Translations & Suruga Series by Luis Vega

Luis Vega is a Designer-researcher with a particular focus on craft as a platform to investigate ways of socializing knowledge through materiality. Since 2019, Luis Vega works as a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Design at Aalto University while he also collaborates on other personal design challenges. Translations is a project that highlights the potential of making as a non-verbal communication tool in the context of cross-cultural practices. This series was carried out in Japan in a collaborative action between designers and local craftspeople.

Luis Vega’s Work & Research

Luis Vega: My work concentrates on cross-cultural collaboration. I focus in particular on the dynamics that emerge when people from different origins, mindsets, and disciplinary cultures materialize things together. There is something fascinating about it. I guess my interest in this topic relates to the fact that making is a unique way of communicating ideas as well as a universal means of participating in the world.

Luis Vega: Over the last years, I have developed a research practice that employs processes of collaborative making as the platform of inquiry. These processes usually cut across the fields of craft and design, thus enabling productive intersections and novel forms of mediation between them. In short, my practice uses the production of artifacts as a vehicle to investigate ways of socializing knowledge through materiality. Whether working with traditional techniques or exploring contemporary methods of fabrication, it is the production of artifacts that brings operational significance to my research practice. This means that in addition to working as a professional designer, I am an active member of the academic community. Not only does this strategy champions the production of knowledge from an insider’s perspective, but it also aims at demonstrating that one’s creative practice can become a methodological asset in certain kinds of investigative processes. Working with these principles has allowed me to undertake a wide variety of projects. And in all of them, collaborative making has proven to be an effective tool to communicate with other individuals across the world.

Suruga & Translations Series

Luis Vega: The Suruga Series belongs to a larger project called Translations (2014), which essentially sets out to explore the relationship between meaning and matter through the process of making artifacts. The project was carried out in Japan with local craftspeople, and it started with the purpose of examining the act of making as a means to overcome language barriers in the context of cross-cultural work. The absence of a shared verbal language was the condition that pushed me to ideate this project. Nevertheless, the chance to experience Japanese artisanship from up close opened a myriad of possibilities that led me to delve into further directions.

Luis Vega: The reasoning behind Translations is pretty simple: Handling materials and transforming them into artifacts is a common practice among designers, craftspeople, and makers in general. This practice is largely rooted in the studio tradition, a non-linear mode of working in which the creation of meaning does not rely on the verbalization of ideas but rather on the manipulation of matter. Making artifacts thereby constitutes an unparalleled way of thinking; it involves cognitive functions that can only unfold in non-linguistic modalities. In academia, we call this phenomenon “thinking-through-making”. Thinking-through-making is quite a special process because it also highlights the subjective input of the maker, thus offering the possibility to materialize personal interpretations of the world. But when this process happens collaboratively, new ways of thinking emerge that require some degree of inter-subjective interpretation. Following these lines of thought, I resorted to the notion of ‘translating’ to explain how collaborative making affords the construction of a common language that can be fully operational among makers. Translations benefited from the deliberate participation of about fifty craftspeople distributed in more than thirty manufacturing units across Japan. As a result, the project led to the production of four design collections: (1) the Kyoto Series, which draws on traditional joinery methods from Kyoto; (2) the Yamanaka Series, which is based on ancient lacquerware work from Ishikawa; (3) the Naniwa Series, which focuses on a specific type of metal craft from Osaka; and (4) the Suruga Series, which explores a bamboo weaving technique from Shizuoka. The name of each series corresponds to the name of the technique employed in its respective region. Worth to note, that all of these techniques have an established provenance of more than a hundred years, and they have all been practiced by local craftspeople under extremely traditional schemes. What we did was a contemporary interpretation of such techniques through design. Therefore, the resulting objects are material translations themselves, which ultimately served as a means rather than an end.

Luis Vega: Translations is the first project in a sequence of three: (I) Translations (2014), (II) Notations (2017), and (III) Variations (2018), all of which comprise a programmatic framework that examines collaborative making as a platform for knowledge creation. These three projects are documented and analyzed in Objects of Knowing, a thesis I published to complete my master’s degree at Aalto University back in 2018 [There are no physical copies left, but here is a link to a full-version, downloadable PDF]. The topics covered by these projects have evolved into a narrower research area that I’m now addressing as a doctoral candidate at the university’s Department of Design, where I investigate processes of collective thinking-through-making at the intersection of design practice and cognition studies. My doctoral project sits within the tradition of Practice-led Research, a research strand that not only advocates for the inclusion of professional practitioners in academia but also aims at transcending the distinction between theory and practice.

Main Challenges

Luis Vega: The project was a challenge in itself, but the greatest difficulty was understanding how the non-linearity of the creative process could conform to the rigorous standards of research. In a way, in my head, making was all about bringing new things forth into existence, whereas researching entailed the production of knowledge based on what was observable and thus already existing in the world. It took me a while to realize how making and researching could be compatible and mutually reinforcing activities, but it finally became clear after several rounds of iteration. That’s how the sequence of projects mentioned above (Translations, Notations, Variations) originated. Understanding the interplay of making and researching is a complex and continuous learning process. Every day I learn something new about it.

Luis Vega: Collaborating with craftspeople has taught me to pay respect to the environmental resources we use to create. Among other things, I have learned how important it is to orient our practices towards new models of co-existence, which in turn requires us to understand that we are living with the world rather than in it. The crises we are currently facing are just a sign of our destructive potential as human beings, so we need to reconsider how we want to co-exist with our environment and how to make use of its resources. Making beautiful artifacts wouldn’t be possible at all if such resources ceased to exist.

Interview with Luis Vega | Photography Luis Vega.