ArchitectureBoston

Arts & Minds (Part 3 of 4)

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on September 3, 2009

artsandminds_Fall09_img5

Profiles in the Creative Economy: An economy isn’t about policy; it’s about people.

I spoke to four people who solve old problems with new methods, who discover old solutions to new problems. They are combining interests and information in innovative ways. In doing so, they are building new communities. None of this work happens in solitude. It all requires a critical mass of resources: intellectual, technical, economic, and artistic. While the reach of these enterprises is international, they are rooted in local communities that encourage cross-fertilization between different kinds of expertise, that find new paths for knowledge and intuition. Art and commerce are once again becoming more comfortable with each other. In this new atmosphere we are seeing the results of a convergence of these two basic human impulses. It is a whole new world.

Susan Williams: creative director of Swans Island Blankets

Photo by Sarah Szwajkos.

Photo by Sarah Szwajkos.

Swans Island Blankets is a company based in Northport, Maine that produces handwoven blankets from flocks of local sheep. All the dyeing and weaving is done in an old house, and sheep pastured on a small island off the coast supply thick wool for winter blankets. The designs — single colors, subtle color blocks, and stripes — rely for their effectiveness on the natural shades of the wool and on vegetable dyes. Susan Williams, one of the owners and the creative director, has built an international clientele for their products.

Deborah Weisgall: How have you combined old-fashioned technology with modern marketing?

Susan Williams: I wanted to apply the aesthetic of the product to the company as a whole. There is a great story behind the company — John and Carolyn Grace left law careers in Cambridge to pursue a more satisfying life weaving classic blankets on Swans Island. We’ve moved the operation to the mainland, closer to where we live. The core issue is to introduce the blankets to a broader market without wrecking their integrity. I’ve captured the story on our website and in our printed materials; it’s no baloney when someone understands what “timeless beauty” means. Our aesthetic has substantially helped the company’s growth, which is part of the reason why we receive so much media coverage — we operate on a minuscule marketing budget.

Deborah Weisgall: How do you set goals for growth?

Susan Williams: Our goals for growth are more or less driven by our financial and human resources. There’s been some trial and error and postponing of great products — we produced some coats a couple of years ago that proved too labor-intensive and expensive. We quickly learned what we could accomplish while maintaining the highest standards, given the current scale of our business. We have four looms. Last March, when Michelle Obama wanted to give one of our throws to the prime minister of Ireland, we were lucky that we had a green one already on the loom.

We like to think of ourselves as the Slow Food of manufacturing, which probably sets us apart from other business models. We also offer a blanket hospital for cleaning and repairs. And this summer we introduced a line of yarns for hand-knitting, in colors that are consistent with our aesthetic.

Our aesthetic has substantially helped the company’s growth, which is part of the reason why we receive so much media coverage — we operate on a minuscule marketing budget.

Deborah Weisgall: How would you describe the satisfactions of the business?

Susan Williams: They come from knowing that I am contributing to making products that are genuinely exquisite, practical, and simple. Our customers come from all over the world; they are unimaginably varied.

Deborah Weisgall: What is Swans Island’s impact on the community?

Susan Williams: Obviously, we employ people — and it fits into this place because there are a lot of interesting and talented people running small businesses here. There seems to be a deep understanding and desire for our standard of quality — not only locally, but globally.

Photo courtesy Swan Islands Blankets.

Arts & Minds (Part 2 of 4)

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on August 27, 2009

Photo by Alex Budnitz.

Profiles in the Creative Economy: An economy isn’t about policy; it’s about people.

I spoke to four people who solve old problems with new methods, who discover old solutions to new problems. They are combining interests and information in innovative ways. In doing so, they are building new communities. None of this work happens in solitude. It all requires a critical mass of resources: intellectual, technical, economic, and artistic. While the reach of these enterprises is international, they are rooted in local communities that encourage cross-fertilization between different kinds of expertise, that find new paths for knowledge and intuition. Art and commerce are once again becoming more comfortable with each other. In this new atmosphere we are seeing the results of a convergence of these two basic human impulses. It is a whole new world.

Photo by Alex Budnitz.

Photo by Alex Budnitz.

Jill Kneerim: director and co-founder of Kneerim & Williams at Fish & Richardson

Jill Kneerim is a founding partner, along with John Taylor “Ike” Williams, and a director of the literary agency Kneerim & Williams at Fish & Richardson. The agency is based in Boston and has offices in Washington and New York. One of the most prestigious in publishing, Kneerim & Williams’ authors include former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, best-selling novelists Brad Meltzer and Sue Miller, and scholars Stephen J. Greenblatt, Caroline Elkins, Joseph Ellis, Dr. Susan Love, and Ned Hallowell. This year, the agency celebrates its 20th anniversary.

