The Process of Transformation


Just like any other product design student, I've marveled at Charles and Ray Eames’ designs. Their trademark of bent wood, in particular, has transfixed me every time I lay eyes on it. Until a few weeks ago when one of my professors introduced us to a new project. We were to build wood trays that bent in such a way that required the use of vacuum bag technology. I viewed this project as my most ambitious. And also, quite possibly, the death of me.

It took only a few short weeks for me to look at an Eames lounge chair with a certain pervading frustration. I was in the middle of the tray project when everything seemed to fall apart. I mean this literally.

Wood that was meant to be seamlessly curved ended up jagged and either too short or too long. Crucial parts of my mold would shatter when I shot staples into it. On one particular occasion at the wood shop, I spent a solid three hours trying to figure out how to set up and use a vacuum bag without air leaking out of it. I had seen the demonstration, yet couldn’t seem to do it myself.

However, the biggest detriment to this project was the moment I asked myself: Am I really cut out for this, or did I force myself into a discipline I do not belong in? 

This question would ruminate in my head in the days to follow and with every passing day, I would feel stronger and stronger the answer was NO. Though I always knew that the question of self-doubt would remain present in any sort of creative practice, this time felt different. The underlying pressure I've maintained of having to be everything to everyone was emphasized when I asked a follow-up question: Does this mean I should drop out?

And then one day, I reached a turning point. I was able to vacuum my wood onto my mold. Once I had done so, I left it alone for 45 minutes like I was instructed and then I unsealed the vacuum bag and all the air was let out with a loud swoosh.

Still, I was apprehensive that the wood hadn’t bent. Perhaps it was trauma after all those days that I had left the woodshop in defeat. However, once I shimmied the piece out of the bag, I saw that the wood had, indeed, bent.

Vacuum forming , in action.

Vacuum forming, in action.

It was strange and startling to me that, at one moment, things could be impossible––no matter how much I willed it not to be––and then at the next moment, witness it happen before my eyes. It was then that I realized that the act of making is, and would continue to be, hauntingly precarious and wholly gratifying––almost like a ballerina performing a pirouette on stage for the first time. This was a thought that I would have to get myself acquainted with for the next few years and perhaps, the rest of my life as both a human and designer (but more so the latter).

There are no guarantees in design. It is uncertain whether people will love your work, that you’ll make a perfectly precise cut, that you won’t lose a finger while using the bandsaw, and that you’ll be able to bend wood that is intrinsically rigid. There is only a heap of helplessly hoping and most of the time, failing in succession. Persistence is necessary in order to fulfill this routine. And this, I would have to come to terms with.

Illustration by Aaron Dickey of Unknown Studio