February 23, 2009

Part 1 - Tiny Pictures of Hope That You May Not Believe

An Interview with John Hart, creator of "nanobama"
(Part 1 of 2, link to Part 2)
When starting off doing research into this article, I realized one of the first things I needed to understand was: exactly how big is a nanometer in imaginable terms. So I did what most intelligent parents across the planet do when they realize their own math lessons are long out-of-date and asked my nearly 9-year-old son to explain it to me.

Well, after a couple of “gosh Dad, you’re so dumb” statements from Ziggy Jr., we were together able to locate various explanations (
1, 2, 3) that may or may not help you as well. Kindly note that we have intentionally avoided any descriptive that in any way relates to the sheer scale of bonuses your local bank manager is receiving in relation to said bank’s tax-payer-sponsored bail-out package:
· Nano, a prefix meaning "dwarf" in Greek, also means one billionth. A nanometer is therefore one billionth of a meter;
· One-billionth (10 to the -9 power or 0.000000001 or 1m/1,000,000,000) of a meter is about 25-millionths of an inch;
· Objects that are a few to several hundred nanometers in width are called a nanoparticles, and nanotechnology is the science of manipulating nanoparticles;
· Carbon nanotubes or CNTs are one form of highly organized structures that are included in this area, where you may have also heard of Fullerenes or Bucky Balls or any number of interesting related topics;
· The width of a human hair is about 80,000 – 100’000 nanometers across. In relation to this for example, starting with 1 meter and each time getting 1,000 times SMALLER:
- 1 meter – about the size of a two-year-old child or medium-sized dog, the length of a poster or even a typical Ziggy Nixon blog introduction, etc.;
- 1 millimeter – about the thickness of a dime;
- 1 micrometer – size of pollen, red blood cells, baker's yeast, some bacteria;
- 1 nanometer- the size of some viruses, width of strands of DNA and RNA, thickness of a cell membrane;
· Other comparative examples expressed in nanometers include:
- The period at the end of a sentence is almost 500,000 nanometers in diameter;
- A basketball is about 239,506,000 nanometers wide;
- And while we’re on the topic of basketball, did you know that Shaquille O’Neal is over 2.16 BILLION nanometers tall (which is remarkably enough the same amount of money in billions that he is paid each year);
- And
this one we liked a lot: you’d have to move a 3-square-inch Post-It® note a distance equivalent to half-way around the Earth for it to appear 3 nanometers in size, assuming of course that you could still even see it (hint: you couldn’t without a really good telescope).

Now I don’t mean to belittle John Hart’s work at all; in fact, in all of my years of travel and other semi-professional going’s-on (or is it going-on’s?), I doubt that I have seen a more impressive
résumé of any type. John’s current work is astounding and also his proposals, for example, along with Neri Oxman and their ‘Construction in Vivo’ work (see also mention of the Holcim Next Generation Award for Sustainable Construction) boggle the mind in terms of what they could mean to everyone of us currently sitting on this greenish-gray ball. And even though said journeys have also led us past the topic of nanotechnology once or twice, John and his team’s recent creative approach to illustrating what can be accomplished with this technology, namely the generation of “nanobamas” found at the site of the same name, only added to our fascination of this topic. And now that our meter worth of introductions is finished, let’s dive right in:

John, how did you get involved in the world of nanotechnology?

I was actually a graduate student at MIT and was reading papers about micro-nano-technology. From here I was very fortunate to receive a fellowship from the
Hertz foundation, which is a private foundation here in the United States that funds PhD research in applied science. It’s actually quite a selective program so I was very surprised and honored to be chosen.

This gave me the flexibility along with my advisor to explore a new topic for both of us. It was a complete departure but I was fascinated and intrigued by the properties and potential of carbon nanotubes.

My background at that point was in design manufacturing. We were thinking about how to make design a machine and a manufacturing process to make nanotubes grow really long. Our target was hopefully to make the properties of the individual molecules at the scale that would could essentially hold in our hands and use as macro-scale materials. That part of our work is still a dream, but we have come a long way and have made significant progress in the five years since we started.

Would you say your “youthful aspirations” tended towards art or science or a combination of both?
Like most kids there was a time I wanted to be an architect, a time I wanted to be a surgeon or even a paramedic, etc.. My interests fluctuated.

My dad was an engineer and a scientist. I couldn’t say though that I wanted to follow in his footsteps. The one experience that maybe resonated in my subconscious was that he had a kind of shop in the basement and sometimes I’d go down there with him when he went to work on Saturdays and I liked to tinker around, too. But really there was no long-term aspiration that led me in this direction.

I think my aptitude in school – other than being like the worst kid in gym class – was not an artistic one. I was more into math and the sciences than art, and I did very well in those subjects. But the thing I enjoyed the most in high school was actually debate. I think other than what we’re talking about now, being involved in debate is one of the most valuable things I’ve ever done. It’s still incredibly useful even for what I’m doing now with both my research and teaching at the University of Michigan. It was so valuable to learn how to organize my thoughts, how to write up and outline proposals, and of course, it was excellent experience in learning how to make presentations.

Can we get the “Junior High School demonstration” description of growing nanotube forms?
I think the visuals provided on the nanobama site is a real good accompaniment for a lesson in how we do this, because it makes it easy for all of us to imagine.

The processing parameters of course all depends on the form we want to make. But if we take an image – in this case Shepard Fairey’s famous (ZN: and
slightly controversial) picture of President Obama – we then use Adobe illustrator to convert it into a line drawing. Of course, for the more “technical images” we make there are other software programs we can employ to make the starting image.

Then using optical cameras, we print the image via laser at very small scale onto a glass plate which we call the mask. We then shine ultraviolet light through the mask – which is essentially transparent where the shape of Obama’s face appears – and onto a thin layer of polymer on a silicon wafer, thereby patterning the polymer by photolithography with extremely fine detail.

