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From our experimental practice grew a furniture company

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Architecture 00’s Joni Steiner explains how an office-space commission led to a furniture offshoot championing open-source designs

Project00, a collaborative studio of architects and others, practises design beyond traditional borders. Over the years – most notably through Architecture 00 – we’ve realised public buildings, published research and launched digital platforms, such as WikiHouse. In 2011 we were given the opportunity to work on a project that led to a new venture, Opendesk.

Opendesk began life as the stereotypical napkin sketch while we were working on an interior fit-out for software agency Mint Digital. We were tasked with designing an affordable office space, including furniture suited to the agency’s working practices. With Steve Fisher of Momentum Engineering on hand, this sketch quickly turned into a functional four-person workbench, designed to be CNC-milled from standard plywood sheets.

Jump forward a few years and that same desk has now been manufactured for Greenpeace, Nike, Arup and Google in London. Perhaps more importantly, it has also been made by hundreds of independent fabricators around the world: in Paris by Nouvelle Fabrique; in a Milan workshop by MioCugino; for a New York startup by Associated Fabrication; and in San Francisco by Lucid Machine Art. Last week, in an obscure corner of north Devon, a team of makers joined the Opendesk network. This small firm, which has been making church organs for the last 25 years,  now also manufactures handcrafted, digitally cut desks.

Our furniture designs are available to be downloaded freely under Creative Commons licenses, to make yourself if you have the tools. We think this is interesting because it’s a very human way of seeing the impact of enabling technology, where digital tools, local craft skills and international designers combine to unlock an alternative, decentralised supply chain; a global model which we have started to call ‘open making’.

This is the world of marketplaces, platforms and services, of online collaborations and the sharing economy – it’s YouTube versus Hollywood, Wikipedia replacing the printed encyclopedia. This is also the broader shift that framed our thinking when we first began working on Opendesk. The simple design for a CNC-machined product eventually led us to question how the under-utilised machine time on digital tools around the world – combined with the skill of local craftspeople and the untapped talent of a community of designers – might be unlocked.

That first commission got us thinking about a bigger mission: one of open, ethical supply chains, the implications of sharing intellectual property, the possibilities of distributed manufacturing. Opendesk doesn’t ‘own’ any of the workshops we rely on – we don’t own any means of production at all. We’ve built a network of more than 500 existing ‘craft’ fabricators globally and have managed to grow to places we would never have been able to reach traditionally – by using the latent capacity in existing workshops around the world

Our  open-source desk sits alongside chairs designed in São Paulo and made in Hackney

But it’s also really about a bigger, more complex set of relationships. Platforms of so-called ‘collaborative consumption’ – from Airbnb to Etsy – are well established, and in some respects we’re asking whether ’collaborative production’ is also possible.

We’ve explored this at HereEast – London’s ‘new home for making’ on the Olympic park, where our original open-source desk sits alongside chairs designed in São Paulo and made less than a mile away in Hackney. A designer in Brazil gets a distribution channel for his designs, a client with a demanding lead time gets a locally made product, an independent workshop feels the economic benefits.

We’ve tested it further in Bristol, where we helped the city council not only furnish an enterprise centre, but also set up a ‘micro-factory’ on-site, teaching skills and creating jobs while building its own future – and all within the furniture and fixtures budget.

If local making has real local economic benefits, can Open Making – local craft with an internet connection – be the longer-term future to bringing manufacturing back to our urban areas; ‘on-shoring’ to ensure the survival of independent makers.

This is where Opendesk perhaps comes full-circle with the work of Project00 as a whole – an architectural practice as ‘experimental incubator for ideas’. Our evolution from a tiny project to a digital startup is true to the way we’ve always wanted 00 to operate – a platform for ideas and projects supported by a group of like-minded individuals.

Opendesk is a furniture company with a new operating model, and in this it shares something in common with everything Project00 is doing – rethinking operating systems, and for any given project, using design challenges as opportunities to try and maximise social impact. We think this is an exciting time for designers and architects to employ the skills at our disposal – to leverage design and technology to ask wider questions about how we make. In so doing we have an opportunity to bring about a supply chain that’s more human, social and local.

Joni Steiner is a ‘retired architect’, and co-founder of Opendesk, www.opendesk.cc

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