The aha moment that inspired the Design Friction Lab was a Do It Yourself (DIY) wall clock without numbers or minutes, just a hand pointing to what you’d be doing at roughly which hour. The clock was made three years before the multidisciplinary research lab and design studio was established at the Free University of Bolzano in 2016. Today, the lab’s sustainability-focused projects have been exhibited worldwide in renowned museums including the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany; the V&A Museum in Dundee, Scotland; and MAAT in Lisbon, Portugal. “The seconds we don't need, the minutes we don't need. The only thing I need to know is at which hour am I at, more or less, and whether I need to run to work or not before I put on my watch or before I have my mobile on me”, says Cohen.
The submission was Cohen’s first deep confrontation with the principles of DIY. Where creating, designing, modifying and repairing something gives you power beyond our modern-day dependency on specialised expertise and private companies. Cohen was compelled to simplify and demystify the ease of self-producing a clock, allowing clock users to become clock producers who could redefine their relationships to the object and create a version that would be useful in their lives. “That’s when I fell in love with DIY,” he says.
At the time, Cohen had a design studio in Münich. Two years later Cohen would join unibz with the opportunity to propose a startup project (not as in “San Francisco startup”, but rather “starting up at the University” as a new professor). A year later, Cohen launched the Design Friction Lab, and its first project DIYR. DIYR is short for Do It Yourself Revolution.
Planning the obsolescence of private companies
“It’s absurd, it's mad,” says Cohen pointing at his smartphone. “Technology is encapsulated all around us, but it’s been put away. The face of technology is always kind of beautified with clean surfaces and black glass. They're stupefying us because we don't know how it works. And if we don't know how it works, we can’t engage with it, even if it is something super easy like changing a battery,” says Cohen.
Take Apple and Samsung for example, these companies are usually fighting each other in court, because they’re copying each others’ technology, breaching copyright. “The only time they collaborate is in not enabling us, as consumers, to open this, basically saying that by the fact that we open it, we've breached their intellectual copyrights. Even though I bought the damn phone,” he says.
“It's a very strong tendency that's costing us money and creates a strange feeling of, on one hand, familiarity - they want us to love the objects - but on the other hand, it's an unknown black box. They want us to consume more and more and they want to control when we should buy a new one, usually as quickly as possible,” he says.
This is planned obsolescence. One of the earliest, yet disputed, examples of this business strategy is the Phoebus cartel from the 1920’s and 30’s. The biggest light bulb producers and sellers agreed to collectively lower the average standardised life hours of the incandescent light bulb from 2500 to 1000 hours to secure more profits. "Their impact on the world since, has been incredible,” says Cohen. He plans to fight planned obsolescence by breaking technology right open through projects like DIYR, pronounced ‘dear’.
Breaking open the black box
The project offers anyone free access to a large collection of blueprints to self-produce everyday household objects in more sustainable ways compared to market options. These objects include high and low-tech objects from fans, blue-tooth speakers and light fixtures with touch sensors. “Sensors, for example, seem like a big deal, but are super simple,” he says, a part present in some of the objects.
The blueprints, available at designfrictionlab.com/project/diyr, are designed to be easily accessible to non-designers. The goal is to empower you, regardless of your expertise, to create, for example, a fan. You can either use your local FabLab or tools you’d easily get your hands on. The objects are strikingly beautiful and highly customisable pieces with exact instructions and time frames.
In alignment with its vision to dismantle the secrecy of technology, many components of circuits are incorporated in the blueprint designs as points of visual interest. “We love honesty and transparency, so we leave all parts as visible as possible, promoting ‘formal nudity’ and ‘naked electronics’,” reads the project's website. Every object is broken down into mix-and-match parts, each with a blueprint. Parts are often magnetically attachable or detachable and the objects often include printable or paintable cardboard elements which can be customised to your unique aesthetic delight.
“Technology transfer and knowledge transfer is important, but one of the most important things in my eyes, to the larger community who might not be interested in technology at all, is engaging people in making objects that they might simply find cool.”
He imagines teenagers making a great-looking light fixture over the summer, using, for example, mom or grandfather’s tools or going to the FabLab, to create something no one else can buy in a store. Maybe by doing, even if the person that isn’t interested in getting into the black box, starts feeling a different relationship to the objects they use.
The Design Friction Lab is currently creating a larger ecosystem of DIY objects, designs and blueprints. The team now includes academic staff, Prof. Secil Ugur Yavuz and Dr. Camilo Ayala Garcia; 4 design researchers including Ignacio Merino, Emma Sicher, Matteo Scalabrini and Alan Hatlapa; and multiple helping hands.
From mass production to production by the masses
Beyond the transfer of production knowledge and making production accessible, whatever we make, very often becomes dear to us. We keep, repair and treasure it far beyond mass-produced items that are easily replaceable. “There's this incredible power that we have when people are doing things themselves,” says Cohen. “What if we could make anything,” he says, lighting up and pointing to his smartphone. His vision as a designer is to develop more resilient futures with do-it-yourself practices. When talking about his hopes for the Design Friction Lab, the spirited dean is set on building more collaborations that will illuminate the road to sustainable self-production by the masses.
Perhaps there’s a lasting light bulb after all.
This article appeared in the latest issue of the Academia magazine of unibz and Eurac Research.