Then the wafer is coated with a very thin layer of catalyst nanoparticle "seeds" which essentially tell the individual nanotubes where to grow. We then remove the remaining polymer that is not needed on the mask, leaving the catalyst seeds in the shape of the image. The resulting wafer that we’ve made is then placed in a furnace with the needed components present which includes a carbon-containing gas.

How does the picture result or appear after the processing?
The carbon nanotubes or CNTs are grown from the catalyst patterns into an organized structure of a “forest” of nanotubes. Each Obama portrait is about 150 million tiny carbon nanotubes in parallel – or approximately equal to how many Americans voted in the 2008 presidential election!

It really can be thought of as if you’re standing in a super super tall forest of trees – of course if you were extremely small yourself. Just imagine though that if each individual nanotube was the size of a real tree – about 1 foot in diameter – then this forest would consist of 100 million super tall trees. Not only that, but these trees would still be growing at the speed of sound or at over 500 feet per second!

The CNTs aren’t “solid” like a tree, however; instead, they are tiny hollow cylinders of highly ordered carbon. (As mentioned in the introduction) their diameter is tens of thousands of times smaller than a human hair or even the period at the end of this sentence. Other properties are that they are several times stronger and stiffer than steel on an equivalent density basis.

(As shown above,) the nanobama faces are approximately 0.5 millimeter wide, or again calculating back, about ten times the width of a human hair. The final images – even the larger ones – are only barely visible to the naked eye (if at all) and are taken using optical and scanning electron microscopes (ZN: for further details into SEM, see the previous report on the work by
Martin Oeggerli).

How do you make the “seeds” used to grow the CNTs?
We use a process known as chemical vapor deposition that provides a very thin layer of iron metal onto the surface of our silicon wafer “template” to define the shape of the image.

During the very high temperature heating of the wafers, a carbon dome appears at the site of the catalyst that just continues to grow upwards and perpendicular to the surface until the system runs out of material. That may sound easy but it’s definitely a lot more tricky than that!

How much does one of these images cost from start to finish? For example, would it be practical to start up a portrait company using this technology?
It’s kind of difficult to say exactly. The processing is done on a full scale, that is, we process an entire silicon wafer. The biggest part of the costs comes in processing that whole wafer. In terms of these images we’ve made, for us the real costs come from our time because we put something like this on the same wafer we’re using for our research.

In terms of overall costs, the dedicated costs to make the images is probably only about 50 dollars for use of the SEM to take the pictures. But if we consider the part of the wafer (which is about 4 inches total in diameter) where the pictures are made – about 1 square centimeter – add to that the technicians time, the time as well needed to make the mask and the time on the machines, then it might run about 2,000 – 4,000 dollars for imaging of each section individually.

I guess if you wanted to sell then each image, well, then a lot of the cost will be in creating the image and could run then something like several hundreds of dollars per image. And that’s without color (if you want color in an SEM image, you have to add it later with something like Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop).

Where do you see the most practical future for nanostructure technology for the near or long-term future?
Of course, nano materials and nanotechnology are already in use in many applications. If we focus just on the long-term benefit’s and practicality, I see most of the benefit being in two extremely large and potentially beneficial areas, namely, energy and medicine.

With energy, I see a lot of potential in using nano structures to make solar cells, batteries, capacitors and devices which allow us to better optimize energy conversion.

In medicine as well, there are so many practical uses. Many researchers are already looking at nanotechnology in terms of creating agents to deliver drugs that target specific sites, or to recognize certain molecules or antibodies in the blood, thus making treatments much more effective. This technology can also be used to even target specific organs or tumors without damaging the areas of the body around these that might not be stable to otherwise invasive or damaging treatments.

In addition, there is tremendous potential for nanotube technology to help in diagnoses by acting as “contrast agents” for imaging. For example, you can create nanoparticles that are photoactive or perhaps even coated with a given material so that they bond to the surface of a given abnormality or other defect. The imaging that can then be made enables the analyses and preparation for treatment again much more efficient. The more exact in terms of how we learn to design the individual structures, the more uses we’ll find.

What are the little "hairs" on some of the images, like we see above on the nano-flag?
We start out with a full silicon wafer which is broken up into 1 cm square pieces; when you break it up you scratch it and cleave it with a diamond scribe. This creates silicon dust with catalyst on one side.

This dust then acts as a growth point for these extra nanotubes that are then no longer aligned. These appear then in the SEM images as “hairs”.

Why do the edges in some of the shapes glow?
These are local charging effects in the electron microscope that, along with the intensity of the electron beam and the position of the detector, can create apparent lighting and shadowing effects in the electron microscope image. But it is very fascinating in that it provides a very interesting and natural kind of “lighting effect”.

Plus, working with SEM also enhances what we’re able to illustrate as this process can resolve features much smaller than the wavelength of light, and has a relatively large depth of focus.

How do you obtain such clear order in some images (e.g. Obama’s face) vs. others that appear to be a mix of wild hairs or even less ordered structures?
I think the uniform growth comes from understanding the reaction conditions better. Like how to supply enough carbon to feed all the nanotubes “happily”, how to reproduce the processes better, etc. Today, by controlling the density of the catalyst particles as well as the reaction temperature and chemistry, we can grow these CNT forests to millimeter heights with amazing exactness and detail.

