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© Daniel Alexander

The Toaster Project: A Talk With Thomas Thwaites


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Introducing critical designer Thomas Thwaites; you may have seen his TED talk, watched him on The Colbert Report, or met him at the Royal College of Art’s Inspiring Matter conference, telling us all about his inventive Toaster Project. A designer of sorts, he explains a little more about the ‘fields he walks across’ when he’s working on his projects.

So Thomas, could you tell us a bit about what you do?

So, I am a designer, but in the broadest sense of the word I suppose. I guess design is becoming broader and broader and that’s something which I’m kind of pleased about! I’m coming from this area of design which was variously being called critical design or speculative design, or discursive design – the idea of which is to use methods and techniques and processes, tricks of design, not to necessarily make products for sale, but to investigate the world around us and then to present these investigations, to society at large.

© Thomas Thwaites

© Thomas Thwaites

It’s not necessarily about selling your ideas, because part of this nebulous field (although it’s becoming less and less nebulous), is this idea of creating debate. Science and Technology and Economics and Politics and so on – they’re a hugely important part of the world and they’ve shaped society going forward. I’m speaking just as a feeling here as I’m not a scholar of fine art; the arts traditionally have been about commenting critically on culture, but I think there was a time where there was a lot of comment on culture, and less comment on science and technology and how that shapes culture. So I guess what I do and what lots of people are doing now, is try to explore this massive part of society but through a kind of creative outlet.

So my background I studied Human Sciences, and before that I did an Art Foundation year and before that I was doing Computer Science and Physics – But there’s never been a way to be in that middle-ground, until a particular Postgraduate course at the RCA, which was trying to fit into that gap. I graduated from this course ‘Design Interactions’ at the RCA, and the tutors, Fiona Raby and Tony Dunne in a sense, helped to start the area in design which is this ‘critical design’ approach. What sums it up for me when I think, “what am I doing?” is that in the 80s and maybe coming into the 90s, design has always been in the service of industry and is always about solving problems and creating desire for the next product and so on. Architecture has had an academic and self-reflective side to it, whereas industrial design hadn’t really developed this kind of critical aspect – but now it has, and that’s where I fit in.

So do you find it quite hard to explain something that’s still not so well-known amongst the general public?

Yes, it’s very well-known amongst designers, but you still get “so what do you do?” at parties, and you tell them you’re a designer and they want to know whether you’re a fashion designer, a mobile phone designer, an interior designer and so on. So it’s quite difficult to say “Well, I’m kind of a designer that doesn’t actually make anything in production, but sort of do projects which could be basically about…anything!” There are efforts to codify it to this field of discursive design or speculative design. It hasn’t really got its own word yet, it’s kind of on the fringe of fine art but I don’t think I’m an artist!

What would you say has sparked your interest in bridging the gap between artists and scientists? Is it something you have learnt as you’ve studied these different courses or is it something you set out to do in school?

The Toaster Project © Nick Ballon

The Toaster Project © Nick Ballon

There’s such an overwhelming pace of technological change and societal change at the moment. It’s fascinating, this idea that the future is foreshortening with the exponential technology curve, while Moore’s law repeats itself in all these different fields. So it’s amazing to be able to look at these things and just go and talk to a Scientist about it. It’s a great way to work; finding something interesting, contacting people to try getting into the subject and starting a project.

I suppose it’s quite an outward looking thing that the field is trying to, to try and find something interesting in the world and go and approach it. I’m slightly unsure about the pedagogic view of how much of it is finding something and then translating it into a project which is then for public consumption, as opposed to how much learning takes place. I think it’s an interesting question and it probably goes back to the Art/Design divide and how concerned you are for your audience and how much work you expect them to do before being able to engage with a project. It’s interesting to know whether you want that instantaneous engagement from whoever happens to come across it. The public is a vague term, so I think you can create work to spark debate amongst the public or just cross borders and get Scientists who are working in this very academic setting, to start thinking culturally. So the purpose is still unanswered for me.

