A/D/O by MINI | Thomas Thwaites: designing the question

Thomas Thwaites: designing the question

Whether living as an Alpine goat or building kitchen appliances from scratch, designer Thomas Thwaites tackles his projects back-to-front.

You may have seen images of Thomas Thwaites on all fours, nose to nose with a goat. Wearing a helmet, prosthetic hooves, and even a prosthetic rumen – the part of a grazer's stomach that allows them to process grass – this intriguing image implies an unusual background story. Stressed out by social pressures of his everyday life, Thwaites initially started the project as a way to take a vacation from being human. Living among goats on a field in the Alps, he started to notice nicer bits of grass and the hierarchy of goats who could feed there, where he was at the bottom of the goat hierarchy. What began as a lighthearted concept quickly became a profound inquiry into our humanity. In his book GoatMan he highlights the insights into technological progress and a perspective on the post-human state this experience surfaced. This project, like many of his projects begin with a seemingly simple question or objective that through design experiments, unearth hidden truths about production, our environment, and humanity.

Each project starts as a personal pursuit, and as Thwaites centers himself in his work, he has learned to use his voice as a tool. He gets people interested with compelling proposals, and through examining his own flaws, he starts to work things out alongside the audience. Part of that is “Acknowledging your own pomposity and ridiculousness and error prone human nature,” he told The Journal. This vulnerability in sharing his own experience complete with shortcomings “helps people empathize.”

The objects he makes in his process are not typical mass-producible items. Instead they are an approachable assemblage of handmade pieces made accessible through the stories they tell. Thwaites describes his process: “Design is like a bridge or a stepping stone [...] When using design as a research tool, you have to start with something mundane and relatable and take steps into a more complex world view.” In this manner his objects become educational tools that lead the unsuspecting audience, from children to adults, into surprising lessons. Curiosity is one of Thwaites main assets; one that reveals unspoken assumptions.

In his first viral project, he set out to build a mundane item, a toaster, from scratch. In the Toaster Project, he shares his trials such as his attempts to make some of the interior toaster technology through mining and processing iron ore, or the impossibility of making the plastic for the toaster shell without the help of a microwave. It is a hilarious and a humbling journey, and the resulting bizarre melted-looking contraption is a testament to the difficulty of making a mass-produced item, alone. Starting with the simplest of tasks, making toast, he uncovers the extent of individual reliance on huge chains of production we all contend with. It is a refreshingly playful way to describe systemic failures.

His next project is an attempt to design an object that causes no harm. Setting out, he acknowledges that “it’s probably impossible.” And then he ponders: “From there you have to decide who you are going to harm. Maybe that is what you have to do with any kind of design to different extents.” This project speaks to the legacy of Victor Papanek, author of Design for The Real World and The Politics of Design, who in the 1970s called out the detrimental harm that industrial design has done to society and ecology. Through naming the negative structures designers have contributed to, he held designers responsible for the impacts of their work. While he was highly regarded, his work was in many ways ahead of its time, and certainly preempted the plastic-filled shorelines, and an acute awareness of pollutants we live with today. 

Whether it is circular design, sustainable design, design for social impact, or ecological design, in the past decade there have been many attempts to design with minimal negative impact on the natural environment and on one another. There is no equivalent of the hippocratic oath binding designers to do no harm but there is a growing social pressure to be cautious and aware. From bioplastics, to the autonomous and electric car, what have been considered major innovations of this time were conceived in pursuit of this end. At the same time recent inventions, such as systems to digitize the workforce or hyper-connected smartphones, are under scrutiny for the harm they are causing. Harmlessness, by other names, is the obsession dominating the design industry. 

As Thwaites often does, he has pinpointed the central instigator in a system and distilled it into a simple approachable project. This project will inevitably touch on ecological and material impacts, social stressors, production methods, and through the choices he makes, expose the ethical and physical dilemmas wound into the pursuit. “My work is to reveal [...] assumptions hidden in blind sight,” Thwaites said. “We need to continue trying to see what we are doing in new ways.”

Text by Lily Saporta Tagiuri.

Images courtesy of Thomas Thwaites.