Key is the understanding that the architectures are formed by self-organization of the CNTs as they grow upward from the silicon substrate from the catalyst layer. If we distribute the catalyst uniformly, nanotubes will grow everywhere on the substrate. How the nanotubes organize themselves is defined by how they push and pull each other to produce the architectures shown.
On the other hand, if the catalyst is only put in certain areas (patterned), again like the Obama portrait, then the nanotubes will grow only from those areas that are coated with catalyst. We’re just continuing to gain a lot more experience and getting better and better at the design processes I guess.
continued in Part 2

Part 2 - Tiny Pictures of Hope That You May Not Believe

An Interview with John Hart, creator of "nanobama"
(Part 2 of 2, link to Part 1)
Can you explain a bit more about the difference between the disordered structures and either the Metropolis (shown here at the left) or Barn images.
All of these architectures were formed in the same way as described in terms of preparing a mask, using the metal catalyst to seed growth, etc.. The Metropolis patterns compared to the disordered patterns are just a result therefore of not only applying the catalyst in an evenly patterned form but also by getting the process much more under control.

However, in the case of the Barn-like structures, the growing CNTs were also subjected to mechanical pressure during growth, that is, their formation was pushed from the outside if you will. For example, the Barn shape shown is formed as the nanotubes are confined to stay within a trapezoidal mould during growth. We can also apply mechanical pressure by other means to affect the sizes and shapes that are formed.

Why do some columns grow taller than others, even within the same form? I’m just curious how the heck you got the
Absolut Nano or for that matter the Star Burst images to grow like that (seemingly “tube within a tube” or even other shapes)?
These shapes actually happen by chance. The governing principle in their formation is that there’s mechanical stress along each of the nanotubes. If you have, say, a cylinder growing upward and perhaps the inside of the cylinder is growing faster than the outside of the cylinder, then at some point the nanotubes in the inside – a certain group of them – will break away from the larger mass.

And the combination of the friction of that center portion breaking away and the outside growing at a slower rate will cause the outside to curl outward. So it’s kind of like formation of a flower.

In other cases, the differences that may occur in the growth rates across large numbers of CNTs can cause bending or wrinkling of the forms. It’s a bit technical, but by introducing spatial and temporal gradients in the reaction conditions or by spatially varying the size of the patterns, the shapes can be influenced to grow to different heights or to lean in particular directions. The gallery of self-organized and patterned architectures that we illustrate at
www.nanobliss.com exemplifies these techniques.

Are there advantages of using either mechanical shaping or self-organized growth in terms of applications?
I think in general with micro-fabrication that the ability to make 3-D free-form structures is something that has not been done in parallel on the large scale. Sure, you can use small beams of light to make micro-sculptures but the practicality in terms of scaling-up has not been realized. If I wanted to make true 3-D structures in parallel it would be extremely challenging.

This is I think an advantage of these processes in that this technology – especially now that we’re learning more and more about how to control it better – continues to bring it closer to a true manufacturing process. And sure, various dimensional aspects that we can control – for example, forming a series of pyramids or towers or even a series of channels – can be used with particular advantages for certain applications, including micro-machinery or electronics or optics, just to name a few.

With all this in mind: where does the science end and the art begin? Or is it vice versa?
That’s a good question. I think in a lot of ways they’re intertwined.

Sure, there’s a lot of things that we do that are truly scientific, with no artistic intention. The purpose of imaging these structures – and the way that
www.nanobliss.com started – was just in that I was taking pictures for my research, particularly because I didn’t have growth conditions in hand as well as we do now. The growth as you can see was more kind of random.

The art began I guess as we started thinking about using these images or taking new ones of the forms we were coming up with for an artistic purpose. Just the natural self-organization of the CNTs gave some artistic value.

Few of the things we’ve illustrated have outwardly been meant to be artistic. Certainly the nanobama’s were one but this was more of a fun project. But I am thinking more about how to develop the artistic side of it, from maybe a business point of view even selling some images or samples. Or creating more art projects.

Really though it’s a great way to help illustrate what we’re aiming for in our research and demonstrate the principles of organization at a nano-scale. If you can create and illustrate things that people can relate to at small scales, it helps them visualize what the process can achieve. Even every day objects can be used to describe the process; for example, if we illustrate the sky-line of a city, there are principles of the fabrication process embodied in the form.

Or for example using structures to generate patterns of light: there are very clearly defined quantum principles in terms of how nanocrystals respond to light and emit certain colors. If you combine this with nanotubes you can control what colors are formed. Case in point: we wanted to try before Christmas – though we just couldn’t find enough time – to make a “nano-Santa” illustration and color it with quantum dots and make it appear to flash either red or green. Granted you don’t get color with SEM, but in this case we wanted to make it at a scale where you could see it with a normal microscope or even with the naked eye.

So does making art ultimately help with your work, either by teaching or even getting attention (not necessarily fund-raising but if yes, why not…)?
I don’t think the artistic side helps with fund-raising at this point but it does help with teaching. It also maybe helps with outreach. I think this is important perhaps from the other side of funding, perhaps in general with The National Science Foundation or something similar, but I don’t think I’ve realized anything in practice this way.

The greatest thing about it is that it connects me with an audience that I would otherwise not reach. I mean, the media attention for the nanobama’s got a bit crazy and it kind of overwhelmed me at first. I realize now why it happened the way it did but I really didn’t think about what could happen in advance when we made them.

But it’s exciting because I mean these pictures have now been seen by millions of people. They were literally everywhere for a while, in newspapers and web-sites around the world, on all continents, popping up in all kinds of places that I’d never expected. And how many people would have ever seen a structure made out of carbon nanotubes?

For us in the lab, sure, it was kind of basic and a kick to make, but it’s just one representation of what we do every day. Maybe it’s not that not novel to us but it is a basic element of nanotechnology, an aspect that so many people have never seen or would not have seen otherwise. So for us it is such a privilege to think that the work we’ve done has been seen by so many people. And if only a handful of people decide to read a bit more about it or maybe even sign up for a course at the University or ask their science teachers at any level, that’s really cool. That’s the big win for us.

