On faith and Foundation 33 or Makers vs. takers / Conny Purtill for Dot Dot Dot magazine Issue 3
Foundation 33 is a multi-disciplinary design studio located at 33 Temple Street in the East End of London. The studio is comprised of Dan Eatock and Sam Solhaug. Many who know the work believe believe it is an intelligent use of systems that makes it remarkable. Although their intelligence does distinguish them from other studios, this is not what makes the work great. What makes the work great is Foundation 33’s ability to gamble in faith.

The first time I spent an afternoon with the partners of Foundation 33, we sat in Sam’s mother’s living room and watched Formula 1. Sam’s mother, who was also watching sport, sat in an adjoining room. Due to the enthusiasm pouring forth through the door, I assumed she was watching basketball or boxing, but no, she was watching golf. Anyway, we watched Formula 1, listened to Sam’s mother and had an expectedly good time. Expectedly – because Sam and Dan had done this before. In fact, their shared enthusiasm for Formula 1 is how they came to know each other.

Joe: ... Why did you take the car Jimmy?
Jimmy: I don’t need anyone else pushing on me.
Joe: Go on and say it.
Jimmy: Forget this.
Joe: You’re totally out of control and you’re hoping what you did tonight would get you thrown out because you’ve been looking for the exit.
Jimmy: And you don’t even know what the hell you’re talking about.
Joe: And you don’t know who you are anymore. Somebody put it in your mind that you have to be perfect every time out or you’re a failure. Well, forget that. Just forget it. I was going to give this to you before all this went down tonight. [Hands Jimmy an old trophy.] Impressive isn’t it?
Jimmy: What is it?
Joe: It’s the first thing I ever won. And when I won it, it was probably the last time I ever felt pure victory. No pressure. Nobody breathing down my back. Just driving because I loved it. Pure. That’s what you’ve got to get back to. Doing what you do naturally, just you. I mean, I don’t have your gift, but I do have a couple of things you don’t have. I got will and I got faith. Wait, don’t laugh. I’m serious. Because I believe you can will yourself into anything and do anything. And faith, that’s like believing in something. Man, that’s like having a good disease. It’s contagious. If you hang around with people that have it, you’re gonna catch it. And that’s going to change your attitude. And winning is an attitude. So if you trust me now, and if you trust yourself, by the end of this season you’ll either be on top or you won’t, but I guarantee it – you’re gonna know what Jimmy Bly is really made of.

(Exerpt from the recent film Driven, Written by, and starring as 'Joe', Sylvester Stallone.)

Examining faith
To begin, I will set up a very simple three-stage model for the design process from which to examine faith. Stage one: the designer conceives an idea. Stage two: the designer employs a system of manufacture. Stage three: the designer presents the manufactured idea to the public.

To simplify this study even further (knowing full well that faith can appear at any point in the process) I will examine faith only as it applies to the second stage: selecting a system of manufacture. I do so because, as I mentioned, it is the focus on systems that distinguishes Foundation 33 from other firms.

To introduce the idea, our first subject of study will be Driven – a film about life on the Formula 1 circuit. Apply the model. Stage one: Stallone has an idea. Life on the Formula 1 circuit is interesting enough to warrant a screenplay. Stage two: Stallone finds producers who employ a pre-existing system of manufacture. Driven is a typical big-budget, big-marketing, big-moral, Hollywood-style melodrama. Stage three: the producers put it in the cinema, then onto video.

Taker’s faith
Now focusing on stage 2: a preexisting system of manufacture has been employed. It is important to note the term ‘preexisting’ as this offers the first clue to understanding what type of faith has been embraced. The producers have faith that the codified system of manufacture will deliver a quality picture. I will call this faith in a preexisting system of manufacture taker’s faith.

Taker’s faith does have value – it frees the taker from the burden of owning stock in the system of manufacture, allowing the taker to judge the final product without bias. We could also call this type of faith consumer’s faith. In investigating faith we learn that taker’s faith is the simplest form of faith: it demands nothing but acceptance from the designer. We’ve also come to learn that the simplest form always presents itself first Therefore, if faith does present itself to the designer, it will always present itself in the form of taker’s faith.

Maker’s faith
The vast majority of designers know only this form of faith. They believe faith is a simple two-option game, take it or leave it. What we’ve come to learn, however is that there’s not just one overarching kind of faith which one can accept or deny; there is an alternative. I will call that alternative maker’s faith. This is more complex; it demands more than mere acceptance. To achieve maker’s faith you must flip taker’s faith like a coin. Maker’s faith dwells on the backside. Maker’s faith, as opposed to taker’s faith, comes from a belief that the present system of manufacture is not good enough to work with. It is a faith in the possibility of a new system. This type of faith leads the maker to invent their own systems. Stallone’s great fault was that while in the position of the maker, he employed taker’s faith. This incongruity is fundamentally why this film is terrible. An example of a film about life on the racing circuit where the makers of the film employ maker’s faith is Le Mans starring Steve McQueen. This is an original and inventive film. It employed a new system altogether: very little morality, very little dialogue, documentary-style pacing, constructed almost entirely of racing footage, though this was eventually disrupted by the studio. Nevertheless, due to their faith in the possibility of a new system of manufacture, these filmmakers created an interesting and enduring film.