Deborah Weisgall: When you began, New York was the center of the publishing industry. Though Boston had two illustrious publishers, Houghton Mifflin and Little, Brown, pretty much every literary agent was in New York.

Jill Kneerim: When we first began, a lot of the writers said to us, Isn’t it a disadvantage for you to be in Boston, since New York is the hub of the publishing industry? I answered that an agent is only as good as her clients, and, if you’re good, everybody will pay attention. Now that question never arises. And communication has become much easier as well.

Deborah Weisgall: How much is Kneerim & Williams an outgrowth of the Boston intellectual community?

Jill Kneerim: The Boston area has the greatest concentration of colleges and universities of any city in the world, so it’s a natural that we start looking for writers in our own backyard. One of our specialties — taking academics into public life — grows out of my long-standing interest in making accessible the work of people who do not normally write for a broad audience. First of all, I look for people who write well. Many academics haven’t written for the general reader and sometimes could use advice about how to cast their ideas to make them appealing to that audience. I find that there are many people who are ready to try that, especially those who are mid-career and older, who already have tenure. It’s a daring young scholar who can afford to try that kind of writing. People in the academic world have exciting ideas, and when they are good writers, it’s a marvelous trip to be on with them. What’s at the core of speaking to a wider public is knowing how to tell a story.

All art bridges art and commerce, unless you’re living alone in a cave. There are so many ways these days in which artists and writers have to think about filthy commerce. We should stop resisting and learn that it’s part of the game.

Because I’m in Boston, I tend to have a lot of clients in the academic world. Deborah Grosvenor, who heads up our Washington office, has a list skewed towards people from the national press corps. She has more journalists than I do, and they’re writing policy books. We both do history, but I’m more likely to have an academic historian, while she has a journalist. I also think that being in Boston gives me an advantage because New York is so dominant in the book-writing business that it’s easy to forget that there’s any other place — and that people can look at the world differently from the way they do in New York.

Deborah Weisgall: How do you reconcile art and commerce?

Jill Kneerim: All art bridges art and commerce, unless you’re living alone in a cave. There are so many ways these days in which artists and writers have to think about filthy commerce. We should stop resisting and learn that it’s part of the game. And there’s a lot of fun in getting every kind of client out into the book world. With a journalist, I’ll have more of a chance to debate what the subject is going to be. Academics already have their specialties. I have one author who’s been working on his book for 10 years. First, he had to spend a couple of years mastering a complex foreign language in order to conduct interviews in that language. Now he has a body of material that nobody else in the world possesses. Caroline Elkins, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, spent seven years gathering evidence. What I do is find someone whose ideas spark interest that would fire up a reader like me, who’s not a specialist. Some subjects are too narrow — size is important.

I’m on the commerce side, but I adore being part of the link between writers — who, frankly, have been my heroes all my life. There is no one more exciting or important than a writer. I love being mixed up with writers and making a difference.

Photos by Alex Budnitz.

Arts & Minds (Part 1 of 4)

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on August 19, 2009

artsandminds_Fall09_img3

Profiles in the Creative Economy: An economy isn’t about policy; it’s about people.

I spoke to four people who solve old problems with new methods, who discover old solutions to new problems. They are combining interests and information in innovative ways. In doing so, they are building new communities. None of this work happens in solitude. It all requires a critical mass of resources: intellectual, technical, economic, and artistic. While the reach of these enterprises is international, they are rooted in local communities that encourage cross-fertilization between different kinds of expertise, that find new paths for knowledge and intuition. Art and commerce are once again becoming more comfortable with each other. In this new atmosphere we are seeing the results of a convergence of these two basic human impulses. It is a whole new world.

Tricia Wilson Nguyen: principal of Fabric Works, Thistle Threads, and Redefined, Inc.

Tricia Wilson Nguyen combines an undergraduate interest in anthropology and archaeology, an undergraduate degree and doctorate in materials science and engineering — work on optical devices and high-tech fibers — with a lifelong passion for needlework and a knowledge of historical embroidery. She operates three companies simultaneously: Fabric Works is an engineering consulting company focusing on product design; she has designed textiles for use by the military, and this year collaborated with Polartec to launch a heated jacket. Redefined, Inc. uses current technology to manufacture “sewing cards,” Victorian perforated papers used for crossstitch designs, which became too expensive to produce at the end of the 19th century. In her capacity as the founder of Thistle Threads, she designs reproduction threads and teaches historical embroidery techniques. She has served as a textile consultant to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and is currently working with Plimoth Plantation.

Deborah Weisgall: You seem to combine your interests seamlessly, as it were: your scientific background, your interest in handwork, your historical knowledge. Expertise in one field flows into the other. How did this come about?