There has been some recent criticism in the press recently about the overall health and safety aspects of using nanotechnology. How would you address that?
This is an important and unresolved issue for nanomaterials that are already in use, and for those yet to come, that is, those that will be in use in the future. I think very importantly, we must not be alarmed by the hype. As with any new area of science and technology, we must support research into investigations of long-term health and environmental impacts of nanomaterials, and must be cautious where necessary.

We need to also consider the “use cases” and weigh the benefits vs. these. For example, even if particular nanoparticles or even nanotubes are potentially dangerous, in most uses we wouldn’t ingest them. Just consider computer chips and circuit boards: these contain toxic materials, and of course, we need to consider life-cycle issues as well (e.g., disposal, recycling). But we each have many such cases of these materials in our lives and as long as they’re used correctly, we’re okay. (ZN: visit the
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology for more if you’re interested)

If nanotechnology could fulfil your “ultimate dream” – either artistically or otherwise – in terms of it’s benefit of man as well – what would that dream be?
Oh, I wasn’t ready for this question. I should probably already have a good answer ready.

I do think for myself one of the main dreams is to understand the fundamental mechanisms of energy conversion and how to design materials to optimally convert energy from one form to the other. If we can efficiently get energy from one source – like sunlight and store it as hydrogen – that would affect and benefit all of mankind.

Also as I indicated earlier, the benefit’s that are theoretically possible in terms of detection and treatment and understanding of the mechanisms of chronic diseases.

I think these are the two areas that can most broadly affect society. But it won’t stop here. We’ll also learn how to make stronger and lighter and more efficient materials. As indicated on our nanobliss site, because CNTs are cylindrical molecules of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice as in graphite, they have incredible potential. Because the carbon-carbon bonds present are very stable and extremely strong, and because CNTs are seamless and have a very small diameter, CNTs have exceptional properties.

For example, high-quality CNTs exhibit several times the strength of steel piano wire at one-fourth the density, at least five times the thermal conductivity of copper, and very high electrical conductivity and current-carrying capacity. Sure, such properties have generated broad interest: for potential applications such as next-generation electronics where individual CNTs are transistors, to even in the use of space-age composites. In this case, literally trillions of CNTs would work together to form the structure of an airplane wing at only a tiny fraction of the same weight. For example, a fully-loaded 747 (~ 400 tons) could hang from a 5 millimeter (1/4 inch) diameter rope made from continuous parallel CNTs!

But it’s not only in these areas that we are looking to improve properties and uses of CNTs. We also exploring the possibilities to use materials that are made out of natural components, like natural fibers, plants and wood. This is just another aspect of closing the gap between what we as humans can do and what nature can do.


As John indicates on his web-sites, beyond the fun he and his team had with the nanobama images, carbon nanotubes and other nanostructures are being taken very seriously indeed as potential building blocks for many important technological advances. As mentioned, these include high-performance solar cells and batteries, new methods of diagnosing and treating disease, next-generation computer processors and memory-storage, and lightweight composite materials.

John goes on to indicate that certainly broad awareness and understanding of the widespread benefit’s, implications, and yes, even the potential risks of nanotechnology will be essential for it’s commercial success. Likewise, public and private support for research and education programs catalyzes economic growth and enables continued breakthroughs in energy, medicine, communications, and other vital areas. And again, if this article in some way makes you interested in learning more about nanotechnology, then that’s good, too!

For more, check out the sites mentioned in the article as well as the
complete collection of nanobama images at flickr. Also, if you want to check out a “condensed” view of this input, see the following YouTube video (I’m not sure if this counts as getting “scooped” or not, as our interview with John took place in December 2008).


John Hart is Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He holds Ph.D. (2006) and S.M. (2002) degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a B.S.E (2000) degree from the University of Michigan, all in Mechanical Engineering. Again, if you want to be wowed, take a look at his

He has industrial experience in engineering and project management at General Motors, and through various consulting appointments. John received the 2006 MIT Senturia Prize for best doctoral thesis in micro/nano technology, and graduate fellowships from the
Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, National Science Foundation, and MIT Martin Foundation. In 2008, John received a DARPA Young Faculty Award (for proposed research on energy harvesting using nanostructures), a R&D100 Award (for the SabreTube Desktop Thermal Processing System), and the Holcim Next Generation Award for Sustainable Construction (for design of energy-saving responsive nanocomposite building skins).

research currently focuses on synthesis and applications of nanostructured materials, machine and instrument design. John's nanobliss gallery features his work on scientific visualizations of small-scale structures. Since 2006, John's images have been featured in American Scientist, SEED magazine, PC Magazine, several other international publications and exhibitions ... as well as of course the world’s leading authority on cutting-edge high-technology, namely, Playboy (sorry guys, G-rated only).


All images and other materials are used with exclusive permission of John Hart. Images and structures made by John Hart, Sameh Tawfick, Michael De Volder, and Will Walker. For more information, please contact John at

February 9, 2009

A Little Shop Just Out Back and Thousands of Miles Away

An interview with Gérard Dumora and Jacqueline Lauth of Pacific Art Design
Part 1 of 2 (link to Part 2)

The process for getting this interview up and ready is almost worth a blog itself. I had in fact met Gérard and Jacqueline just over a year ago at the Winter 2008
Maison & Objet show (see also here). At the time, I confess to giving their stand a quick glance, picking up as much information as I could and then continuing my journey onward in this Paris-based show covering roughly 10 million square miles (well that’s what my feet felt like afterwards).

Then one day some months later I was going through my collection of materials and noticed that the PAD team in fact just lives down the road from the Nixon’s. So I essentially yelled out the window (seriously, we can almost see their village from our office) and asked if they’d be interested in an interview, to which they kindly said yes and even invited my wife and I to visit them at their nearby home.

