversation with Mark Champkins in the Corner Space, 2.40 to 3.10pm, Thursday 20 November