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How to Say Goodbye with 20,000 Dowels

Jun 23 2016

by Grace Nicklin & Greg Wolos

As we prepare to move from our current Cambridge studio into a new space around the corner, we can’t help but think of it as a place where many of us began our IDEO journey—sneaking up to the roof for sunset cocktails and riding in the freight elevator to the pop up gallery in the basement. We knew giving it a proper goodbye should mean involving everyone.

In a studio like ours, with a very distinctive creative culture, where people feel like they have ownership over their work space, a massive, group art project would help us say goodbye together. Not only would it be one last hurrah for this studio, it would also help reinforce the idea that our culture would be moving with us to the next space.

For years, our tradition at the Cambridge studio has been to reinvent our kitchen wall every six months or so. We’ve created everything from a hand-cut monster wall to a science fiction fine art series (Think Yoda portraits in renaissance style). Knowing this mural would be the studio’s last, we wanted to create something that made people think and talk about design—reinforcing our values—and, of course, something big enough for everyone to be involved.

Mural Final

Photo by Greg Wolos

We also wanted to leverage our skillsets—Grace’s in drawing and painting, Greg’s in industrial design and fabrication—to pull together the project. At the time, Grace had been working on a series of dot drawings that caught Greg’s eye. They mimicked that phenomenon in nature when many tiny things form a greater whole. That seemed like a great metaphor for celebrating the multidisciplinary magic of the studio. So we decided to create a drawing as a base, and then scale it up into a wooden dowel installation.

Drawing Dots For Mural

Photo by Greg Wolos and Grace Nicklin

The idea of trying to translate a hand done drawing into a large scale installation without losing its human touch seemed familiar to us: it’s how we approach design on a lot of our IDEO projects.

Our hope was this mural would foster conversations about the differences (and similarities) between art and design.

And so we got cracking. With the help of IDEO friend Wes Thomas, we translated the drawing into an algorithm, built and coded our friendly and hardworking cutting machine Chop-Chop, and designed a (sort of) fool-proof installation process.

Chop Chop Machine

Photo by Colin Raney and Tom Kershaw

Four months later, we were ready for the big install. We invited the entire studio to come in on a Saturday morning, and we were blown away by the number of people who trickled in. Before we knew it, close to 40 people were helping out. Some heroes even stayed until 2 a.m. There were people hammering in dowels, cutting on Chop-Chop, filling trays, documenting with photo and video, and making beer runs. The assembly lines were staggeringly efficient and fun. It was a robot love fest.

Dowel Mural Installation

Photo by Colin Raney, Tom Kershaw and Greg Wolos

We had hoped that there may be some errors in the process and we were happy to see them. You can find these beauty marks where the surface of the dowels gets uneven—that kind of inconsistency is impossible to predict or design, and it completely enhanced the beauty of the piece. Working together with the studio on a piece defined by the installers was a true bonding experience. It was an inspiring weekend for all of us, and we know that we’ll carry that with us in our move around the corner.

Read more about the technical aspects of this project on IDEO Labs and the project's website.

Music by Dan Deruntz. Footage by Chris Wright, Tom Kershaw, Dirk Ahlgrim, and Greg Wolos.

  • Grace Nicklin

    Design Lead, IDEO Cambridge

    With a career blend of fine art, healthcare consulting and design research—and waiting [a lot of] tables before heading to IDEO—Grace finds she's at her best when equipped with a nice pen and listening to a good bar story.

  • Greg Wolos

    Design Director, IDEO Cambridge

    A native of the first state, Greg Wolos claims to be the only IDEOer who can say Joe Biden stole his ex-girlfriend. Reach out directly to confirm or complicate this claim.

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