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Interview with Syuzi Pakchyan on Fashioning Technology

I met Syuzi Pakchyan at the 2006 Maker Faire in San Francisco. At that at time, Syuzi had just finished her thesis titled "SparkLab" where she was exploring the intersection between culture, technology and craft. She was doing a workshop where crafters made light up bracelets with conductive thread and snaps. Of course, we hit it off right away and we had a wonderful interview which never made it to Switch because of a microphone malfunction. Now, with the technology glitch aside, Syuzi answers some questions about her new book "Fashioning Technology" and her views on the future of electronic craft.

Aerial the Birdie Brooch

You started out as a graphic and media designer, what prompted you to start integrating technology into your work? Technology is an every day part of a graphic/media designers work. My work and interests have naturally evolved and moved off the screen to tangible objects. Instead of designing interactions and interfaces for the web, I am now more intrigued by designing experiences for objects — wearables, toys, products, environments etc.

 

Tell us about your book Fashioning Technology, what is about and who is it for? Fashioning Technology introduces crafters to the exciting new world of "Smart Crafting." "Smart Crafting" is about cross-pollination of various traditional crafts with new conductive and smart materials to create projects that are dynamic, responsive, and interactive. Typically, this involves incorporating electronics into projects.

Fashioning Technology is an introductory book written for crafters and makers with little or no knowledge about electronics or high-tech materials and arms them with the skills to begin incorporating basic electronics, soft circuits and smart materials into any crafting project, from wearables to home decor.

 

How did you decide what projects to put in the book? I wanted the book to cover a diverse range of topics from wearables and interactive toys to objects for the home. The inspiration for the projects evolved organically from my experimentations with new conductive and smart materials. As I explored the magical properties of each material, it was really easy to translate them into fun and quirky DIY projects. A few of the projects were inspired directly from need. For example, the inspiration for the Rock Star headphones came to me when I was jogging around Griffith Park one night. My ears always get painfully cold when I jog at night and I thought it would just be a great if I could make myself a pair of earmuff headphones to keep myself warm and be able to listen to my music at the same time. I added the LEDs for safety to make myself more visible. I then decided to incorporate a project I initially made for myself into the book.

Rock Star Headphones

Where did you get your inspiration for the designs? And where what influences the technology choices? 
Most of the designs are fairly graphic and ornamental in nature — I think my background and training as a graphic designer vs a product designer comes into play here. The technology was never really front and center in the design and ideation process. I treat technology, more specifically electronics, simply as I would treat any other material — I think of the experience I want to create and if it makes sense to use circuitry to create that experience than I integrate it into the projects. Some of the projects in the book don't have any electronics at all — they simple use smart materials.

 

What was the most difficult part about writing a book like this one? (This includes personal struggles as well as logistical ones). 
The difficult part of writing the book was simply time. I was trying to balance my work schedule with the huge undertaking of writing a book. Being my first book, I underestimated how much time it would take to document the process and create all the diagrams and illustrations. The writing part was easy — the documentation portion was more complicated and time consuming. I had to re-photograph steps over and over again to make sure that it would be clear to readers.

 

If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?
If I were to write another book again, I would make sure to carve out time in my schedule specifically dedicated to writing the book. I would also love to collaborate more with other people to make the experience and the end product more rich and diverse.

 

Where do you see this genre in the next 5 years?
I think this genre is in its nascent stages. In the next five years, we will certainly see more plug-n-play electronic components and sensors coming to market that will allow anyone with little or no technical knowledge to create interactive wearables, toys and products. Leah Buechley's Lilypad is a step in the right direction — but the entry point to integrate the Lilypad into projects is still high for individuals without a technical background.

 

Has working with electronics changed your life as a designer? If so, how?
I think working with electronics has changed my design process. I think with my hands more now; I sketch by building physical objects rather than pushed pixels on a screen. Because I'm always trying to assemble things in unorthodox ways or combining one specific area of knowledge with another, the only way to determine if it "works" is by actually making it.

 

Many of the techniques in the book are from traditional viewpoints, for example techniques like screen printing and circuit board making, However it looks like you've put your own spin on it. Can you describe this spin?
The spin, I think, you're referring to comes from the cross-pollination of different crafts. For example, in the book there is a tutorial on how to create a traditional PCB (printed circuit board). I use this technique to create the Aerial the Birdie Brooch — but instead of just etching the circuit pattern, I also etch the decorative bird graphic. It's a combination of traditional intaglio printing techniques combined with PCB techniques. In essence, what you end up with is a decorative circuit board where the electronic components act as part of the overall aesthetic — a fusion of function and fashion.

 

You have some contributing designers, tell us about them and how you chose who you wanted to share this experience with.
The contributing designers/artists are colleagues of mine whose personal work I find poetic and inspiring. The Birdie Brooch and the Solar Crawler were adaptations of Ralf's "Living Particles" artwork. Sarah created the playful and lively graphics for the Luminescent Tea Table. Jed helped inspire the Solar Crawler. Contributions from these talented artists added a layer of poetry and playfulness to the book that I am grateful for.

 

Is there a person or company you'd like to collaborate with on a future project?
I am so fortunate to be surrounded by creative and talented people that I would love to collaborate in the future on larger artistic and commercial projects. Ideally, I could find the funding to support a small group of people to work on a large scale interactive projects. 
As for companies, I think working with a company like Nike (or any of the other sports companies) to bring wearables into the entertainment sporting realm would be a blast.

 

There is a very large picture of you in the front of the book with a mask on. Is that for protective purposes or was it a fashion decision?
I love that photo because it's so ridiculous. We were just goofing near the end of the photo shoot and I just put the mask on. I'm wearing two inch heels and a dust mask—which really isn't too unusual for me: I like to work in heels :-) i think the photo symbolically represents that technology and hardware tools are no longer only delegated to the boy's playing field.

 

What are your goals for yourself and your work in the future? Is there another book in your future?
My goals for the future are to continue to experiment and evolve my work conceptually. I feel that I'm just starting to grasp the potential of this type of work—so far, I've only scratched the surface. I would like to create a few wearable computing pieces in this next year if time allows. As for another book, I would love to if I could find the resources and the time. Realistically, I just don't see it happening in 2009. I would also like to leave enough time to get some helpful feedback from my audience so I can learn and improve from the first experience.

 

Not only are you smart and creative, but you have a great personal style. Can you describe your style to us and share some of your favorite designers?
Needless to say, I love fashion. Fashion designers that inspire me are Hussein Chalayan, Viktor & Rolf, and Rodarte. I love their theatrical runway presentations and almost-mythical clothing. I feel that there pieces hold an entire story.

As for my style, I like to couple delicate, feminine pieces accented with tough/fierce edge. Fifth Ave Shoe Repair is my current clothing obsession; Ann Demeulemeester is my current shoe obsession.

Do you have anything else you'd like to share with the Switch audience?
I created a social site, www.fashioningtech.com,to accompany the book to be a source of knowledge exchange for everyone interested in the topic. I'm hoping that people will share their projects, inspiration and frustrations online. I keep a blog on there with all the my musings and findings—hopefully others will do the same. So please come and join the community and together we can use it as a rich space for knowledge exchange!