For This LA Duo, Design and Fabrication Go Hand in Hand

MachineHistories combines digital expertise with a real affinity for the physical tools of making.

“Specificity leads to death,” Steve Joyner says. You specialize in anything and it has the potential to go away—look at Flash.” The 40-year-old Art Center College of Design graduate is one-half of MachineHistories, a Los Angeles–based design collaborative that runs itself like a lab, dedicated to bringing its clients’ complex projects to life while researching its own manifold interests. The firm’s other half is 41-year-old Jason Pilarski, who was teaching an Art Center class that Joyner enrolled in during his junior year. Pilarski agrees: “We try to be part computer programmer, to be a painter, a carpenter. We try to work smart, not hard.”

The two stand in the middle of their workspace, which is organized like a traditional factory: A few feet above the floor is their raised office with its wall of windows, where a factory boss might gaze down upon his line workers, who would be industriously operating the machinery that fills the main warehouse space. Here, Pilarski and Joyner play both roles: boss and worker, brain and muscle. They don’t just run and work the factory, they built it, located in an industrial stretch of Cypress Park, just northeast of downtown L.A. The place was raw, and, in exchange for an attractive lease, the duo took on the renovations themselves.

“We thought, ‘Why can’t we?’ I went to Home Depot and literally picked up some how-to books, and then it was, ‘Here’s my book, here’s your book,’” says Joyner, who sat down and learned all about plumbing while Jason figured out the electrical panel. That was six years ago. Now, a fine layer of sawdust covers everything in the space—from the black and chrome motorcycle that sits in one corner to the five-axis CNC machine in another—giving the whole room the look of a sepia-tone photograph.

Some of that dust is from a series of panels depicting time-lapse images of a live stream from a nature reserve in California that they took from concept to execution for the L.A.-based environmental artists Greenmeme, who will be using them as part of an installation in San Jose’s airport. The studio is also in the midst of fabricating several pieces for celebrated multimedia artist Doug Aitken’s upcoming show, and it recently shipped out an eccentrically elegant balustrade that architect Warren Techentin designed for a private residence; each of the individual balusters is a spindled form that originates from the facial profile of one of the family members.

MachineHistories’s enviable client list is filled with thoughtful, experimental designers and artists like the team at Ball-Nogues Studio, Rios Clementi Hale, and Geoff McFetridge, but it’s also done work for Frank Gehry. The team kicked off its collaboration with a project that remains its best known: Pae White’s Widow of a King bedframe, CNC-milled from white Corian, which the artist described in 2006 as having the look “of something that might have been carved in the Black Forest, but by an albino alien.” Menacingly ornate, nearly flawless but somehow askew, the piece became a calling card for MachineHistories’s philosophy of making, which is neatly embodied in the firm’s own name. “You need to have a direct relationship with the tool,” Pilarski says. “It’s about letting the machine breathe a little bit. Every machine has an idiosyncrasy, and we want to use the flaw, let it show.”

Joyner adds, “We’re thinking through the machine. We want to make something that’s perfectly imperfect.” It’s a very twenty-first-century stance, always aware of the present and the past, the digital and the analog, privileging neither, allowing both to influence the final product.

“They’re both sort of punk in how they think,” says David Schafer, an artist and Art Center professor who co-taught the 2003 class with Pilarski, where the duo met and began its collaboration. “There’s something raw and direct about it. They allow machines to do things that other people might not actually allow.”

Pilarski was actually Schafer’s student at New York City’s School of Visual Arts, where he got his B.F.A. After getting an M.F.A. from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, he worked briefly in visual effects, on movies like the The Matrix and Spider-man, and large-scale art projects with Robert Graham and Claes Oldenburg. He then returned to Art Center to develop and manage its new 3-D lab. Joyner’s route to Art Center was much more circuitous. After following a woman to Miami, he worked in the marina there for an elderly Swedish boatbuilder who taught him to shape mahogany; then he enlisted in the military on a bet and thought he could be an underwater welder. But that time commitment was too long, so instead he wound up fueling airplanes during Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War. After military living in Atlanta and building recording studios, he moved to Chicago and decided to get himself to college, cobbling together a portfolio and gaining entry to Art Center.