The interview itself was fascinating and a very well hosted event I must say (read on to find out why this is so important to say!). It was also very typical for an Alsatian gathering, namely there were conversations flying all around and at least two languages in use at any one time. And oh yes, delicious pie was served, oh man, was that good. Still, despite my pretensions about actually being able to comprehend the French language when sitting with someone – and I did pretty well when we were “live” – I did find that understanding the input from our interview tapes to be all but impossible.

So I will fully confess here front and center that without Mrs. Nixon’s very patient help, that this particular input would not be possible. But now that I’ve thanked the wife (and saved my own ‘peau’) and also now apologize to our new-found friends for the delay in getting this article ready, let’s move on to meet these talented, interesting and very friendly people:

Gérard, Jacqueline – Why did the two of you decide back in 1998 to move to the island of
Moorea in the French Polynesian region of Tahiti?
G: Basically our wanting to move – call it a kind of ‘wanderlust’ if you will – happened because we both wanted to go there to find different values and experience new cultures. These aspects in Tahiti interested us in particular. And the environment and way of thinking we found there were very close to our own set of values.

At the beginning of our relationship – even after only being together for just 2 hours! – we were even then talking about leaving France for such a journey. You see, both of us grew up in families that moved around a lot and we both had the same sense of knowing that whenever we arrived somewhere, we started already to have a desire to leave again. It seems to have worked out pretty well, as we’ve been together now for 17 years.

Interestingly, when we decided to move to Moorea, I was working in Switzerland as a carpenter. I was making a good salary and we were living in pretty good conditions since the cost of living in France was so much lower. A lot of our friends were even ready to buy houses or property and begin settling down. But we were not ready for this – it’s still the same way today because whenever we feel tied down we want to move again.

Sure, it’s reassuring to have a type of ‘home sweet home’ you can come back to whenever you return from a journey or a trip. But on the other hand we find it good to have freedom to live where we want when we want. Of course it’s not easy to leave a place whenever you’ve made good friends and have family nearby; but when we make our moves we’re not just leaving on a whim. It’s all very much planned and really adds a little bit of spice to our lives.

And when we do move, it’s not like we’re just camping out; we really try to install ourselves and make a commitment to the place where we are. We integrate ourselves into the local culture and really try to make friends and live as normal as possible. Yes, it’s a bit like starting from scratch each time but we don’t want to fake it when we move. This is really important to us otherwise we know we wouldn’t be satisfied anywhere.

For now at least, being located in the Alsace has been very good for us but we still have plans to leave at some point. Our daughter is finishing her studies and we’re focused on her getting her (high school) degree.

Gérard, I understand your father played a role in your interest in other cultures and travelling?
Yes, because of my father’s military career we moved a lot when I was much younger. In terms of how it affected me, well, when I think about my sister, she always adapted very well to new schools and did very well academically. On the other hand, I didn’t do so great in school but I always quickly adapted to new social settings. It’s just really a question of basic character in terms of how you adapt, but certainly it influenced my life tremendously.

Jacqueline, how did you find yourself so far from home (Guyana)?
My father was a geologist and so we, too, moved around when I was younger, returning to France when I was six. It was this strong point Gérard and I had in common that attracted us to each other and helped our relationship get started and to grow. We really matched up well in this regard.

We’ve met other people who’ve moved as well in their childhood and in some cases they don’t want to ever move again. With us it was different and it was a very positive part of our lives and again, helped form our character.

Gérard, you are a trained carpenter, correct?
Yes. Again, I studied carpentry as a practical, technical based education in large part because I hadn’t done so well in school. Sure, I was bright enough to do better in my studies but I always had the trouble adapting to the new teachers and classes when we moved.

Playing with words for a moment: Would you say then your start as a designer was because you were (1) a carpenter who was interested in learning and developing his artistic ideas OR (2) a designer – who happened to have learned carpentry – finally getting the chance to express his true calling?
That’s a very good question.

I thought about this a lot before you visited. I think if it had been 5 years ago, I maybe would have answered that I was a carpenter interested in learning more about my craft in general. Today, I feel that I’m much more of a designer who has had training in carpentry.

(Jacqueline interrupts) I don’t totally agree, I really think you’re both.

G: Okay, it’s obviously a difficult question to answer. Sure, a carpenter doesn’t just nail two pieces of wood together. He can be creative in even the basic practice of his trade. It’s like in any other work that requires any amount of creativity.

J: If I think about the past years, I think Gérard was born with this talent and the ability to turn his ideas into lovely creations. Learning to be a carpenter was something that happened by chance and allowed him to be skilled at working with a material like wood. The great advantage he has is that he has the skill to express his ideas in such a beautiful way.

You do have a lot of people that find when they have ideas they don’t know how to bring them to life. It’s the same with me: I may have an idea for our work but I personally have no idea how to do it, that is, actually create the object. Gérard can then take the idea and make it a reality.

G: Yes, it was a plus to have the training and job experience as a carpenter. Still, even if I hadn’t done all that before I think I would have found some way to express my creativity. But designer is not really the word I would use. I think Jacqueline said it best, I think of myself mostly as a creator.

I mean, I never had this step where I had to go get a blank piece of paper and sketch out an idea to see what it should look like. For me, I’ve always been able to visualize my pieces in my head and then just make them. And even if I do rarely use paper to sketch out an idea, it’s only because I want to run it by Jacqueline. So the drawing helps her visualize it as well – just like it’s in my head – and critique it. But this is pretty rare, also because we understand so well what most of the ideas are meant to be and what I’m aiming for.

J: But really he typically just makes the prototype and shows that to me. This is great for me, because he’s always bringing in these wonderful surprises. It’s always so exciting and I love that part of our work together.

What was the inspiration for starting your first designs?
For the pieces you see now, my first inspirations came from the Polynesian culture. Also, I had a really important encounter with a Polynesian artist that was also very significant. And of course, in Moorea the rapport with nature was very strong in influencing my work.

