Wednesday, October 13, 2010

World Maker Faire Part One: What Dreams May Come

Lately I have found myself stumbling into places where my mind is completely blown.  It’s like I finally really understand what Frank Black is talking about, though I might not have been swimming in complete oblivion.  I guess really I just thought I was more in tune with my surroundings, but apparently that only happens when I actually manage to make it to yoga… but anyway… What started with the simple discovery of El Ten Eleven[i] to making the long, late trek back to the District from New York City, I continue to be overwhelmed with my experience when I come into it with no expectations. Won’t I ever learn?

The reason I was in New York to begin with is because my friend Karen[ii] invited me to help work a booth display of her dream-turned-reality vertical farm at the World Maker Faire, and well, I had no reason to say no. So before I new it, the weekend was upon us and I was heading up to Queens to assist in whatever way necessary. I didn’t really know much about what was in store except that the Maker Faire was a host for the birth of ideas. No matter what the idea, if it had a concept to make it happen, it had a place there. Art, toys, clothes, robots, floating cities, flying ponies - old, new, never-been-seen, Green, growing, percolating, for sale, for show, or just to know. Name the imagination; find the creation.

It was awesome.

*Courtesy of Karen MacKay

Karen’s part in this madness was to display her thesis project - a vertical farm concept designed to grow a garden in small, urban spaces typically seen as hostile environments. Her ideas found roots while in Grad school at Georgia Tech working towards a Masters in Industrial Design as she sought to marry her various passions on common ground.  Philosophy bred a need to make her world a better place, environmental passion lead to linking these personal goals with the need for a sustainable survival guide for humans, and the artist in her began to bubble with ideas on what she could design that might stand a chance in our ever-increasingly jaded worldview.

It was not all that long ago that farmers and families lived off their land, eating mostly seasonal fruits and vegetables and home-raised meats. With the birth of mass-production and distribution, folks found themselves walking in a supermarket craving blackberries and tomatoes in the dead of winter and finding them plump and ripe on the shelves.  The need to grow any kind of food source, let alone plant, of your own became more and more unnecessary. Now we face starvation on one side of the globe and obesity in nine year-olds on the other.

In an effort to take back the farm, Karen looked to already formulated ideas about urban farming and sustainability and hoped to design a concept that would encourage a more learned lifestyle where people started caring again about not only separating ourselves from mass market and outsourced food, but also getting back to a place where we can literally start from the ground up and live a healthier life.   Vertical Theory started in Georgia and found its way to a booth (well, a table, actually) at the WMF nestled in among potters and planters. Oh, and kilts[iii], but we’ll get to that later. First, let’s get to Karen.
Like I said, urban farming, specifically vertical farming, is not new, thank god. But its not about who can make something better it’s about making something that works, that’s not really what urban farming is all about. Most of those out there who are into a bigger scale model have tested a variety of ideas and found building gardens on rooftops to work well, but what if you don’t have a rooftop and you still want to grow some herbs or tomatoes, raspberries even? Then you’ve got to find a way to make it happen.
So you start with a plant, any kind really, and decide you want to grow it year-round, but you live in San Francisco or DC and have nothing but a small window in the kitchen and a ceiling fan to work with. Those who are crafty have found that you can pretty much grow anything you want if you just have some soil and a place to pot the plant. The guy next to us had jade plants growing in old soda liters that he had cut up and repurposed. Which, while a great idea, isn’t quite to the scale of creating an actual garden indoors that is what Karen and her colleagues have in mind. Those who know more about plants found that growing hydroponically is the easiest to maintain in a small space. It uses less energy, less space, and honestly, less memory to water the damn plants! Most of you, if you’ve heard of it at all, were likely introduced to hydroponics in reference to growing marijuana. If you’ve seen Food, Inc., then you might know it from the Earthbound Farm Organics, the company featured that grow mad rows of organic lettuce using the rules of organics and sustainability. Well, take that same set of guidelines down to a smaller level, a personal level, and you’ve got yourself your own farm.

This brings us back to the World Maker Faire where many of the ambitious folks had created working vertical farms such as this:

*Courtesy of Window Farms

The folks over at Window Farms designed this version using what they call, “vertical, hydroponic, modular, low-energy, high-yield edible window gardens built using low-impact or recycled local materials1[iv].” A.k.a. plastic bottles and an intricately designed system of air pumped water flow and hanging lights. When constructed, this farm isn’t the most glamorous thing to look at (if you care about that sort of thing) but it is entirely functional and pretty fucking awesome.
Karen’s design is built on the same principles of sustainability and functionality, however the beauty of her vertical farm is that, unlike her comrades, it is actually really lovely. Instead of painted plastic, she uses felt to make pocket planters, hand sewn, just like the one below.

*Courtesy of Karen MacKay

Vertical Theory continues to use air pumps (like then ones used in a fish tank) and a large water source. Instead of soil there are specially selected baked clay pellets that help maintain moisture and nutrients in the roots. The felt allows for ample air flow and water distribution from the top through each pocket and back into the water source to recycle and redistribute. Can’t visualize? Here’s what we managed to build at the WMF with the help of fellow Industrial Designer Shelton Davis. That’s my dorky self in the image below.

*Courtesy of Karen MacKay

Pretty cool, huh? Yeah I thought so too. It was an amazing project to be a part of, and I’m so glad Karen invited me along to play “assistant”. We had a great response to her design and so many requests for a kit that it was hard to keep up! The next phase is already in the works, and before you know it, you’ll be putting a Vertical Theory farm of your own in your teeny tiny apartment!
Not to mention, the World Maker Faire was so inspiring that I hardly even cared that I was dead tired, hungry and covered in dirt by the end of the day.

Yep, I’m the idiot who choses to wear my favorite shoes in a dirt pile. Fashion over function. Sigh. Its why I’m not the designer. I’m better suited for the marketing, man, give me a break. That’s why Karen and I decided on this trip that we should start a company together… so stay tuned for news on that as well as World Maker Faire Part 2: New York, New York!

[i] Check out my other blog
[ii] Check out her other sites here, and here.


Erin said...

Very exciting! I love Karen's felt planter. I could see this being a very big thing.

Christina said...

Great article about a great project. Kudos to both of you!