Working out of the Box is a series of features presenting architects who have applied their architecture backgrounds to alternative career paths.
In this installment, we're talking with Emily Fischer, Founder of Haptic Lab.
Are you an architect working out of the box? Do you know of someone that has changed careers and has an interesting story to share? If you would like to suggest an (ex-)architect, please send us a message.
Where did you study architecture?
I received my M.Arch from the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture.
At what point in your life did you decide to pursue architecture?
During the summer between my junior and senior years in undergrad. I was doing the liberal arts thing in Indiana and I would visit places like New Harmony and Columbus on my own - small Midwestern towns famous for buildings by Eero Saarinen and Philip Johnson. I was obsessed. I took an architectural tour of Columbus, and an elderly man seated next to me asked if I was an architecture student. I said no... but I really wanted to say yes. That singular moment was the first time I realized I could become an architect or that I had a professional calling. Which was strange, because even as a child I was drawing 1:1 floor plans in sidewalk chalk.
When did you decide to stop pursuing architecture? Why?
I was laid off in 2009 after working in New York City for several years, during the extreme depths of the recession. Getting sacked taught me how to trust my own creative instincts and abilities, and in hindsight was probably the best thing to ever happen to me professionally. In the anxious first few days of unemployment I built a simple website with images of my experimental personal work, objects that explored my interests in cartography and early flight. Almost immediately, design blogs like Cool Hunting started publishing images of my handmade quilts and kites. I was commissioned to construct a kite for an Opening Ceremony video directed by Matt Wolf. I got a message from ID Magazine (RIP). Then the Los Angeles Times. Then the New York Times. Suddenly everyone wanted to buy the quilted maps I was making. So within three weeks of losing my job, I accidentally started my own company.
Describe your current job.
I privilege the ethos of human touch and Haptic Lab is my venue for exploring communication through handmade objects and environments.I learned to build the plane in flight, so to speak - parlaying interest in my experiments into an actual design practice. My work is craft-based, though also nods to my background with CAD/CAM and rapid prototyping tools. I work primarily with textiles, making complex hand-quilted maps of cities; more recently, I've been developing a collection of kites and objects that fly. The very first quilted map I made was designed to be a wayfinding tool for the visually impaired; my mother was diagnosed with glaucoma and macular degeneration while I was a student at TCAUP. As a designer, I privilege the ethos of human touch and Haptic Lab is my venue for exploring communication through handmade objects and environments. (The word "haptic" refers to the sense of touch.) Though I'm interested in digital tools, I really love designing at a human scale, the scale of the human hand. Developing novel manufacturing processes that express the idiosyncratic beauty of the handmade is my raison d'etre.
What skills did you gain from architecture school, or working in the architecture industry, that have contributed to your success in your current career?
The most critical asset that my architectural training gave me was the ability to use both the left and right sides of my brain in equal measure. I am constantly shifting tasks as a design entrepreneur, and it takes discipline to tackle all the boring things that make good design possible. It's not enough to have a great idea, you have to have the ability to execute that idea. That means staying focused and motivated on one idea for the long haul, and keeping your team organized and delegating tasks to the right people. Right now, I manage the efforts of 8 employees working out of two studio spaces in Brooklyn. I also manage the efforts of our manufacturing partners overseas in India and Indonesia, and our kite-makers in Williamsport, PA. As a former project manager, I still spend a good part of each day looking at spreadsheets and schedules. But I always find quiet moments to start something new, to experiment with a new material or seek out the intellectual refueling that keeps me going.
Do you have an interest in returning to architecture?
I love collaborating with other offices and architectural designers, though I'm more attracted to design happening in the margins of the field - interventions alongside architecture that address social or cultural issues. To paraphrase Cedric Price, you don't always need a building to solve an architectural problem... and capital "A" architecture takes itself too seriously for me. I definitely feel like I've found a home in Brooklyn's young manufacturing and design community, alongside colleagues at Fort Makers, Fort Standard, Pelle, Bower, and Doug Johnston. And Chiaozza. And Chen Chen and Kai Williams. And Fredericks and Mae. And Calico Wallpaper. And Domestic Construction. There are so many amazing local designers! It's a very exciting time to be starting something new.
Managing Editor and Podcast Co-Producer for Archinect. I write, go to the movies, walk around and listen to the radio. My interests revolve around cognitive urban theory, psycholinguistics and food.Got a pitch, or want to write for us? Contact me!