By Juljka Klingler//
Could you tell me a bit about your background and your current thesis?
I come from a visual arts background. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria and I focused on sculpture, it has been a big shift coming here to Emily Carr and switching into the design program. My thesis explores the idea of the connection between First Nations, sustainable ways of living and sustainable research.
Do you feel you design better working on long-term projects or under shorter time constraints?
I think if I had my choice I would probably like long-term because traditionally my ways of working have been really repetitive. For me personally, to truly understand something, I repeat that action. In making and practicing out in the field where I am learning a certain technique, I like to do things a number of times to fully understand. In school you always have deadlines and you have to meet those.
Has anyone or a certain experience changed the way you thought about your design process?
In my undergrad I always limited the materials and was very repetitive within my process of making. I think my process has been strengthened as I moved through my thesis research. I am interested in the First Nations’ ways of knowing, and am First Nations myself- I am Coast Salish and come from the Tsawout on Vancouver Island. Part of my internship with the Coast Salish people was a cultural immersion while coming to understand and embody the First Nations’ way of life. I think this idea of practicing, observing and repeating is really strong to the culture. It was great because it strengthened something that was already there for me in my ways of working.
How do you communicate your creative ideas with other people?
It is funny because I came from a visual arts background. Usually you would make something and then put it out there and just kind of let people take what they want. Becoming familiar with design methodologies and certain ways of working made me realize my own practice was a hybrid form. There are still times when I let my work communicate on its own but I think the process that I have come to depend on through my thesis research is the idea of the story and storytelling. My whole thesis is actually structured in the form of a story. The poetics of making, working and thinking have been highlighted through the story.
Designers often think vertically and horizontally using both their left and right brains. They are forced to consider the conceptual, the practical, the visual and the psychological aspects of their design. What helps you make this shift or how do you know when to make this shift?
I think I have really started to become aware of my thinking patterns and how First Nations tend to think. They consider things even beyond vertical and horizontal thinking, through webs of relations. I start to see all these connections between things and how everything affects one another. I have been trying to shift my thinking patterns to become aware that we are not independent in this world and that there is no hierarchy between humans over, for example, plants and animals. This is where my thesis research is going.
Working with other people is also an integral part of the designer’s process. How do you keep these relationships healthy?
For my internship, cultural immersion was an important process in coming to understand sustainability, ecology, First Nations philosophy and their ways of knowing. In my internship, I had to reach out to my community more so than I did in any other situation. I think it was really important to realize that there are other people out there who have a better understanding of issues than I do and it is OK to reach out to them and ask for help to strengthen my own understanding. This may mean collaboration and going outside my own research and outside of Emily Carr as an institution, it means going to all kinds of places and people for information. For me it is not only about people. I think to really understand sustainability I first need to understand ecology and nature’s ways of working. I spend a lot of time outside in the forest, which may seem weird but it was about understanding the landscape and respecting it. My relationships are person to person but also human to non-human.
What was your experience with defining sustainability for this project?
I stuck with the conventional term of sustainability: to maintain something. But what I felt was missing from that definition was the question, how do we maintain things? I think that is where people maybe get lost, confused and overwhelmed. How do they begin to be sustainable? The word, “sustainable,” you hear it a lot as a trendy catchphrase but I was trying to find something more important. What is important to sustainability? That would be the environment: what is another part of the system to examine? That would be ecology. I began to look at how living systems interact and, as previously mentioned, how there is no hierarchy between humans and non-humans. I don’t think I’ve changed the definition of sustainability; it was more that I felt I had to take a couple steps back before I could get to the point of even beginning to be sustainable.
Why is the design process important to the designer and do you feel it is important to share process? If so, why?
I am not necessarily claiming to be a designer; I am this hybrid practitioner. During my undergrad in visual arts, I just kind of put work out there. It was not about process or letting people understand how something was made, why it was made or how it was improved. Coming into design, my whole thesis is built around this idea of process and how I’ve come to understand what sustainability means in how I have spent the last two years: truly immersed within my own culture and understanding the knowledge of the land. I think it is key that I share that knowledge or else my final project really isn’t anything. It is interesting how much I have changed and process has become so important now that I am in the design field.
What do you feel is a designer’s worst mistake? Or in your case a hybrid practitioner’s worst mistake?
I think the worst mistake is just being closed-minded. Because I didn’t have a background in design I really looked to other disciplines that could sit side by side so that they work together.
Be open to exploring and understanding what other discourses have to offer. Maybe it would be intimidating to think that I need an engineer’s help, but it’s important just go for it and the knowledge will come.
What is an essential skill to the practitioner?
I think one of the things that I realize is really important, whether I stick with art and design or research, is writing. Writing is such an essential skill in any discourse. Through my thesis research I’ve learned the power of words and the limitations of words at the same time.
