Author Spotlight: Wholman



If you've browsed Instructables searching for exciting furniture projects, you've probably taken a look at the beautiful work of this week's featured author. I had the chance to correspond with architect/carpenter/designer/educator/Renaissance man William Holman, aka wholman, about his projects and what it means to be a guerrilla designer. If you're curious about where all those street signs came from, or whether you can buy some of his awesome creations on Etsy (which you can), read on to learn more about this fascinating author.

Update 12/2/2011: Check out this video of Will at an Instructables event in Chicago...

What first brought you to Instructables?

In 2008, near the end of my time at Arcosanti, I was searching the web for some directions on how to make kombucha, a fermented tea beverage that I still haven’t worked up the balls to try.  Some of my roommates were into making it, claiming great health benefits, and I was intrigued enough to try and find out a little bit more about it.  One of the first links in Google was to Instructables.  I quickly forgot about fermenting tea and delved into their furniture section, which was full of innovative home-grown chairs, tables, and shelves made from all sorts of salvaged materials.  At the time, I lacked a web presence other than my Etsy store, having long resisted joining Facebook or putting up a personal website.  This looked like an interesting way to put up some content and get my work in front of people.

Let's get this out of the way early, where do all those road signs come from?

From August, 2010, to July, 2011, I worked as the construction manager at YouthBuild Greensboro in rural Alabama, a great program for low-income kids who have left high school without completing their diploma.  They studied for their GED in the morning, and in the afternoon, I taught them carpentry and trade skills as we did hands-on projects for the community.  Our fall project was building a new fence around a daycare adjoining our campus.

We had a tiny budget, most of which was devoted to buying the lumber and concrete for setting new posts.  So, I had always loved the graphic, reflective qualities of road signs, and one of our board members was a local judge, so I got him to pull some strings and get me into the state engineer’s office for our county.  I put together some quick renderings, made a presentation, and was given free reign over their (rather epic) scrap pile of bent, broken, bullet-riddled, and otherwise busted signs.  While technically waste, they’re made from 1/8”, solid aluminum that won’t ever rust or deteriorate, and should last longer than the frame they’re mounted to.  

What attracts you to road signs (and other somewhat unusual materials like pool noodles) as the media for your work?

We are surrounded by the greatest material wealth the human race has ever seen – from light bulbs to laptops to streets literallypaved with oil.  But, I’ve been broke and nomadic for some years now, chasing opportunities around the country.  So, without any money, surrounded by the by-products of our consumer-industrial complex, I’ve come to surf the waste stream.  It’s endless, diverse, and free.  

What do you think sustainable design should mean to individual makers?

I tend to dislike the word “sustainable”, because it’s been so abused by marketers and politicians, but I think it generally means being responsible. No-impact life, design, or construction is a myth; we are, by our very nature, going to use resources and make a mark on the earth.  All we can do is strive to be as low-impact as possible.  No one is going to be looking over your shoulder; be responsible for yourself and others.

How do you see the merger of communities of makers and larger design organizations developing in the future? Is this how creation will be democratized?

I think democratic design is a misnomer, really, because, if design is good, it is naturally democratic in the small-d sense of the word.  All objects and architecture ought to work well, be easy on the environment, priced reasonably, and uplift the user through aesthetic refinement.

These larger trends that are starting to develop, where widely-available software tools integrate seamlessly with on-demand, mass-customizable, desktop manufacturing, are exciting.  The costs need to come down dramatically, and the sustainability of that manufacturing chain need to be examined – the amount of shipping and packaging involved in even a small Ponoko project can end up being kind of crazy.

I’m more excited by the idea of mass-production through open-source instructions and decentralized manufacturing.  Instructables has made it possible for me to have possibly thousands of my designs made, all with local, sustainable materials and a net knowledge gain for the builders.  We don’t need software-CNC-laser-cutter whatevers to make open-source design work.  Sometimes I think people get too caught up in the technology before examining the options directly in front of them.  

Describe what you mean by guerrilla design. What is a guerrilla designer?

A guerrilla designer is someone slashing at the soft underbelly of the consumer-industrial complex by using the methods of corporations – innovation, manufacturing, distribution – to drop out of the endless, pointless, earn-buy-consume cycle.  It’s time to reclaim the American dream from the politicians and the corporations.  Design is a political act.  If I can start a revolution with a chair, I will...

What advice would you give to someone looking to make things for fun and profit?

Just go out and do it!  Don’t wait till you’ve taken woodworking classes, don’t wait until you own all the tools, don’t wait for someone else to tell you what to do.  Between Instructables, Wikipedia, and Google, you ought to be able to figure out whatever process you need to complete your project.  Don’t worry if it sucks the first time, or the second time, or the fifteenth time – that’s why you’re doing it.  Perfection is unattainable – aim for incremental, iterative improvement.  Even in failure – I’ve broken a number of chairs upon first sit – there’s value in lessons learned.

Reproducibility is a large aspect of your design process. Is there any object that has been reproduced more than others. Is there any that has not yet been reproduced, but you wish was?

As far as I know, the Scrap Table has been the most widely reproduced. People really seemed to latch onto that aesthetic and that method of lamination for whatever reason. I think it’s awesome – that’s why I post Instructables! Other than that, I can’t really gauge which ones people have made; that’s the only project people have emailed me pictures of. A lot of my Instrucables, since they’re all furniture, are kind of involved, and I can see why folks might not invest the time. It’s more about spreading the idea.

Reproducibility is really important to me as a designer for a couple of reasons. One, as I said above, is that it is a decentralized form of mass-production that takes advantage of cheap, ubiquitous technology to disseminate ideas instead of physical products. Two, reproducibility is a good measure of how effective a piece of design is – whether people want to make a copy, whether they can, and whether the result is any good. Third, documenting every step of the process to create good future instructions is good discipline for me as a creator, as it forces me to think about photographs, workflow, and sequencing of tasks.

What three Instructables would you want printed out and on hand when the zombie apocalypse comes?

All pretty self-explanatory, I think...

[Editor's note: for a whole lot more wholman, check out his awesome blog and website.]