In fact, I think the reason that I initially had success is that I fed off this power I got from the local nature. In my eyes you always have to be ready to make an exchange between nature and your ideas in order to have them work. This was not something I planned or calculated on, but it is an intricate part of my work – including for the range of pieces I presented then and am continuing to show today.

What I mean then by an exchange is that nature provides me for example with a wonderful piece of wood. And when I see this, I know right away what I want to do with it. So I continually feed on this strength.

From the start, you have been fascinated by lighting. What drew you towards designing so many different forms of lamps and working with light?
For me, light represents life. And wood or trees are also an essential part of life in that they provide us with protection, shelter, and many other uses. The mix of these two elements always attracted me and the combination was something I liked very much. Plus light allows for so many interpretations and usages.

Also in Moorea the evening comes very early and the sun sets very quickly. So you really gain an appreciation for light and its importance. I also looked around at other artists and saw that many – especially the younger crowd – started out as well by working with light. There would always be such terrific displays of the different works and crafts at the stands in the market. So for me it was an obvious starting point.

In comparison, creating furniture is different. It seems to me that furniture always has the same type of lines, its square or has basically the same form and function. But with lighting you can have different categories, including hanging lamps or standing pieces. There are just so many ways to use it and to express it creatively.

How would you best describe the art and design of Tahiti to someone who is not familiar with the region or its people?
The Tahitian people are not artists in the sense of what we think of as ‘beau art’ (fine art) makers. Instead, they create their art out of necessity, when they need something they make it both functional and also they pleasing to the eye. Actually, in terms of my work, it was only after we moved back to the Alsace when someone said “wow, this is art” or “wow, Gérard you’re an artist.”

Traditionally, the art in Tahiti includes wood sculptures, or objects made out of stone, or that even made from the mother of pearl, the shiny black sea-shells that come from there. Really though, they work with any kind of material they find, whatever nature provides them with. They also incorporate a lot of weaving from available fibers, including from vines or coconut husks. They’ll make hats, baskets, the roofing of their houses, and so much more. The people there are very manually skilled and it seems like they’re almost born with this talent.

In particular, the artists of Tahiti per se create sculpture. They do really nice statues, some truly amazing things. It’s funny, but the art of Tahiti and even New Zealand is not very well known. Usually most people are familiar with African art or even Asian art but Polynesian art is not really that well known. Well, I can say from experience that this is true in Europe, where most people probably can’t even find Tahiti on the map or even maybe confuse it with Haiti (note ZN: I don’t think the USA would win any geography contests either).

J: Gérard’s work in Tahiti was in so many ways a struggle because he was showing a kind of new face of Polynesian art. His designs were actually more contemporary than what the locals offered. But this also helped attract the interest of European and American tourists.

G: I mean, I could really only base my work on the present, that is, the time we experienced there. We weren’t natives, so naturally it was easier for me to create a more contemporary style of art compared to more traditional Polynesian works. After all, you need to know and experience the rich traditions of Polynesia in order to truly understand the traditional arts. Their traditional art is so intertwined with their culture. Still, it was for me an unbelievable inspiration and I was able to integrate this into my work immediately.

Maybe with the more “contemporary” Polynesian style of art that I make, well, perhaps you don’t really need to understand the object in order to appreciate it. The form of the object or the design or even the painting is enough to make you think it’s nice. If you want to define it a little better, I think of my work as ‘something done by Gérard Dumora with Tahitian inspiration’. For example, take the columns you’ve mentioned: for me, they’re something that was created and made in Europe but they were born in Tahiti. This ‘tower’ design really evolved only once we were back in France, even though I tried to put as much of Tahiti into as I could.

The pieces I’ve worked on here have perhaps less to do with nature than my previous work in Tahiti. There when I was using wood I might look for hours in the forest for the right starting pieces or I might also try to find some coconut fiber or other materials to use. This was very important to me as so much of not only my materials but also inspiration was provided by nature, or the marine life or how the locals lived. I want to work to keep the modern and the traditional in balance, where I am always trying to integrate one with the other.

Tahiti was just one step, one part of what I do. We left with the goal of not doing just Polynesian work once we returned. And here in France, my inspiration comes a lot from the environment here. Who knows, if we had moved to India – which we considered – I would have found some great inspiration from the environment there. My creations are definitely not tied to fashions or current trends; instead my inspiration comes from what is around me.

Of course as you may hear all the time, the difficulty when you work this way is creating pieces that catch the right moment, that are going to be fashionable in some way now. In many ways, some of my pieces have turned out to NOT be suitable for the present tastes of consumers. But we might find that later on, they are suddenly quite fashionable.

Continued in Part 2: “Working Together and Tales of the Trendy Tub”

A Little Shop Just Out Back and Thousands of Miles Away

An interview with Gérard Dumora and Jacqueline Lauth of Pacific Art Design
Part 2 of 2 (link to Part 1)

Jacqueline, as the designated “manager” of your design company, I understand that you started the “business” by literally selling from a small stand in front of your house?
Yes, it was like selling bananas at a road-side stand. After being in Moorea for a while, I decided to look for a job and worked in a finance office for a while, where I gained a lot of experience in export markets and generally in how to run a business.

At the beginning, Gérard worked for various hotels, for example building kitchens and also did some renovation work in parallel to his designing. He would work all week as much as he could on his art and then on Saturdays and Sundays we’d promote it out by the road, because a lot of American tourists would come by. Still, with his work – both professionally and creatively – he really lacked the time to promote his pieces as much as he wanted to.

So we mutually agreed that I would stop my job and work to promote his art full time. I found that I really had a good knack for helping explain the works to people. Amazingly enough, we even found that I could earn within 2 days more than I did in 1 month at my old job! Some of it might be because my English is a little better and I could interact more especially with the American tourists, which was very helpful. People from the USA would always buy more than other tourists because they had a higher import allowance.

