Makers in Tuscany

Collaboration at heart of new technological artisans

Alexandra Korey
April 11, 2013

Florence is known for its traditional artisans who work leather, paper, and other materials—many of whom we have ‘met’ on the pages of The Florentine. Today, however, there’s a new type of nontraditional artisan whose tools include lasers and 3D printers. They’re called makers, and Tuscany is one of the strongest areas in Italy for this movement.

 

There is a subtle difference between makers and artisans: it comes down to materials and attitude. Makers use digital means to make physical things. A potter, who might hand throw and glaze a pot, is considered an artisan. If that potter were to design his pot using three-dimensional modeling software and then have it printed in ceramic, this thrusts him into the world of digital makers. The second factor is attitude: makers embrace open-source technology and a collaborative attitude that includes rendering methods available online. In the artisan tradition, knowledge is passed down through the workshop, and although things have evolved since the fifteenth century, when Cennino Cennini attempted to make a dictionary of techniques, including one for glazed ceramics for which nobody would tell him the secret recipe, online sharing and openness is not regularly practiced.

 

The maker movement is first an American phenomenon, growing out of many years of DIY. It has a magazine (Make Magazine, published by O’Reilly) and regular maker fairs—official gatherings of geeks, crafters and other people who like getting their hands dirty. American makers use their garages or meet up in FabLabs (an MIT brand meaning ‘fabrication laboratory’) or hackerspaces to develop technological objects in a social manner. If they make something saleable, they might put it on Etsy, the craft marketplace that, in 2012, made 895 million dollars in sales. The Obama administration is interested in makers: the White House held an online chat on the topic in March 2013, just one year after announcing the establishment of a heavily funded additive manufacturing institute intended to make the United States more competitive in this field. There is a hope, not only in the States, that harnessing the creativity of makers and their main technologies is the key to boosting the economy.

 

In Italy, this movement is just starting to solidify. Makers have been at work in Italy for a few years, but an event in Rome in early 2012, called World Wide Makers, brought it into the limelight and created the critical mass that has finally attracted media, if not government attention. Without funding, a grassroots movement is helping promote the formation of communities of makers in various Italian cities. Having a place with machines and practical workshops, i.e. a FabLab, is important, and these have cropped up in Turin, Milan, Reggio Emilia, Rome, Cava dei Tirreni (Salerno), Palermo and Verona; and in Tuscany, in Florence and Pisa.

 

FabLab Firenze (www.fablabfirenze.org), formed as an association in  2012, offers workshops for card-holding members interested in tinkering with Arduino (an open-source chip that helps create ‘smart objects’) or learning how to develop products using a laser cutting machine. Hosted at Combo Co-working (thanks to the association’s president, Mattia Sullini), the group does not yet have machines, but there are regular meetings, and this is the place to go if you want to meet local maker talents.

 

Among the founding members are cousins Lorenzo and Luciano Cantini, whose family business, Kentstrapper, produces a 3D printer of the same name, based on an open-source project called Rep-Rap. This machine prints plastic filament in layers that harden in whatever shape is specified through a digital file, a technology that has existed for some time but has recently come down in cost. Currently, the resolution of these desktop printers makes them useful mainly for printing prototypes and small objects, but many believe that additive manufacturing is the future since its products are customizable and can be printed on demand.

 

Riccardo Marchesi is vice president of FabLab Firenze and, with the Plug and Wear project, develops conductible textiles that can be used to create technological clothing for safety, medical or other applications. Another founding member, Troy Nachitigall, is an American fashion designer who collaborates with Marchesi and makes products of his own using Arduino and other techniques. Marchesi and Nachtigall teach a professional development course in wearable technology at the PIN, part of the University of Florence system in Prato; located in Tuscany’s main textile district, the hope is that graduates will help move production here towards the more technological in an effort to beat economic challenges from Asia.

 

Nachtigall says that Italian makers need to publish more: they have many great ideas but these are poorly, if at all, communicated. Indeed, helping Italian makers get the word out—and earn money—is at the heart of MakeTank (www.maketank.it), a blog and marketplace founded by Laura De Benedetto, who is on the board of directors of FabLab Firenze: ‘Every maker, every object has a story, and telling that story is key to economic success.’ Hoping to re-stimulate Italy’s historical strength in design, De Benedetto has launched DesignWinMake, a contest to encourage designers to develop saleable products using the main technologies associated with the Maker movement.

The maker movement in Italy must and probably will look quite different from its American counterpart, as Italians can draw on a long history of manual ability and aesthetic excellence.

 

Hoping to inject traditional artisanship with a touch of maker mentality, the Florence chapter of the Confederazione Nazionale Artigianato has been promoting the movement through various talks and events, including at the upcoming Mostra dell’Artigianato (April 20–28, 2013, www.mostraartigianato.it). FabLab Firenze and other fablabs in Italy are invited. There, FabLab Firenze, MakeTank, Plug and Wear, Kentstrapper and other local makers will have a booth and hold workshops though which the public can get to know the people and the technologies behind this potentially revolutionary movement.

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