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.