Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Maggie Orth of International Fashion Machines


JH: What is your background?

MO: I studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design and then went to graduate school at the Centre for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I became inspired by conceptual art practices and I ended my two years there doing feminist performance art. There is a lot of great conceptual feminist art in the world, but I found that the path that it led me down was not right for me. I did not feel I was reaching the people I wanted to reach. There is great conceptual feminist artwork made and there is also work that is very formulaic. It’s like the beast that ate the art world! And whether or not I was a good is almost irrelevant, it was not satisfying for me. The logic – that the main purpose of art is to say something socially – led me to the place where my art did not have any function.

JH: Your work today is very much technology based. How did that come about?

MO: I began to look at technology more from the perspective of “how can I do this?” The fact is I love to make stuff, and I’m quite good at it. So I joined the Media Lab [at MIT] overseeing this huge multimedia project. It was a fabulous time at the lab when they were just beginning to question what would happen when the computer spread out into the environment. Up until that time everyone at the lab had only made things in software. I could make physical things, so I became this commodity! For example, I could make a rubber mould and this became the most sought after information at the Media Lab. But it was tit for tat. I learned electronics and all about computers. In many ways I cut my teeth in the most deadly way. I was designing physical interfaces for the project that were cast in rubber and I made them organic forms. What I found was that the shapes I had chosen actually affected the sensor. Suddenly I had made something where the form was not neutral. When I started, computers where just these tan things and their form had no meaning. I saw a possible relationship between form and computation and materials, which was very exciting and unexplored.

JH: And this was your introduction to wearable technology?

MO: I began to ask what would happen if your clothes could compute. Working with textiles wasn’t a remote process; I could sit there and make them. That is the magic of the material; it is not just decorative but also functional. There is an internal contradiction in that. Textiles let computing have a totally different look, in a lot of ways humorous and transgressive. I think what is important for people to understand is that I don’t work in computers with textiles because they are cute; I work in them because they are perverse. The humour in my work is very important to me.

JH: How did your company, International Fashion Machines begin?

MO: I’ve done what I’ve done on a very small amount of capital and that was important to me. When I started the company I wanted to know if there was something that could go out into the real world, have a place there, be transformative and provide a fun and interesting aesthetic experience. Is there something more in these materials than just a gadget? That is the challenge that remains for me. I started the company to look at putting my ideas into fashion, but there was no way that the fashion industry was ready for it. It is starting to grow now, but there has not been much until now. I have now done a number of pieces outside the fashion arena and these products work for my company – in terms of cost of development.

JH: This includes the Pompom dimmer?

MO: It really is meant to be transgressive. It is as serious as any other piece of technology, but it does not meet the criteria of modernism. But it is functional; in fact its form makes it a better sensor because it’s a Pompom, which I think is interesting because then the decorative becomes functional.

JH: Any sense of who the audience is for these products?

MO: I think it is the funky people! That is why I made the modern line, to have a more modern version. They sell online, at the MOMA and the Cooper-Hewitt in New York City and in shops where I have shows. My sense is that I need more products that don’t need to be installed. I think that the main question for a lot of people is that they have to install it. That has been a hold up so I have been trying to get to more things that you can just take home and plug in. There was a lighting design company that looked at the Pompom dimmers and the CEO was repulsed by them. “I cannot stand them,” he said. I wasn’t offended by this! In fact I thought it was pretty funny because it speaks to this expectation that technology and modern should look a certain way. It is girly and people are uncomfortable with the feminine in it.

JH: What changes have you seen in the time you have worked with wearable technology?

MO: They [fashion] are all interested in it now. It is still a struggle, and the manufacturing and testing struggles certainly have not gone away. For a lot of companies just the issue of warranty and replaceability is still huge. But there has been a momentum behind it recently. For me, maybe because I know the industry, I feel like the applications are still limited by the lack of good display.

JH: Do you think that collaborative links continue to be weak?

MO: No, there just aren’t the materials. What do you use to change colour? Even if you use E-ink, minimum orders to manufacture are huge. And you are still not that far away from the plastic housing, you still have that. Designers are using EL [Electroluminescent wire] but the wire is ugly, even if integrated into a woven textile.  The level of integration of light up things into the textile is embarrassing. Part of it is that it is super time consuming and difficult to do.

JH: And a lack of funding?

MO: Yes, there is a lack of funding. But it is also very hard to work with light up materials. They are fragile, ugly. There is a fundamental question; if you are wearing a light-up dress is there anyway to not look like you are in a disco? Part of the reason I got interested in textiles is the femaleness of it. And now you see tons of women and artists playing around with electronics because they are now comfortable with it.

JH: Your background has considerable breadth. What are thoughts design education, in particular the increasingly digital emphasis today?

MO: Sometimes I do wonder if I am too grounded in the reality of making the thing work. The Pompom dimmer is the result of our economy and my dreams, the commercialization of technology. It’s a result as much from the possibilities as the limitations. But a lot of work is just someone’s fantasy. I’m dealing in my reality. And I am torn about it, I see myself much more in the arts and crafts tradition. There has been a lot of interest from England in my work and I think that is because they have a strong arts and crafts tradition and they have an appreciation for what that means in Europe. I wonder if there is a freedom in more scenario based approach to design that I am missing. But in terms of dealing with electronics, you need to understand it at some level.

JH: For the future?

MO: The direction of my company now lies in the products. We are going to be releasing a tabletop lamp dimmer and we also have some felt dimmers – the architect series. I’m hoping in the next year to be releasing lamps and looking at different materials to integrate for the lighting component. The colour change textiles will remain in the custom commission area for now.

JH: Best of luck.

MO: Thank you.

The Pompom light dimmers are not yet available in Great Britain and Europe, but can be custom ordered.

Future Materials (issue 2, 2006: 22-23)