When you invent something people often ask "Where did the idea come from?" and if they're interested enough to ask that's great! But good ideas often come from multiple sources, which it can be tricky to distil into something that catches the imagination in keeping with the sought after Eureka moment.
Stems actually started way before I had any thought of developing a toy when I set about designing a simpler more robust alternative to a zip. The spark came by way of an orange in an unexpected moment that was fundamental in turning a new fastener design into a fascinating new toy...
One evening I peeled an orange in one long strip and laid it flat in a wonky S shaped spiral, it struck me that if I could change this flat shape I could by extension change the shape of the solid it represented. This in turn led to the idea of an expandable mesh and, after lots of 3D printed prototypes eventually led to the stretchable open sided shape of Stems.
I told a version of this story to a very engaged primary 1 class last week. After a fun half hour playing with Stems when their teacher was thanking me she asked the class “So what did we all learn today?- Can anyone remember where the idea came from?”
“An orange” said a boy. “That’s right!… Squashing…an…orange” she said as she glanced up at me trying not to look too confused.
So, as far as Eureka moments go it might not be the most catchy, but hopefully it gives some insight into how the idea came about.
It also gives me an excuse to share another project it inspired…
I found I could straighten card models of this orange peel inspired S shape by stretching them which is possible because the longer outside edges simply buckle. I wondered whether the opposite might be possible, and perhaps useful- Could you bend a straight strip to follow the curve of the orange peel, simply by buckling the inside edge, and if so could I rebuild a sphere (or other 3D forms) using buckled straight strips? I’ve long been interested in design for manufacture and resource efficiency so the thought of making a 3D object from straight strips that could be cut out with very little waste seemed an interesting possibility. After some explorations in the CAD program Rhino and its associated programming interface Grasshopper I came up with a customisable method of modelling the amazing forms that it turns out can be made in this way:
The digital model allowed me to map the points along the edge of each strip for fixing holes. I made some prototype aluminium lightshades and it was fascinating to see how the form emerged purely from the constraints imposed by the positioning of the holes. These were eventually powder coated and hung in a house in Edinburgh.
I think these are some of the most beautiful objects I've ever made and it's interesting to consider that in one sense there was no design involved. They evolved simply by asking an interesting question. I was speaking to a group of design students recently at Edinburgh College of Art when their tutor Larissa Pschetz reflected that perhaps asking the right questions could be a useful way to think of the role of a designer.
Like oranges in winter, ideas can come at the most seemingly unlikely of moments.
(This analogy probably works best if your Scottish and grow up knowing very little about citrus fruit)