William Drenttel | Essays

On Making Things

Jessica gave me a book by Susan Neville last week for my birthday, and we both felt that the introduction was one of the more interesting pieces of design writing we'd come across recently. It is difficult, perhaps impossible to use language in such a way that the images conjured in the reader's mind evoke design sensibilities, but Neville's first-person account of why she set out to write this book does just this. She writes here that she was looking for something to be awed by, and reading this reminds us that writing, like design, aspires to transport us to the far reaches of the imagination. In any event, we were awed by this passage. Perhaps you will be, too.

Susan Neville: An Excerpt from Fabrication

"I wrote this book in an office in an abandoned automobile factory. I wrote it because one morning I realized I didn't know the difference between the diesel engine of the bus that takes my children to school each morning and the gasoline engine inside my car. I didn't know how the rectangle of art glass that hangs in my kitchen window was made, or the doll on my daughter's shelf, or the gyroscope that spins in my son's hand. I didn't know who made the steel for my car or who designed my mother's coffin. Because I wanted to know how these things were manufactured, and by whom, and how well, and what they meant, I've spent the past two years walking through factories.

"I've seen how the process of canning tomatoes is similar to the process of making metal caskets. I've watched one woman paint eyelashes on a doll's face while another stabs a row of vinyl babies' heads with an icepick. I've watched blue globes spin through a room exactly like planets and tobacco being grown and auctioned for cigarettes. I've seen a man carve the excess wood off Christ's hipbone, while other Christs wait patiently on an assembly line. And I've seen wrecked cars and sand consumed and then transformed by fire. I was looking, I know now, for something to be awed by. And because I myself am a fabricator, I was drawn to the craft, the processes, the mysteries of fabrication. Essays are structures built of separate pieces the way you build a house out of boards and nails and stone and clay and time. I've learned new words like flange and extrude and lathe and machine as a verb, as in to machine. And spruce. See how the right and left edges of this paragraph are aligned? The perfect right angles formed at the corners of the block of text? I love the fact that fabrication means to make as well as to make up, that factory has echoes of both fact and story, that simple words can be both justified and true."

Excerpted from Fabrication: Essays on Making Things and Making Meaning by Susan Neville. Permission to reproduce this text on Design Observer courtesy of the publisher, MacMurray & Beck. Text © 2004 Susan Neville.

Posted in: History, Media

Comments [4]

Thank you for bringing that amazing piece to your site - it gave me goose bumps and made me want to learn more!
Naina Redhu

I agree that this is an amazing piece. It is very interesting how things that may seem unrelative to the artwork you create sometimes until you just stop for a minute and look around. We can learn a lot about ourselves and others just by the way that these things work. The ugliness and beauty that you can find in the world can be very motivational in aligning concepts that you are trying to develop, once you realize how useful every little thing is.
Josh Perlinski

I also agree that this is a very interesting piece. And to think this was just the introduction. I am now rather curious about how this book is, which I'm kind of embarassed to say I have heard nothing of.

The fact that most every little thing in this world is useful and goes though its own little process is a very interesting one indeed.

I picked this book up last night after reading this excerpt. I am on Chapter 4 so far, and I love it. Her prose is beautifully poetic, and it is so interesting to see how things are made through her eyes. There is a great part that I read aloud to my boyfriend where she is in a glass factory decribing these guys running with hundred pound ladels of molten glass where they pop it like "jai lai".

This book is fantastic so far, and I appreciate the recommendation.

Jobs | July 15