Work in Progress: Digital Wax Print

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For the month of July, we are delighted to have Eugenia Morpurgo and Olivia de Gouveia who together make up The Future Continuous studio as our Work in Progress (WIP) residents. Together they are working on a project called Digital Wax Print, which can be understood as a hybrid between digital mass manufacture and manual technique of wax-resist dyeing, carrying the history behind Batik motifs and trade routes between the East and West.

Eugenia and Olivia have been collaborating on and off for the past 6 years, since they met by chance when they sat next to each other at the graduation ceremony of the Design Academy Eidhoven in the Netherlands, where Eugenia attended the Master in Social Design and Olivia the Master in Contextual Design. A project in Rwanda brought them together, and from there began a curiosity towards textiles and their meaning that, fast forward to now, encouraged them to develop an open-source machine to create prints using the wax-resist dyeing method.

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Photo courtesy The Future Continuous studio.

I had the pleasure to sit down with them at TAC’s Manhattan location before Olivia went back to Berlin, to chat about their work, textiles, history, collaboration, the machine, and Batik motifs.

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Photo courtesy The Future Continuous studio.

Where it all began:

After barely knowing each other, Eugenia invited Olivia to work with her as part of the research program on craft and development Atelier Rwanda, based in Kigali. It was on the plane to the Atelier that they realized they barely knew about the other, but thankfully they got along!

Their experience in Rwanda not only brought them together as designers, but also acted as a starting point for the Digital Wax Print project. While shopping at the market, they began observing textiles, impressed by their physicality and how beautiful they were, but also how people of the area conveyed and projected meaning through them, acting as communication tools for the present as well as the past. It also appealed to them that in the area, women are responsible for textile trade and sale. As Eugenia said:

“It was a combination of the experience there and seeing the fabric really used, alive, also coming from Holland where the fabric comes from; it was seeing the textiles from the production settings but actually not ever seeing it used for real, and then going to the other side of the world (Rwanda) really alive, charged with value.”

To what Olivia added: “we were like: we want to make it too! How do we do that?”

And from there, it was figuring out how to make it happen, which included a year focused solely on research to understand the process as well as the tradition. During this step of the process, Eugenia and Olivia realized that there is gap between craft and industry in the current market, and decided to tackle this gap by creating an alternative scale of production using digital technology, thus opening a technique that welcomes different contexts and uses. But as any innovation, trial and error was part of the process.

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The Machine

In 2013, the duo collaborated with Amelia Denoyers, fellow designer from Eidhoven, to create the first iteration of the machine using a simple XY plotter. But instead of using the drawing pen, they replaced it with a home-made pen that allowed to draw with wax, opening endless possibilities to draw with wax on cotton. However, part of the challenge was understanding the machine, and learn to control it and the code behind it, and to control the finished product and the aesthetic.  For the next 4 years, Olivia and Eugenia didn’t work on the project while they were dedicated to other projects, that also allowed them to learn other skills that would allow them to create a better machine.

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The machine that they are currently using WIP residency is made of parts of a regular 3D printer, but the architecture or assembly is what’s different. However, it uses the same code and image producing of a 3D printer, so anyone that is already using a 3D printer and knows the language can understand this machine easily, and use the technique as they want to.

Olivia and Eugenia have shared their entire process through the Digital Wax Print website, making the project an open source. If anyone is interested in making their own machine, they have the step-by-step guide to build it. The machine, as a tool, is able to accommodate to the user’s vision, welcoming their backgrounds and intentions. Instead of the user accommodating to the machine, its system allows multiple interpretations of the wax printing method. The way it is currently assembled fits the standard textile measure (1.20 m) and with the wheels it can print to infinity and beyond.

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Photo courtesy The Future Continuous studio.

Working at TAC

When I asked, what would be their ideal working space, they both said, TAC!

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Olivia: “It is a really nice space to work in, and good to have access to all the materials and resources, especially when you are doing stuff like dyeing, measuring, messing, you need a space where you can do it. If you are going to come all the way from Europe with all your stuff that would be insane. As a residency space, it is very nice”

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The WIP residency also gave them the chance to work together at the same time in the project, since Eugenia is based in Paris and Olivia in Berlin. Before this residency, Eugenia spent 3 months at La Paillasse residency in Paris where she got to develop the machine. Over there, Eugenia was working next to people that were doing things completely different to what she was doing, sparking interesting conversation of the possibilities of the machine. Being at TAC is a nice change because they get to be around people that know and understand textile processes, also contributing to the conversations around the machine.

Throughout the collaborative process they have learned to work in distance, and even use it in their favor. Not having a set studio, has also shaped the development of the machine, in a way forcing them to create it in a way that is easy to assemble and disassemble, and can be taken anywhere.

Eugenia: “Being here pushed it [the project] in different directions, I can speak about textiles with people and learn techniques that I didn’t know. You get a lot of different inputs, and your goals are constantly shifting. Plus it is funny now during summer camp that kids stare at the machine, and ask: is that a robot?”

Olivia: “We had a really nice workshop with people that wouldn’t usually come to a workshop here [at TAC]. And it’s because our theme is so random, that they were curious, and not sure what to expect from it. For example, there was even a biomedical engineer that came with a friend because at work she had become familiar with 3D printing. And she though: I like textiles, as a concept, and I want to see what is going on here.” 

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Where now?

Following their open-source philosophy, Eugenia and Olivia want to collaborate with designers from other fields, and see how they interpret and use the machine, opening it to other possibilities and experiments. One of the projects they have in mind is printing the pattern of garment into the cloth, so that the pattern follows the body and changes according to it. Since the machine is easily movable, they want to take it to other places and see how a location influences the context.

Recently, they have been interested by the use of textiles for political purposes. In the past, presidential candidates in West Africa, during the postcolonial independence years, would commission Batik designers to create propaganda cloths as part of their campaign. The recent Women’s March in January, and the posters created for it, are also a great source of inspiration for the future of the project. They believe that the points raised for the march should continue to be spread and textiles offer a great medium that would last longer than cardboard.

“It’s interesting that textiles are charged with meaning, but what do we want to say with it? Can we tell other stories? Are there other ways that we can relate to other messages?  -Eugenia

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The Digital Wax Print machine can be understood as an example of globalization, designers from different parts of the world collaborating to create a machine that carries the history of textile production in the Netherlands, textile trading in Africa, and textile tradition in Indonesia, and adapting it to the 21st century, with the available technologies. The machine itself, allows the user to bring their own background, offering countless interpretations and uses.

If you want to learn more about The Future Continuous studio, Eugenia and Olivia’s process and research, and if you want make your own Digital Wax Print machine visit their website. 

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Photo courtesy The Future Continuous studio.

You can visit Eugenia and Olivia’s machine for Work in Progress this July to learn more about the Digital Wax Print machine and method, during Artist Open Hours, on Saturdays 2-5PM at our Manhattan studio. 

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