Many people have already heard about the famous Toaster Project through your book, The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch. Could you explain the project and its outline?
I tried to make an electric toaster starting literally from the ground, up. I basically tried to reverse engineer the cheap pop-up toaster I bought for a few pounds and see if I could actually remake it myself starting from the raw materials. Electric toasters, as well as most other things we rely on in our modern lives, all derive from materials that have been dug out of the ground and have been refined in some way to produce a shiny laptop or an electric toaster. So I thought, “how does that magic transformation happen; if I was on a desert island would I be able to make something myself?” So I thought a toaster shouldn’t be that hard to do as people have been making metals for thousands of years. I think people, and I certainly, have had the idea that we have grown a lot more intelligent in the Industrial age… we just assume that Iron Age man was no more than a Neanderthal, but actually it’s just the culture and context that has changed. So anyway, it turns out making metals from raw materials is actually very hard and there’s a reason why it’s taken thousands of years to perfect.

So I tried to make steel to make the spring to pop-up the toast – it turns out I couldn’t make steel, I could just about make iron. I also wanted to try and make plastic for the casing, and so on. So it just brought home how inter-reliant the whole world is and so it was about that.

The process was to pick a line – which was to make a toaster – and follow that across whatever discipline happened to get in the way – Physics, Chemistry, but also industrial history and Economics. So it was about this journey and I think that’s partly why it’s garnered attention from more popular news outlets; it’s kind of got this story and then this journey, and then a project about “my desire to make a toaster” and so it’s all quite neatly packaged for a popular news outlet. But then hopefully it’s about this grey area: how do we square the circle of being, I suppose, thankful to Capitalism? Because it’s brought about these comfortable lives we lead and all this wonderful stuff but then also the concern of this system that we’re beneficiaries of, where some parts of the world are being torn apart to create such modern lifestyle. I hope it’s not shouting from either side of that debate because the interesting thing is to acknowledge both sides and try and push them forward. It’s also about crossing scales through an expedition, to try and make a mundane domestic appliance, most of which are produced in vast quantities in huge factories, on a domestic scale.

© Daniel Alexander

© Daniel Alexander

So, yes it’s nice that it’s left the confines of ‘graduate design project’ in this quite obscure sub-field of design and it’s gone out into different groupings. It’s been slated by a libertarian free-market blog, but they slated it for the wrong reasons – I think they assumed that because it was from art school, it must be advocating that we must all make our own stuff for the world to be a better place. Well in fact, that’s exactly what I’m not saying because it’s a bit unrealistic considering that there are 9 billion people on the horizon! So I wrote back and it created this storm of comments and this is the kinds of crossover it’s experienced, along with going up to talk to sculptor Steven Claydon in Colchester and also receiving emails from children who tell me how they liked the book. It’s genuinely nice to have something which has gone out there. I think part of the success, of the book at least, is that it speaks in a way that is almost silent, and says we have to acknowledge the context in which we live in instead of trying to live without plastic for a year or something!

What would you say is the most significant milestone for you, from where you started your journey to where you find yourself now?

The Toaster Project has been kind of insane for me. The book came about when I printed a few copies to show alongside the toaster at the exhibition of my final show, and showed this self-published booklet to a very kind but also quite famous graphic designer – Michael Bierut – when I had had a few drinks. He like it and showed it to his publisher and then they decided to publish it and so it’s been quite accidental in its result – it was just something that I wanted to do and it became this story that crossed over from design media into some other interesting areas.

People may also have heard about the Channel 4 TV series that you’re working on based around the project. How is that going?

Yes, well I’m not entirely sure when it’s going to be on and who the target audience is going to be, so it’s all up in the air at the moment. What it raises for me is the oddness of a whole new field, because TV is definitely its own field with its own ideas about what is good, so that was interesting to be a part of. It’s very strange as The Toaster Project was all about one person (me), trying to do something more or less all myself, and suddenly in TV you’ve got Director and Commissioning Editor and it’s now a collaborative thing as well, and with a lot of people!

One of the other complex projects on your website is the Unlikely Objects project – it’s quite bold and very innovative – did that come about through collaboration with someone from a Science background?

Yes, I mean it’s partly down to the fact that I did a Philosophy of Science module at University (which is partly why I didn’t do the PhD in Biochemistry. I was interested in this idea of whether there could be another scientific view of the world which is equally as advanced but different somehow. So it’s about the ‘counterfactual history’ of Biology, which is this device used by historians to get a handle on how important a specific event in history was. The idea is if this event hadn’t happened, would anything have changed. Although it’s a well-used approach in history and in fiction, I was interested to apply it to the history of Science, because of course Science makes claims about being true.