Tricia Wilson Nguyen: My lives converged when I was asked to solve a problem of integrating situational awareness systems, which combine GPS, location of squad members, information about terrain, and physiological monitors into an electronic map, a “heads-up display” that can enhance a soldier’s ability to negotiate the surroundings, possibly using the field of electronic textiles. The natural solution was to route the cables through the fabrics they wore, instead of using plastic cables, which would be snag hazards. This is when I discovered the work going on in the not-yet-named field of electronic textiles. It was a natural for me, as I had optics, materials, systems, and high-tech textile experience. It was my knowledge of Victorian-era millinery that gave us the idea of making textile-based USB cables in a ribbon format; this led to my first manufacturing partners.

Because electronic textiles fuses two very disparate fields, everyone involved was at some disadvantage. As both an engineer and embroiderer, I could understand both technology bases. The engineers respected my ability to thread a needle, and people involved with the textile world trusted me because I could speak their language. I was stunned that when we met with the Army, my colleague would bring up my historic embroidery business as a technical qualification.

I’ve realized that to make true progress when you don’t have a great number of resources at your disposal, you have to make art, science, and business coexist.

And my technological edge has allowed me to distinguish my historical research because few art historians would approach the problems in the way an engineer would. I can sometimes clear my head and look at objects from the standpoint of “how and who” because I have both hands-on experience and the technological means to translate that experience into a new analytical technique.

In product development, you look for short-run manufacturing facilities that can make complex metal threads; I do the same thing — work with artisan manufacturers — in the historic threads area. Often the technique or calculations I do for one area can be immediately translated to the other. It’s important to understand product design and the economics of manufacturing. In the historic embroidery or restoration fields, the people who need new threads usually aren’t prepared to help the manufacturer develop a market that can justify the effort involved in making such a thread. I have founded several outlets for that kind of development, though, so I can help engineer the product and market it for hobbyists. Then I turn around and introduce some of them to the e-textiles field.

Deborah Weisgall: You proceed from the premise that art and science and commerce can coexist and reinforce each other.

Photo by Genie Posnett.

Photo by Genie Posnett.

Tricia Wilson Nguyen: I’ve realized that to make true progress when you don’t have a great number of resources at your disposal, you have to make art, science, and business coexist. I don’t see them as antithetical to each other. Let me give you an example: When I have to grapple with the problems of scaling-up and capitalizing a new thread, I start thinking about the inventory costs associated with the range of materials that go into making that thread. Weeks later, I see a piece of complex historic embroidery with as many as eight variants of complex composite threads — threads we have trouble making today — in about 10 color combinations each. Now, historians attribute this embroidery to 12-year-old girls. Knowing that these threads were made of expensive components, I start thinking about a 17th-century mercer [dealer in textiles] and his need to turn over inventory by selling to 12-year-old girls. Something just doesn’t jive. I think, maybe it wasn’t a girl, but a professional. Then I think about manufacturing on demand, and whether a small number of raw materials could be turned into such a large variety by using the spinning-wheel technologies they had available to them. Then I wonder again if we could use such techniques today to reduce the need for a range of reproduction materials by teaching hobbyists to make their own variants from simple components. And that leads me to make short runs of e-textiles threads to try out concepts for antennas in a costefficient manner. So commerce educates history, which, in turn, educates technology development. It’s synergistic, and usually it revolves around the reality of current and past economics.

Deborah Weisgall: How important to the success of your enterprises is the community in which you live — not so much the neighborhood, but the intellectual community?

Tricia Wilson Nguyen: I couldn’t be doing what I am doing if I didn’t live in such an entrepreneurial high-tech area that is also at a nexus of textile history. Many of my clients or producers are remnants of the textile industry in Massachusetts. Living close to them allows me to raise a family while keeping my engineering skills sharp. Also, the two most important collections in the US of the type of embroidery I research are within three hours of home, and England is only an airplane ride away. I often doubleup on business trips; I see a historic collection and research primary sources at libraries when I travel to teach embroidery or visit clients and manufacturing partners. When my husband and I were deciding where to live — we have the dual PhD problem — there were only five places that could support our fields. We chose Boston because we’d both gone to MIT. This fall, I’m guest lecturing at the Media Lab there — talking about 17th-century embroidery to an engineering group. I couldn’t do that type of cross-disciplinary work in most cities. Deborah Weisgall: You have taken what has been considered “women’s work” — though it was not in Tudor England — and added to it a technological dimension. How has that influenced your career? Tricia Wilson Nguyen: Certainly having a PhD from a hardcore engineering discipline has given me a level of credibility when discussing textiles and embroidery — something that has been debased and relegated to “women’s work” in the last 200 years. I try never to apologize for my feminine side. As a young woman, I made it in some of the toughest male-dominated situations: MIT, a PhD program, and leading a grueling military development program. I have my war wounds, and know how to turn someone who makes a snarky comment into an enthusiastic listener by adding just the right amount of serious tech talk. And often the men take my expertise in handwork more seriously than the women.

Photo (top) by Ted Curtin.

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