“I was completely uneducated,” Joyner says. “The first time I used a computer was at art school.” But he took to it immediately, and professor and student soon clicked. “I was taken by Steve’s energy,” Pilarski says. “He had a lot of prototype concepts that were a mishmash of different technologies. It was all speculative, so it was fun to talk about.” As for Joyner, he says, “I learned more from our conversations than any studio classes.”

Both equally brilliant and driven, they continued the conversation at MacArthur Fellowship-winner Jorge Pardo’s studio, where Joyner got a job before he even graduated in 2002. Pilarski, who continues to teach part-time at Art Center, soon joined him. “It was excellent. It’s kind of an odd pressure cooker—a massive amount of product needs to be made, but there’s a massive amount of freedom.” Pardo, whose firm is officially called Jorge Pardo Sculpture, neatly straddles the worlds of art, archi-tecture, and design, providing Joyner and Pilarski with both a blueprint for a successfully non-categorizable practice and frustration at the distance between the artist and the final product.

Once they broke off on their own, in 2006, Joyner and Pilarski set out to create a place where they could continue to build pieces that push the capabilities of buildable digital design, on their own terms. “Design for too long has become disconnected from production, and computers may further that disconnection,” Joyner says. Early-adopting designers were so enamored of their newfound tools that form reigned at the expense of corporeal existence. “For example, Greg Lynn. A lot of the time they can’t take it off the screen. It’s stuck,” says Joyner.

It’s not just an ideological complaint. “After throwing away so many barrels of sawdust,” Pilarski says, “you start wanting to do things differently.” When they were at Pardo’s studio, working on his subscription lamps, the duo considered a concept where the design of one lamp could make two, but the demands of that production schedule meant they were never able to create a usable design. But the seed was planted. If a designer was fully conscious of the ways in which their designs were produced, if they knew exactly what the by-products of production would be, then they would be able to move toward zero-waste design, where all the by-product is marked for intentional reuse.

MachineHistories experimented with that concept during a recent project for the Los Angeles Design Group (LADG). The firm came to MachineHistories with a design for an undulating bench for the lobby of a loft building in downtown L.A. “It’s a move away from modernism, away from rectilinear extrusions,” says Claus Benjamin Freyinger, one of the firm’s founding members and a co-principal. “We figured that we can produce complex geometries at the scale of real built architecture economically if we embrace the constraints of the materials.”

Joyner and Pilarski have worked on several projects with similar goals for LADG, and this one had the dubious advantage of necessitating a lot of waste material in order to create the dynamic flow of the piece, which required 26 sheets of medium-density fiberboard. With the offcut, Joyner and Pilarski created a screen and a sculptural piece, both of which are unlikely to see much use. But that didn’t matter, because they had succeeded in creating a process to quantify and analyze the shape of the offcuts. So, for example, if you draw up plans for a bench that’s designed to be built of many different pieces, it can be input into a program that runs under your modeling programs, alerting you whenever a corresponding piece appears within a project’s discarded materials, and even connecting that information to social networks. “Let’s say we use social networking,” Pilarski says, “then we all can visualize the offcuts of different projects. Now that we can identify the unused, we have to start designing for the unused.”

Think of it as a 3-D quilting bee, with designers and fabricators across town providing each other with just the right pieces. Or more: “We could make artificial land, a barrier reef, a skyscraper!” Pilarski says. Always enthusiastic and curious, MachineHistories is poised to go big with its ideas in a world where the hierarchy of designer as genius and fabricator as accessory is exploded, where being a thoughtful maker is the highest goal.

Categories: Makers, Technology