What was the biggest challenge of your thesis?
I had this idea of what design was and I didn’t really fit in that box. I think I was setting up my own ideal of what design should be. I thought I would enter Emily Carr and be like “I’m an industrial designer, I work with conventional methodologies.” I couldn’t make that shift and I think I had to just let go and realize that I had my own strengths, that I could build upon my background in visual arts, still do research and learn about design methodologies and weave those two together to create this new hybrid approach.
What is the biggest difference between sculpture and industrial design?
I think I have been trying to think more about the similarities than the differences. The connection that I have had between the two is the material; I have always been interested in materials and their possibilities. I have been trying to switch my ways of thinking to not necessarily think about differences but about similarities. I guess this goes back to thinking in webs of relations.
Could you talk a bit more in depth about what you are actually making and the people you are working with?
As I said before, I am exploring the link between the First Nations way of life and sustainable research; what I did for the last two years was really immerse myself in the Coast Salish culture. What it involved was listening to elders, learning how to traditionally harvest cedar, cattail and fern fronds, and learning about my local environment. I also learned what resources were available to me and what were the best methods and times to get those resources. In First Nations culture, it is always important to harvest materials in ways that would allow them to be more productive in the future, to guarantee that they are there for future generations. I spent a lot of time just on traditional land harvesting on Vancouver Island and on some of the Gulf islands like Saltspring and Main Island. It was a lot of fun; I was outdoors all the time. I also learned how to traditionally prepare wool. We took all the fleeces and hand washed them, then dried them and learned how to spin them. Then I worked with the materials that I prepared. It was moving away from buying things and realizing the real worth of materials and developing that connection.
After harvesting cedar for a few days in a row, my hands were bleeding and I was exhausted and you realize the work that goes into acquiring these materials. It is a lot different than having that monetary value, like paying thirty dollars for a piece of wood at your local hardware store. So I most definitely developed a different understanding and more of a personal connection to the materials I am working with. I decided to work specifically with wool and cedar even though I harvested and prepared about five materials. As I said before, I am really interested in understanding materials in an intimate way. I thought five was too many, so I limited it down to two. Cedar and wool, being quite different from each other, a soft and a hard, they gave me more possibilities.
I have been creating vessels. I picked the vessel because of the connection it has to basketry and how baskets are integral to First Nations daily lives, for example they are used for cooking and harvesting foods. The vessel can be open to interpretation and it can be quite functional, creating more of a link to industrial design. However, I am looking at function in a broader sense, not in terms of holding an object, but instead holding an idea. Holding ideas about the stories of the materials themselves and the process of obtaining those materials. The story of how you can’t separate cedar from the knowledge that it took to harvest or the season that cedar is traditionally ready. The vessels are traditional yet they are not traditional. The forms aren’t traditional but there are traditional processes involved like knitting and weaving, with cedar and with wool. What I produce are these odd little things that mimic a natural form, so they speak to the place where they originated. (Laughs)
Before you have even designed anything, you have invested so much into the material itself; you have an understanding of it. How did this connection shape the form?
I think it was more just about spending time with it. I don’t ever sketch what I am going to make beforehand. I always just let the material speak for itself. And as funny as that sounds, one of my thesis chapters is called “Material Speaking.” It talks about how a fold in the felt will speak to where a piece of weaving should sit or the hole in the vessel should be a knitted edge. It is about spending that time, as I said, my practice is very slow and repetitive. Each vessel is different but they kind of work off the same ideas and the same forms. To truly understand the materials and the form itself I always have to repeat it. I don’t even know how many I have made up until now but I have made quite a few!
That is a very interesting approach. You don’t have an idea in your head and you’re not sketching it to define it and then applying it onto a bought material. You have a radically different process.
Yes. I think that is what is different then my undergrad process. I worked in the same way but I would go to the store, to the industrial plastics section, and ask myself “what malleable plastic can I bend and shape into a weird organic form?” I went back to nature; the materials still allow you to do what you want but also give you a greater understanding of the worth of those materials. So, not only am I working in between design and visual arts but hopefully contributing something to current sustainable research. What if designers and engineers, whoever it is that works with materials on a daily basis, had this connection to their materials? What if they understood where they came from, how they were processed and then asked themselves: how can this change my practice?
And many First Nations people already have that knowledge.
It is old knowledge but also new knowledge because it is beginning to emerge again and maybe it is getting rewoven with land ethics and systems thinking, other things that can sit side by side. Maybe they are not exactly the same but they can have a dialogue that is relevant in 2010. We can’t all harvest our materials and live off the land but we can start to think in terms of, how can this change the way we use and think about materials?
Rachelle Clifford is immersed in graduate studies at Emily Carr University, her work will be viewable at the 2010 graduate exhibition.