So, yes, at the beginning I had a table out in front of our home office with a sign saying “Artisanat d’Art” (hand-made art). What was nice was that we had just one road on the island, so if people were out walking or riding their bikes they would eventually pass by our house. We would display Gérard’s pieces in front by the road and my job was to act as a greeter or “hostess”, literally like some upper-end art galleries have when you walk in.

I’d offer the people coffee and we’d sit and talk a while. This worked out really well in that often they’d want even more than what we had on hand at the time, or would request special creations for their specific decoration needs. It was very common even that our visitors would take 1-2 hours to choose specific pieces and it really became a kind of social event or party when they’d “shop”. The only time we weren’t open was Sunday morning. But starting promptly at 2 p.m. Sunday through the whole week we were almost always open, even later into the night depending on when people would just drop by. And on Moorea, because the life there was so tied into the sun and the available light, the whole island was up and running full at 7 a.m.. So the days were very busy indeed.

But it was great, because lots of our customers would visit each time they came to the island and many became good friends of ours over time. Polynesian tradition puts a lot of emphasis on entertaining guests and being good hosts, so we definitely wanted everyone to always feel welcome!

So from our tiny, little road-side venture a bigger business was born: when Gérard started, we would sell a couple of lamps per month. By the time we left the island, our business was up to 50 lamps per month. It was about this that we then decided to leave and return to the Alsace, though we didn’t just leave overnight. In fact, Gérard started preparing me for the change about 1½ years before our departure so we could prepare ourselves.

This wasn’t so easy, especially for me, even though we knew we wanted to move on eventually. I was very happy with the lifestyle there and just loved working in front of the lagoon. I thought I could just sit there forever smoothing out pieces or entertaining customers. The almost 7 years we were there was just an absolute pleasure.

Living in Tahiti was really for us like being part of a big family, there was really a kind of tribal spirit in Moorea. People there live day-to-day; they don’t worry necessarily about tomorrow. When you live every day for itself, you enjoy more of life, you take the day as it comes. Living in this way guarantees a unique type of liberty, and you really have in many ways more freedom. Here you know people, but more as individuals.

As the managing partner of Gérard (in more ways than one!), what was it like to create a business together in addition to your private life?
Well, clearly for me it was a nice change to not have to go work for a boss and have to get up early just to leave on time. Sure we worked hard but the focus and motivation was very different.

The decision to help support Gérard was very easy however. I saw almost immediately once Gérard began focusing more and more on his art that he had immense potential. Even after selling only 1 or 2 lamps, I knew then he would succeed and that people would love his work. I was just so confident, I was completely sure that he would succeed, I don’t know how else to say it.

How does it work in terms of the design process? Can you, Jacqueline, for example tell Gérard that he should change something?
As I mentioned earlier, whenever Gérard is working on something or creating a new piece, he will show it to me. I’m always the first to see it and he will ask me if I like it, what I think about it. I really can tell that my input is very important to him and that he wants to know what I think.

G: I do follow her inputs as much as possible. If her input fits in with my inspiration, then I will modify what I’m working on because this is a way I can see it better. Other times, I may just leave it the way it is. I mean, sometimes she’ll say to me that something doesn’t work but I’ll keep working on it. Well, okay to be honest, when I do that, usually the piece doesn’t sell.

It’s funny though, but as an artist I sometimes find that I have regrets having sold some really beautiful pieces I’ve made. Sometimes that’s just the way an artist see’s their work. I still find the business side a bit difficult to integrate even if I don’t think or consider myself an artist. But I do realize that we have to live, that I have to make choices and sometimes sell works that have personal connections. But this is part of the normal ups and downs of being an artist.

How or when do you find your best inspirations?
Sometimes its owing to the business, or let’s say, when business is a little down. You could say, when we only have 20 cents left in our wallets, its then that I get the best ideas. I guess that when you don’t have any money, the whole process takes on a higher sense of urgency. It makes you focus on your work.

I will have phases though when the inspiration really comes well. Sometimes the gears mesh well together and the whole machine runs very smoothly. It’s too bad, because you can’t control inspiration. There will be some times I really want to create something and go out and work for hours in the shop, but the inspiration isn’t there. You can’t just call it up on command.

And when the inspiration doesn’t come, you get a bit down. You ask yourself if you can still create, are you still capable of creating? But the magic eventually finds its way back.

Is it difficult to work in a business together as a couple?
J: Its different for us, that is, who we are as the couple at home and the couple who is working together. I will say though that one thing that doesn’t change for me is that I have to believe in him 1’000%. And when you combine these two aspects, you need to be ready to hold on in the difficult times. If for one second you have hesitation and you don’t believe anymore you have to stop.

Is it more difficult living in France now than it was in Tahiti?
J: No, not really. At the beginning of our stay in Tahiti, it was also difficult. Not really difficult but it was a bit as we say in French “folklorique”, we just had to get used to the way of living, the customs and how things were done around us.

On the other hand, people here in Europe are sometimes not so open. That is a big difference, where on an island like Moorea, everyone knows each other, what you’re doing in terms of art. And you’re respected for that, especially within a similar group or sphere of similar artisans.

But in Europe there’s definitely not the same spirit in terms of being open. Well, maybe this is too critical. Its not that they’re not so open but the step to create something and then sell it is more difficult in Europe compared to Polynesia. In Europe, its in so many ways much more about being an individual among so many talented artists of all kinds. I guess its like the expression about being a small fish in a big sea.

J: In the case of Tahiti, again, because everyone knew us and knew about Gérard’s talents, for example, when somebody needed a lamp, they’d come see us. Everybody there – businessmen, politicians, hotels, you name it – all had one of Gérard’s creations. Here you have to face much more anonymity and the time it takes to penetrate a market is much longer in Europe. Still, we did want to come back to Europe not only for personal reasons but to establish a name for Gérard in the Northern Hemisphere.