The idea was that if Darwin cut his foot open on a sharp rock, and died on the Beagle Voyage, and we’d never had On the Origin of Species, would we still have the current theory of evolution? And of course there were other people thinking about the same theory at the time, one of which was Alfred Russel Wallace, who actually wrote to Darwin outlining exactly the same theory and who actually published a paper with Darwin.

So, the project is about whether there is something within science that minimises the effect of chance events on the progression of knowledge. So doing a design project about that turned out to be quite tricky – I tried to write a ‘choose your own adventure’ history of Biology – I think just writing a history of Biology is quite hard, but then writing a made-up history of Biology that’s still plausible multiple times, proved to be ambitious and I’m not sure if I’m quite finished.

'Choose your own history' book © Nick Ballon

‘Choose your own history’ book © Nick Ballon

It’s interesting because I got in touch with this Scientist, Professor Marcus Pembrey. There’s this whole debate going on at the moment about epigenetics which floated around during the age of On the Origins of Species and was perhaps overshadowed by the paradigm of the modern synthesis and this reductionist version of Biology we know. But now there’s this re-examination of earlier ideas and so I tried to think about what would happen if this slightly alternative view of epigenetics had been the one that had been stamped into the genetic discipline. I’m not sure if it’s entirely finished, although trying to design around the philosophy of Science was eye-opening in itself.

The innovation surrounding the Energy Futures project is something that interests us at Urban Times. You theorise about a future where humans work around natural weather conditions rather than constantly adjusting the atmosphere to work around us. The project was tackled in quite an amusing way i.e. turning body fat into external energy!

Do you think it’s reflecting a real possibility in the near future or is it a bit of an amusing take on the view that we’re self-indulgent?

Yes, I quite liked that project. To answer your question, it’s a bit of both – we were set a brief by the Interactive Institute in Stockholm, who was working with the Swedish energy board. There were practical parts of the project going on and our brief was to think about “futures” and so on. The intention was not to go too far into Utopia or Distopia because you can imagine such a future, but I think it’s more interesting to imagine that bit before you actually get there. So it’s got to be different enough to be saying something new, because if you’re not imagining something different – well then what’s the point? It’s also go to be similar enough that it’s somehow fits into this world that we all know. It’s about the journey man! It’s about change – there’s no point thinking, “Okay so we’ll start this movement and if everyone in Britain starts tomorrow, then that’s the problem solved” – which I think is often the case. It could be a great idea, but if it relies on everyone starting to do it, then it’s not actually a very good idea. It’s how you get to the idea that can be more interesting. So that was the thinking behind the general project and some of the things we talked about were further ‘out there’ than others.

I suppose the idea for a conversion of body fat to energy was quite fun to think about, but since then a friend of mine has independently done a similar project where she’s looked at it more seriously and asked scientists whether this could actually work. Although it seems fairly ridiculous to imagine people having implants to power their gadgets and so on, the whole point of the Futures realm is to imagine something which is new and sounds ridiculous. It’s the idea that things will definitely change, but generally people and society at large expect things to change much more slowly or not at all. I also realised there’s no way as an individual to get to the future, because it just happens so slowly that it’s kind of mundane by the time we’re there. There used to be this computer game when I was a child called Syndicate, which had the classic science fiction trope of video billboards. But actually you go into tube stations now and there they are; I remember thinking, when I see video billboards I know I’m in the future. There’s a realisation that we’ll never get to the future but we can think about it. And also I think that’s why there’s a mundane feel to the projects I do, with a bit of humour – There is some beauty, but I try and tinge everything with a bit of the everyday.

In your project on Nanotechnology, you talk about us being in this YouTube age with our increasing amounts of digital pictures. You question the authenticity of these captured memories and their novelty because of the amount that we have. What you propose then, is having these images that you only get to see once before they’re gone forever! How would it be for you if this came to light in a mainstream way?

Amazing! It’s this thing about the expanding universe and there coming a time when we won’t see any stars in the sky because the universe will be expanding faster than the speed of light – so it’s about how valuable it would be to capture that light. Of course the idea of viewing something one time only in one specific place in the future is a kind of time capsule, which makes it special. Waving at a camera, you don’t know who you’re waving at; it could be played back to anyone at any time. I suppose with this one-time capture device, you might not know who you’re waving at, but you know there will be this one moment in the future that you’re waving at! There’s something a little more personal or special about sending a message to a specific time. I think I could definitely take the project further.

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The Executive Chair makes fun of the hierarchy of the working environment and the way you convey yourself in an interview. Do you see it having any kind of solution, or even needing a solution?

