IN WILLIAMSBURG, Brooklyn—the hippest part of New York’s hippest borough—you can pick up a seat for $750 made from the redwood reclaimed from an old water tower; or fork out $3,200 for a “Bilge” lounge chair, crafted from bourbon barrels and truck springs. Alternatively, if you are trend-conscious but cash-poor, you can download the free designs for strikingly similar items, get them cut at a local shop, and assemble them at home.
Designers are beginning to go “open source”, allowing users to download tweakable templates for everyday objects like furniture. “Ship information not stuff!” declares the website for AtFab, which is spearheading the trend along with SketchChair and MakeMe. Both AtFab and SketchChair specialise in homewares that can be put together from flat interlocking pieces of wood or acrylic. They are cut from a digital file by a laser-cutter or a computer numerical control (CNC) mill—machines which are becoming increasingly cheap and common. SketchChair also offers software that lets you draw-on components like legs, and test the physics of the chair against a manikin sized to the proportions of your body.
“The idea of a ‘factory’ is, in a word, changing,” writes Chris Anderson, a journalist and entrepreneur, in his new book, “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution”. “Just as the Web democratised innovation in bits, a new class of ‘rapid prototyping’ technologies, from 3-D printers to laser cutters, is democratising innovation in atoms.” Mr Anderson is an advocate of the “maker” movement, a community that champions the digital and the do-it-yourself. He believes that mass customisation could re-energise manufacturing, create environmentally responsible jobs, and empower consumers to surround themselves with objects uniquely tailored to their needs.