Laura Quinn : From arts to manufacturing

Your background / story

I am an Irish designer and glassblower. I began my studies in glass in 2011 in the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Ireland. In 2015 I graduated with a first-class honours, double bachelor of arts degree in glass design, and art history and design. In the same year I had the honour to be awarded the Innovation in Glass and Emerging Glass Artist of the Year awards from the National Crafts Awards in Ireland. My work was also selected and exhibited alongside many other talented makers in a well-known Irish high end department store. I believe at this stage I could see that my work, though developed originally through the fine art perspective, had a lot of product design potential.

Since graduating I have worked as a glass blower and studio assistant, as well as a glass blowing teacher in various studios around the world including Estonia, New York, and the UK. In 2017 I decided to continue my education by enrolling in a masters of arts in 3D Design Crafts in Plymouth College of Art in Devon, England. I am due to complete my studies here later this year in September.

Your vision of manufacturing in the future

Throughout my relationship with glass I have felt frustrated with a key characteristic of the material; fragility. Glass is by its very nature difficult to bond to, the sheer ease by which it accumulates stress by processes such as drilling and cutting gives it a very finite working frame. Yet there are optical and material qualities that it offers which have fascinated mankind for centuries, and that is why I continue to work in this medium.

In David Pye’s The Nature and Art of Workmanship the relationship between the handmade and machine made is discussed. Pye mentions how each making process can provide different strengths and weaknesses (Pye, 1968, p17). From my experience working in the glass blowing industry, I feel there is a disconnected discourse surrounding the relationship between the handmade and the machine made. The handmade offers a desirable, unique product which was made in the workmanship of risk, yet design companies often wish to combine these to machine made precision-based elements. The interface is not always well considered until after the object is formed, and often the solution to bring together components made in risk and certainty is to use glue. This for me is not well considered, it makes the separation of the components difficult, in a similar way that recycling packaging such as tetra pack is very difficult due to the entanglement of materials. So my research proposal has been to find a solution to this problem. A simple way to develop this interface in a way that maintains the integrity of the components and their materials, which will allow interchangeability and repair to take place if needed. And so, my master's research question was developed:

How can we improve the interface between handmade glass and other materials to create a sustainable and authentic handmade object in the production setting?

To begin to answer this question I examined mechanical joints and connections and looked to the certainty that they provided. After a lot of failed material testing, it happened almost naturally that I turned to the on-site FabLab in Plymouth College of Art for their ability to rapid prototype items made in the workmanship of certainty, that could work with the variables that handmade glass, made in the workmanship of risk, provides.

Sustainability: process, vision, engagement

So why is sustainability important to integrate into designing my making practice? It might seem like an obvious answer, but for someone who is eco-aware, and makes the effort to be environmentally friendly in my personal life, it has been a hard pill to swallow that my glass blowing practice may, in fact, be unsustainable. As a maker I want to create more stuff…but as a designer, I can’t help see that the creation of ‘stuff’ is what has contributed greatly to our current environmental crisis.

There is now a moral obligation that as designers, what we make should have a positive environmental impact, in some way. The obvious solutions that are now wrapped up in a moral frenzy in popular news would suggest using biodegradable materials, recycled materials, carbon neutral making processes, are the solution. But I am afraid the answer is not so simple as that, and partially I believe, it is because the cause is not as simple as that. I believe the biggest change we can make to a product comes from looking at the engagement humans have with it throughout its lifespan.

Cameron Tonkenwise discusses in his essay Design Away that “heirlooming” can be used as an effective strategy for sustainable design:

‘It combines engineering expertise (in terms of design for reliability, maintainability, reparability, upgradability) and socio-psychological expertise (understanding “product attachment” how and why people value a product enough to sustain its use).” (Tonkinwise, 2014, p209).

It is through this process that I aim to create more sustainably designed glass objects. By using co-designing methods with my clients through rapid prototyping computer programmes such as Rhino, the emotional investment between the user and the object already begins to exist. Computer-aided design drawings render and 3D printing prototypes mean that the design can be easily adjusted before a single glass object is made using energy-guzzling glass melting kilns- therefore decreasing the likelihood of multiple remakes before the client is happy with the result.

Laura Quinn, Finished Glass Whiskey Tumbler Blown Glass

Laura Quinn, Owen Groombridge. CAD Drawings for 3D Printed Whiskey Tumbler Prototype

As well as looking at the beginning of the life span of an object, I look towards the latter part. How can ensure that the object is repairable, and upgradable? For this I design clever, simple mechanical fixings that allow my glass components to come together and apart while maintaining the material integrity of each part.

Laura Quinn, Plug, 2018 3D Printed Flexible PLA.

Laura Quinn and Daniel Widolff. Use of 3D printed plug to push fit glass and metal components together without using any adhesive. Handmade glass and aluminium, 3D printed flexible PLA.

Simple fixings like this allow greater component interchangeability. This has huge benefits in being able to repair and replace parts in the latter life of the product, but also for the customer to co-design bespoke products with a ‘mix and match’ approach to the modular components. With this method I aim to create a sustainable, circular design for my products.

Not only by looking at the relationship between clients and makers can we create more sustainable products, but the shift from manufacturing in the East, back to the West also made possible by the rise in local FabLabs, and Design Labs makes redesigning the relationship between fabrication technicians and experts far more possible. The immediacy of change, particularly during the prototyping stage, and ability to discuss in person, the design with technicians means that troubleshooting issues can happen in a more efficient way. The localisation of FabLabs and Design labs also make opportunities for engagement and idea generation between makers, designers, technicians and theorists more possible- and that is really exciting!

In this way, people can be seen as resources in the manufacturing process. I would propose that the future of design is in collaboration, knowledge share, co-design.

Joining the AYCH programme

The networking platform provided by AYCH, and opportunity to meet a variety of people all working towards a more sustainably designed future was my main reason for getting involved in the programme. Though spread throughout England, Northern Ireland, Portugal, Spain and France, this network is actually quite localised to the north west of Europe. As a group of countries, it is exciting to think what changes we can make here, that may have a global effect.

Taking part in the AYCH Creative Jam in April this year has allowed me to reconsider how I identify myself in the manufacturing process. I am a glass blower yes, but far more than that, I am a designer. The Creative Jam was evidence that individuals from varying backgrounds and practices can create amazing and innovative, sustainable ideas. My time so far with AYCH has given me the confidence to apply for, and take part in opportunities now that are not specific to my material background in glass, and as a result it has deeply enriched my design solutions.