High-Touch, High-Tech

High-Touch, High-Tech

Martin And Erik Demaine Art Through Words I

In Art Through Words I (2015), a piece from the Callig­raphy series, English and Arabic scripts are intertwined. 

Erik and Martin Demaine

As math and science scholars, Martin and Erik Demaine operate at the leading edge of technological innovation. As accomplished artist-craftsmen, father and son are also happily at home with time-honored materials and methods.

“It feels special to make things by hand. I also think technology expands the power of your hand,” says Erik, 35, a professor of computer science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He’s world-renowned for his research in computational origami – the study of algorithms for folding, a field rich in practical applications for engineering – as well as for the ways he explores his theorems in the form of sensuously curved, folded-paper sculptures. Martin, 74, is a mathematician, computer scientist, and glassblower who works in tandem with his son as an artist-in-residence at MIT. [Read our in-depth profile of the duo in the August/September 2014 issue.]

“It’s important for us to find a balance between technology and handwork. We use technology to develop ideas, but the actual process of making our forms and sculptures is all by hand. The way we make things is traditional,” Martin explains. “But,” Erik chimes in, “we always try to make things that no one has made before.”

Their ingenuity caught the attention of The Balvenie, maker of single-malt whisky, which joined with the American Craft Council to present the Demaines with the Rare Craft Fellowship Award, given annually in recognition of the “maintenance and revival of traditional or rare crafts in America.” For Martin and Erik, the prize felt like a gratifying nod to the field of origami, a centuries-old craft enjoying a kind of renaissance as contemporary sculpture. This past spring, the two met the other finalists, coppersmith Stephen D. Bradway, beadworker Teri Greeves, ceramist David MacDonald, and bicycle builder Erik Noren. Judges for 2016 were lead juror Anthony Bourdain, chef and TV personality; Perry A. Price, former ACC education director; and David Stewart, longtime Balvenie malt master.

The Demaines plan a trip to the Scottish Highlands to spend several weeks at the famed distillery – “the place where the magic happens,” as Erik puts it. Since 1893, Balvenie craftspeople have made their product by hand, a painstaking process involving locally grown malt, an old-fashioned malting floor, stills maintained by a resident coppersmith, and coopers to look after the barrels. Malt master Stewart presides over the all-important aging of the whisky.

“For all the skill required to ensure consistency in The Balvenie, our malt master looks forward to the future as much as to tradition: It’s he who pioneers new ways of bringing out the mysteries that hide within each drop,” according to the company’s website. That ethos resonates with the Demaines, who look forward to observing and meeting with The Balvenie team, maybe even partnering with them in some way.

“We always look for collaborations across disciplines,” says Erik. “Our hope would be to find something interesting to do together. We won’t know what that is until we go there. We tend to improvise.” What they will find, no doubt, is affinity with makers like themselves, rooted in tradition and science, in pursuit of excellence.

“We’re curious and excited to see how it happens,” says Martin. “I think it’s going to be very natural and easy.” 

 Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.