Computers and Crafters

Cmmnwlth’s exquisite products forge a link between tradition and technology.


New York

It takes a lot to stupefy the sharpest minds in material science and digital design, but the polite, diminutive Zoe Coombes managed to do so. Amid presentations about parametric modeling and temperature-sensitive polymers at the Smart Geometry conference last February, the designer made a simple declaration: “This is the time for the craftsman. There’s a cultural desire to make design feel. There doesn’t seem to be a conflict between being digital and keying into old traditions of craft.” This was met with silence, and then a fair bit of condescension: Was she advocating that we use digital technology with preindustrial materials? Didn’t she believe in science?

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Coombes was talking about the kind of design that she and her partner, David Boira, have been practicing since 2005 at their New York studio, Cmmnwlth. Their quiet products, modeled with sophisticated software and produced on computer-controlled machines, would have been impossible to create ten years ago. But their material choices—close-grained wood, polished bronze, smooth gypsum—are as old-world as they come, and are informed by the expertise of a host of craftspeople who work within a two-hour drive of the couple’s Manhattan office.

Cmmnwlth excels at synthesizing the digital and the traditional. Their recent Seltanica collection features a textured surface—reminiscent of a lunar landscape or the marble drapery of a Renaissance sculpture—rendered in gypsum for a lamp and a wall hook, and in wood for an umbrella stand. “We started thinking about roughness in the digital world,” Coombes says. “The anxiety is that the digital world is too perfect. So we looked into a program that allows you to create complicated surfaces.”

The pair hit upon Mudbox, an Autodesk application that animators use to simulate skin or fur. Boira and Coombes used it to shape dozens of seemingly random undulations into the base of the umbrella stand. “A lot of these things have an incredible number of rules for getting it right,” Boira says. “None of this stuff is conceived of as, ‘Let’s just open a piece of software, start hitting buttons, and see what happens.’ ”

The files the designers generate become a platform for collaboration with a wide network of craftspeople. When they started out, Boira and Coombes filled their office (then in Brooklyn) with huge CNC machines. “We felt that if we were going to use computers, we had to become experts in fabrication,” Boira says. But that way of working—maintaining equipment and a staff of people to work it—turned out to be unsustainable. A year ago the studio moved to its current location, where it has tried a different tack.

Boira and Coombes met at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and went on to a stint at the Art Center College, Pasadena, where they studied in the automobile-design department. But all those years in design school failed to teach them one thing: “There are craftsmen everywhere!” Boira says. “So we thought, let’s use our digital language, take it to these guys, and say, ‘This is as far as we know how to go, now help us take it to the next level.’ ”

The results are often surprising. In 2010, Cmmnwlth designed the Truncheon lamp for the New York retailer Matter. The lamp’s LED strip is housed in a wooden cylinder that the designers minutely detailed, from channels for the wires to holders for the lights. But having a craftsperson operate the CNC milling machine resulted in the coup de grâce: tiny grooves over the outer surface of the wood that are clearly produced by digital manufacturing but expose the grain in a way that might make a nineteenth-century master cabinetmaker sigh with pleasure.

Cmmnwlth is still perfecting how they communicate with their collaborators. The wooden base of the Seltanica umbrella stand was produced on a four-axis CNC mill by artisans in Pennsylvania, while the bronze strips that gird the base were made in Beacon, New York. Relying on expertise from different regions made sense, but having groups of craftspeople who couldn’t communicate didn’t. “The metalwork runs in a groove on the wood,” Boira says. The metal fabricators pointed out that “if we had changed one lip, one step in the base, we could have saved hundreds of dollars in production costs.”

Heeding the lessons from every stage of their process, Boira and Coombes are finding their way toward a design that feels. “There is an enormous sense of abstraction and vulnerability when people don’t know how to make things anymore,” Coombes says. The answer is neither to make everything yourself nor to hand over files to a fabricator. When real collaboration between computer and crafts-person occurs, “there’s a moment when it’s exciting, when it feels right,” she says. “There’s an emotionality to it.”

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