Pure taker’s faith
Now that we understand the possibilities, let’s look at how Foundation 33 employs faith. When Foundation 33 accepts a project into their studio, the first thing they do is determine what kind of faith will be employed. If the system of manufacture is already in place, they employ taker’s faith. They take the existing system and whittle it down to its most pure state – their faith is strong. This aggressive approach has resulted in a cohesive body of work. The work comprises sharp, aesthetically stripped-down material that seems to be inspired by Modernism’s tendencies for reduction. There is, however, one important difference: although their aesthetic is reduced, they do not seem to be interested in Modernism’s tendency to control content. Foundation 33, rather, provides as much information as is available, selected in the most democratic way possible – every part counts. Take for example a simple promotional card for a table. This is a very basic piece, no new system of manufacture has been invented. It is ink on paper distributed with the goal of promoting a table. Typically, a card like this would be edited to one beautiful image of the table and one rather clever word like ‘hard’, ‘pure’ or ‘imagineered’. Foundation 33 on the other hand, creates something less like a postcard and more like a construction manual. The card walks the potential buyer step-by-step through the production of the table, explaining every possible detail down to the width of the slats used minus the width of the saw blade cuts. The resulting card is not only a remarkably generous and respectful piece, but also a perfect piece of documentation.

Maker’s faith squared
Now, if the system of manufacture is not acceptable, Foundation 33 can employ an equally impressive maker’s faith. Take their 10.2 Multi-Ply Coffee Table. The project began with Eatock’s interest in turning a 4¥8 foot piece of plywood inside-out (think Robert Gober but inside-out). Solhaug then determined that it should be more than just a sheet of plywood – it should be a table. Both leave the conversation and independently do a little sketching. They meet the following day and present one another identical drawings, each having invented exactly the same new system of manufacture, with the exception that (architect) Solhaug’s were drawn by hand, while (graphic designer) Eatock’s were drawn on the computer (1)– maker’s faith squared in this case. The 10.2 Multiply Coffee Table is made from one 4x8 foot sheet of 1 inch thick birch veneer plywood. The sheet is mechanically cut into strips from computer specifications, rotated 90°, then reassembled. The system that Foundation 33 invented for this project states rather simply that every bit of material must be used and every newly revealed surface must be exposed. Thus, with a strong maker’s faith in this new system, every bit of the sheet is used and every newly revealed surface is exposed. They go so far as to use even the sawdust; the table derives its names from the weight lost in the cutting. One table generates 10.2 pounds of sawdust. The result is an unexpectedly beautiful and strange table with the final dimensions determined solely by its own production.

Faith over intelligence
So: to state that Foundation 33 makes remarkable things due to their intelligent employment of systems is no longer an acceptable statement. The foundation of their process is not intelligence, but faith. Don’t misunderstand me, they are intelligent men and, like many others, I believe intelligence is the great divider. I believe it so strongly that I can no longer trust it. So I look at Foundation 33 making things that impress me, and the first thing I see is no longer intelligence, it’s faith. Why have I not been able to see this faith sooner? The problem is our present culture’s reduction of faith to this simple take-it-or-leave-it gamble for a solution. Faith in this form is too closed and flat to employ – god knows I’ve done everything I could to reduce my dependence on it. After coming to know faith through the work of Foundation 33 I’ve discovered a much more complex and open form of faith that I trust in the same way I used to trust intelligence. Now that I’m becoming a believer, I’m able to both laugh and smile when Stallone states ‘Faith is like a good disease’. I still think it’s hilarious, but now I get it as well.

(1) In their own words:
Conception (The Multi-Ply project began without us knowing): First, a simple concept of cutting a 4x8 sheet of 1 inch thick plywood into one inch strips, then reconfiguring with the edge as its surface (Dan). Second, the notion of continuing this surface as legs, giving specific function (Sam). Finally, the idea of producing this from a single sheet of plywood without any waste, a recursive design system (Dan and Sam). We talked about these ideas for many nights in a bar in Minneapolis until closing time. In this particular case we agreed to meet the next day for lunch at the Walker Art Center (where we both worked). We both went to our homes and independently produced drawings early into the morning without the other knowing. Dan's on the computer, Sam‚s lead on vellum. We met for lunch and discovered that our drawings were identical, and even to the same scale. We immediately embarked on what was to be more engineering than carpentry. Over the next five months, working after hours in the carpentry shop in the basement of the Walker, we invented a system and constructed our 10.2 Multi-Ply Coffee Table, identical to the drawings from that lunch-time meeting.