But still, starting at zero in France was really a wake-up call for us!

Do you find yourself slowly losing in any way the influence of Tahiti?
G: No, this will always be in my heart, in our hearts. Even if I’m not using the exact materials today that I used on the island – like wood types for example – I always try to use when possible other materials like maybe mother of pearl.

In terms of needing to be physically in Tahiti, we realize we don’t have to go back every year. A part of us, a part of our being will always be there. And the spirit of Tahiti will always be with us. Plus we have lots of friends there and do stay in contact.

Describe a little bit more about the materials you used in Tahiti or even use still from there today?
G: The wood in Tahiti was wonderful. One of the greatest things for me as a designer was that there was such an enormous variety and selection of wood there including tropical types, lychee wood and much more. There are more than 1’600 different varieties of wood to choose from, of all colors, grains, and textures. For example, the Polynesian acajou is totally different to African or American acajou (ZN: cashew).

Are there other materials you’d be interested in trying?
For a creator every material can be interesting. And when I’m interested in a particular material that I haven’t used before, then I go to a professional who works with that material so I can learn more.

As an artist I think that when any material is interesting, I will find a feeling in how to use it. In terms of trying other types, I would like to learn to work with as many materials as possible – for example, leather, glass, metal, etc. As long as I’m working, I’ll have interest in learning more.
One new inspiration and desire I have in terms of learning about “new” materials is to work more with recycling, or to put it slightly differently, with what industry throws away. I think in this area, everything is possible. So many things are produced and they’re already here and available, but either they’re discarded by industry or by consumers without even considering how they can be (re-)used. My main target would be to find a material or type of object that is self-sustainable, with one thing always making another which leads back to the first.

Again, in Tahiti, I would walk through the forest for hours to find the piece I needed, and when I did, it was right even down to the tiniest detail. But today we utilize less from nature and rely more and more on industry, so I really believe we can do something here. I want to find and use pieces or materials that can be used in a different context.

Along these lines you’ve enjoyed a great deal of success and received a lot of publicity for your
Trendy Tubs® designs. These seem to be completely opposite in terms of your Tahitian art approach. How did you come to this idea?
In terms of the design or inspiration, the philosophy is different than my other art and is as I mentioned before very focused on ecology and recycling. It’s definitely a breakaway to my “traditional” work, but they have provided a lot of welcome exposure. Sure, maybe sometime people insist that the Trendy Tubs are not really “design” per se, but I think its positive in that it does show my diversity as a creator and designer. Now I’m not just an artist creating lamps or other “Polynesian” art but I can reach a completely different audience.

For example, when we returned, it was very difficult to put our range of Polynesian products on the market. Making the columns we talked about was the first step and we also had a nice contact base. But the release of the Trendy Tubs was really the breakthrough moment for our business. And as I said before, timing is so important, where this time we seemed to have gotten it just right in terms of addressing not only people’s needs, but also their interests and how the trends are moving. They’re very universal, fashionable, and to be honest, a lot more price conscience for access to a wider audience.

In terms of the process for creating the Trendy Tubs: well, it was really the same as designing a lamp. A lot of people want to write that the Trendy Tubs were some kind of genius idea; but for me, it was something just waiting to be made that had not been done before. But clearly I was inspired to make something with the advantages of being both accessible and understandable.

And even if these are completely different in almost any way you can think of, for me it was still very much a creative journey. The needs in terms of working up the inspiration aren’t the same maybe in that with my other pieces I am working very much with nature. Here its much more about helping nature and in fact using materials that might otherwise hurt the environment.

The Trendy Tubs have also provided a big opening for us in the decorative market. And again this leads to exposure, people are noticing it. The other way – e.g. starting with a lamp – wasn’t universal enough. So I kind of think of the Trendy Tubs as a kind of calling card that introduces Pacific Art Design to a much wider audience, even if sometimes its now “Gérard Dumora, creator of the Trendy Tubs… and oh yes, he does also Polynesian inspired art…”

For now I will just say then that the Trendy Tubs have opened a new lane, a new avenue for all of my creations because there’s a lot of potential for this product. And new variations are on the way! What you see now is just the first step, its just the beginning of the adventure I’ve got in mind. But I’ll reserve more details about the surprises in store for later when we move to the launch!

What’s next for you both, as well as for Pacific Art Design and the whole Trendy Tub collection?
Again, the next evolution of the Trendy Tubs will come later this year (about April ’09). In terms of my interest in working with “recycling” (ZN: maybe “pre-cycling”?), I’ll also be doing a lot of sniffing around in terms of regional production and getting to know what’s out there in terms of possible materials which can be used.

And as last year, we’ve just gotten back from presenting our work at the Maison&Objet in Paris, which allows us to promote both our Polynesian art as well as the Trendy Tubs. It’s an exhausting process but always very positive for us where every year we get more and more exposure and meet lots of nice people interested in our offers. And I really want to focus this year on getting the Trendy Tubs running more independently so that I can focus more again on pure creation!

Rather than tying down the end of this article with a lot of repetitive qualifications and features in terms of where Gérard (that’s him here on the left) and Jacqueline have exhibited their work or other tid-bits, we’d just invite all of our readers to again visit both the Pacific Art Design and Trendy Tub web-sites.

Instead we’d like to use the space to feature many of our favorite photos of lovely lamps, fantastic detail work – from combinations of unfinished and dark finished woods, or use of mother-of-pearl or other offers from nature to enhance a piece – to the use of traditional Tahitian symbols that alone mean “wave” or “dolphin” but repeated and placed together give even more lively shapes or the feeling of standing before some mysterious totem pole… and of course, everybody’s favorite tub of a thousand-and-one uses.

Enjoy finding your favorite!