I’m not sure if Steve Jobs would have enjoyed the Maker Faire that was put on just down the road from Apple’s headquarters in Silicon Valley earlier this month. Upon entering, the very first piece you come upon is a mobile robot-like head - built entirely out of Apple components - emitting computer-generated sounds. Like some inbred offspring of R2D2, this is nothing cute. It’s visually clumsy, goofy, clever, weird, disturbing, curious, fun, irreverent, and anything but Apple-elegant - as great a contrast as you could find to iconic Apple symbols such as the slick cubic glass storefront on 5th Avenue in New York. If you were forced to assign the classic tagline “think diffrent” to this object or to the now-mainstream Apple iconography, you wouldn’t pick Apple. Jobs would not have found much solace immediately inside the Maker’s Shed where there were seminars and books on how to hack your way into your iPhone and iPod.
After this initial onslaught, Jobs and Apple could relax - the Maker Faire actually had very little to do with Apple (these two small exhibits were anomalies). The Faire had everything to do with taking control of your own world and making stuff. The event was billed as “where Martha Stewart meets Burning Man” which was enough to get us to go - and we were not alone. There were about 60,000 other people there that Sunday, enduring backed up traffic for hours. This public interest seems especially noteworthy. What other events will draw this many people to parking lot and outbuildings on a cold windy Sunday? Certainly nothing in the US design community. (Our pre-eminent design event is the ICFF in New York, and it draws about 25,000). People like making stuff, and the interest is not regional. There are excellent blogs on the Faire, and numerous articles (including this one in the New York Times) which indicate the widespread interest in the DIY movement. It is being repeated in Austin in October.
The Faire was definitely more Burning Man than Martha Stewart. There were numerous exhibits that actually dealt with guys and their love of pyrotechnics. You could learn how to forge iron hand stools or how to torch your neighbor’s house from your own backyard. Robotics played a big part, as did anything mechanical that moved people around. There were embellished cars, electrical cupcake carts, rides powered by bicycles, and more. The decorator aspect was minimal - which was refreshing in our world of lifestyle décor and accoutrement. The fact that the Faire attaches that last “e” to its name seemed appropriate. There little interest in being artificial modernity here, despite the technical underpinnings. The basic human need to create and make stuff transcends any technology and any time period. That’s the point and the pleasure of the event.
The Maker Faire is about the free spirit, ingenuity, human empowerment, community, democracy, creativity. It is about process itself - the journey, not the final product. It is a rebellion against taste and beauty and perhaps against many of the principles of modern design itself. This makes it interesting. It also helps us understand why we still adore Apple. Even though they have grown into a commercial, corporate giant, even though they still occasionally gouge us in their pricing and slap those silly ipod ads everywhere and manufacture stuff in China, we can overlook their faults. Why? Their stuff is pretty. They do not subordinate elegance to function. This trait may distinguish them more from the other Silicon Valley companies even more than their formidable innovations. For Apple, maintaining these aesthetic standards in the face of the forces of the DIY movement and events like the Maker Faire will be a rebellious act in itself.
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