The New School News

Lisa Marks, MFA Industrial Design ’17, Preserves Craft Techniques Through Parametric Modeling

During the Renaissance, craftspeople from across Europe began using delicate fabrics such as cotton and silk to weave symmetrical patterns and figures.

The tradition, known as lace making, was popular in Croatia, where it is still practiced today. However, as Lisa Marks discovered during research for her thesis project at Parsons School of Design at The New School, “it is in danger of dying out.”

Marks, MFA Industrial Design ’17 and a part-time faculty member at Parsons, is hoping to keep Croatian lace making and other craft traditions alive by employing a design method she has been mastering for the last five years: parametric modeling. Using this technology, Marks is digitally preserving the mathematical algorithms of craft techniques — many of which UNESCO recognizes as part of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage” of humanity— for use by present and future generations of craftspeople.

“The goal is to extend the lifespan of various craft knowledges through digital technology,” says Marks, who recently presented her research at the International Conference of the Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA). “People will be able to reference this knowledge in new work being created.”

Parametric modeling is widely utilized by Western architects and designers, but the way Marks is using it is truly innovative. The technology can serve as a tool for both cultural preservation and job creation. Using mathematical inputs, designers can ensure that craft techniques don’t disappear with the aging populations that practice them. For the millions of people around the world who depend on making crafts for their livelihoods, parametric-driven design tools can streamline the creation of their wares and allow for the inclusion of unique modifications.

“By finding the basic math behind a pattern, such as Croatian bobbin lace, the designer can change different aspects in order to create variations that still stay true to the structure of each stitch,” Marks says.

Marks has demonstrated the utility of these tools through the creation of her own hand-made crafts. As a case study, she created a design that would take a body scan of women who have had mastectomies and generate custom morphing bras that would help them embrace and celebrate their new bodies. The project won the Sustainable Vision Award, a departmental award from Parsons.

While participating in Parsons’ Global Studio in Thailand, Marks invented an alphabet of shapes that she used to design a line of products, the Cada Series, from bamboo veneer. The collection — a light, bowl, and shades — serves as a model for other craftspeople in Thailand, which enjoys a strong manufacturing basis for bamboo. (Marks was recently honored with a Core77 2017 Design Award for her work.)

In any discussion of new manufacturing technology, fear of machines replacing human workers inevitably comes up. However, Marks stresses that parametric-driven design tools “won’t take work out of people’s hands — it’s meant to empower them.” The materials are simply too delicate, and the processes too intricate, to leave the work to automation.

“You still need craftspeople to make things,” she says. “Digital tools contribute to a part of the process, but they don’t take over the process.”

While knitting blankets and scarves for friends had always been a hobby of Marks’, she never expected to make the practice a focus of her studies. A graduate of Parsons’ BFA Product Design program, Marks began her career designing “tension fabric structures” for experiential marketing and stage sets used by companies such as JetBlue, Internet Explorer, Nike, and Google. But after 15 years, she “kept getting clients who wanted me to do the same work over and over again.”

“I hadn’t been that creatively active,” she recalls. “I was stuck.”

In the MFA Industrial Design program, however, Marks was encouraged to do something her clients at her design firm never asked her to do: “speculate and come up with crazy things.” She had always enjoyed knitting, and Rama Chorpash, the director of the MFA Industrial Design program, encouraged her to pursue a project related to her hobby.

“It took a lot of prodding from Rama, who told me, ‘If you like knitting, do something with knitting,’” recalls Marks, who went on to design a new knitting tool that allows the user to create five stitches at once. (Marks is currently researching a possible patent for the product, which her initial findings show may create the first new knitting stitch since the 1950s.) Following graduation from the program, Marks landed a coveted speaking slot on the main stage of the IDSA conference.  

“Being at Parsons takes you from thinking narrowly to opening your mind to thinking about what’s possible,” she says. “Had I not gone into the MFA Industrial Design program, I would probably still be knitting blankets for my friends.”

And craft traditions would have had less of a chance for survival. Now, through Marks’ innovative use of parametric design, they have the potential to live on in perpetuity to the benefit of craftspeople all over the world.

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