I saw this talk by a Psychologist who got one group of people to ’power-pose’ before their job interviews and got another group to sit unconfidently hunched up before theirs. To an astounding degree, the people chosen at random to power-pose before their interview were rated so much more highly by the interviewers. So this idea that the mind controls this passive body is completely wrong and that’s what I was trying to show in the project. It slightly relates to the Unlikely Objects project in relation to a counterfactual history of Science i.e. the conventional idea that DNA governs who we are through this one-way flow of information to the body and not the other way around. Of course, the argument is that it’s a 2-way flow in the same way that how you hold your body affects how you feel and think. It’s also about the design of executive chairs – they’re not just to make you look like an Executive, they’re to make you feel like an Executive..!

Executive chair elitism © Thomas Thwaites

Executive chair elitism © Thomas Thwaites

 So a lot of your projects tell good stories like some that we’ve talked about. You conjure up these ways for people to understand what you’re trying to put across – have you always been a good story-teller?

Maybe, on some level! I was thinking about that when my mum found an old exercise book of mine where me and my friend had written this comic sci-fi story called ‘Brainy John & Muscley Thomas’, so I got to read some of my earlier stuff. I’ve always loved Fiction and Science Fiction and really like stories. They can be exceptionally powerful and can have a cultural narrative in a wider sense – a good story can change the world. I don’t know if I’ve always been a good story-teller after re-reading my comic, it was funny though.

You’re currently completing your residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude, so what’s brewing there?

I applied to do a residency with the idea for a project about ‘the home of the future’. It’s partly in reaction to the ‘digital connected home of the future’ we’re so familiar with, for example the fridge that orders your milk – that’s been the home of the future for so long and is not even the future anymore as we are living in the digital age. So I thought the ‘home of the future’ gets periodically updated depending on what the current societal concerns about the future are. You’ve got the wonderful ‘home of the future’ where everything’s plastic or ‘home of the future’ with an integrated bomb shelter, for cold war anxieties and so on. So what’s our ‘Home of the Future’ is the question I’ve started asking and I’ve basically realised that ‘the home of the future’ doesn’t really make any sense. It should be ‘the homes of the futures’, because the former is more of a Western term with major corporation sponsors like the classic American ‘Monsanto House of the Future’ created by Monsanto, MIT and Walt Disney Imagineering. If you were going to somehow find out the average ‘home of the future ‘, it would probably be something like an unofficial dwelling somewhere on the outskirts of an Asian megacity! So if you were just going to do one ‘home of the future’ to be representative of the world, considering the population it wouldn’t be this American vision of a home we are so familiar with. So what would be an African ‘home of the future’ and so on?

I’m just starting this project so I’m still thinking about it and whether I’d like to continue working with the future, considering what we’ve discussed. I have another 6 months or so at Schloss, on the outskirts of Stuttgart!

For our readers, what advice would you give to those who are trying to follow in a similar field or trying to get involved with a cross-disciplinary way of working?

I’ve always found that getting other people involved in your projects is always a good thing to do; not only is it a motivational thing if you’re trying to do a project you’re not quite sure about, and you are pushing yourself to do things because there are others relying on you, but it is also widening the scope of your work which is really useful – whether you collaborate or just seek a couple of pointers on a paper. You may gain bigger and more robust ideas, and you are relating your work with what’s going on in the world. It doesn’t necessarily need to be useful – with the Toaster Project, it was hard for me to see the point in making a toaster very slowly and quite badly, but then gradually the value became clear. Though perhaps a bit difficult to put your finger on, there is a sense that you’re creating a discussion and contributing to what is going on around you.

Thank you Thomas, we’re excited to see more work from you.

Thank you very much.

Thomas has shown a great amount of self-belief in his visions, which may seem obscure at first, but looking closer at his work and certainly at his process, there is clarity in Thomas’ approach. It may be the case that people want to create something wonderfully useful for the end-user, however it seems that the journey has the potential to be distorted if one’s vision conflicts with that of this ‘end-user’. The case can be argued either way, but the concept here remains that it is certainly about the thirst for discovery;  investigation seems to be a significant part of Thomas’ work, which can speak volumes to the end-user.

Topic for discussion: Does investigative design have the significance and potential to emerge as an accessible approach in the creative field; is there possibility for it to be regarded as a discipline entirely of its own?