Designer Francis Bitonti
Is it fashion or industrial design? The obvious answer is both! Designer Francis Bitonti uses digital design and manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing to produce his line of goods. Known for his 2013 gown for fashion icon Dita Von Tesse (see below), the talented designer is launching his own luxury label. For this #stmINTERVIEWED Q&A Francis provides thoughtfully detailed and candid answers about his process and where design is going. Read on and enjoy!
Q. – STM – So from our understanding you actually come from an architecture background and then shifted gears into industrial design and now fashion as well. What inspired you to go into industrial design and fashion? Was there one project or occurrence or was it a gradual transition for you? Have you stepped away from architecture completely? Any plans to go back one day?
A. – Francis – I made the switch from architecture to fashion because the technologies that I was working with as a designer weren’t really operating at an architectural scale yet. Inspite of my best efforts, the most immediate applications are for products in the fashion scale.
I was working with design methodologies that involved designing things through algorithms, designing things procedurally. I was thinking about products and brands, these things that were configurable and customizable from the cloud and it wasn’t really the right time to be working in architecture even though the education that I received as an architect was fantastic and I still think that if you are a designer, it’s the best education that you could get. It was just that at the point in history that I was beginning my career, I really didn’t feel that it was the best place for me to be.
As far as going back someday, I’m not sure. I mean I’m open to designing anything. I don’t think of myself as having a particular discipline. I think I’ve come upon a way of designing things that will allow me to design anything. It’s about variability and flexibility and I think a really great designer just has a view of the world and the view of how people relate to the world and their environment and I think they can bring that to anything, whether it’s a space or an object or a garment. I think we’re the link between how we feel emotionally and psychologically. We make material the psychological and emotional relationship that we have with our environment and I don’t [think] that’s a job that has anything to do with specificity. I think it’s a job that is best done by someone who’s a generalist.
I think any specific knowledge that we have is about materials and construction but as far as what kinds of forms that we shape, I don’t think you really have a very powerful way of working if you restrict it to only thinking about the jobs or only thinking about the building.
Q. – STM – You have designed homewares, clothing, accessories, a bike rack and more. How would you describe your overall aesthetic and what are you itching to design next?
A – Francis – I’m not quite sure how to describe my aesthetic. I think the presses refer to it many times as “alien” and I think that’s a really fair assessment. The reason for that is we’re trying to find a new language of production.
Industrial produced goods have a certain look that came from modernism. Aesthetics modernism, that sleek, minimal look that everybody loves comes because that was the formal language of efficiency. That’s what an efficient form looks like.
What an efficient form looks like now is very different. We’re using a lot of space-filling structures because we’re trying to create beauty and ornamentation in these porous cavities so that we use less material. Sometimes on different technologies, we want to minimize surface area. Things aren’t going to look the same as they looked before.
And my aesthetic, although it may look ornamental and ornate and complex, all that complexity is about trying to find the new efficiency. It’s about trying to find the next modernist language. What’s the language of this mode of production?
We’re the beginning of the new industrial revolution. We don’t even have a formal language yet. I’m trying to figure out what the language is of the next industrial revolution. So we are still trying to find an aesthetic. I think it’s becoming pretty strongly defined but again, just like the technology, it’s very much at the beginning and I’m excited to see it evolve.
Q. – STM -Tell us about designing your first 3D printed garment. How did you approach it? What were the main differences in designing your first wearable garment versus other objects you had designed?
A. – Francis – In all honesty, designing that garment was really not so different about how I think about a facade. When you are designing a building, you create your own body and you create a skin for that body and the way you think about how that skin interfaces with the volume, maybe it cuts in or maybe it creates extra volumes around those volumes, but it’s the same problem at the end of the day. You are wrapping a body.
I think all the dialogue that surrounds thinking about a surface and thinking about skins and thinking about the relationships of surface to volume have a lot to do with fashion. I think that really at the end of the day, it is the same argument. That’s why I think architecture is a great education for great designers because you really deal with the problems that every discipline has to deal with.
So I felt that it is more or less the natural transition, even right down to the digital modelling. There are really techniques that were used and they still are the same techniques that we use to digitally model facades. The difference here is that we have to create flexibility. That’s really in the details and I think the way that I approached that garment was very much the way we would have approached a building.
Q. – STM – With the Dita Von Teese project what was the biggest challenge? If you were to do it over again, what would you do differently knowing what you know now?
A. – Francis – I don’t think I would have changed anything on that project. I don’t really think about doing projects over again. I think projects are what they are because of the time that they are done, the kinds of knowledge that I have at that point in time. If I were to do it now, it would be a completely different project. I have a totally different perspective. I don’t think it’s even fair to think that it would be anything close to the same.
The only thing I wish we could have done differently… We’ve been doing a lot of research in the studio recently about compressing these articulated fabrics into single build volumes, but at that time we had to cut the dress up into parts that would fit into the machine. With our new research findings, I think we could do it in far fewer pieces. My estimate right now is about two or three pieces.
I would like to revisit it. We’re setting up a Research Lab with Pratt Institute this fall and I think this is one of the things that I will look at more closely, the ways of optimizing and streamlining this process. What I want to do next is to take what we did there and I would like to make a commercialized version of this. I’d like to see us be able to take that process and make something that’s saleable at mass market. That’s what I’m really interested in.
I think that we’ve shown that we can do it and now, I want to see that we can interface it [with] commerce. I want to see that it can be distributed. I want to see that this can actually be the way that we make clothing. I don’t want it to be a folly. I don’t really want that to be this fantasy moment or a couture garment. I want to see that this is going to change the way everything is produced.
So that’s what I am looking to do next. I wouldn’t change anything. I just want to evolve it now.
Q. – STM -Designing 3D objects still looks to be like a lot of work with much thought and planning going into every detail. With the capability to simply press print at the end of the process, are you worried that consumers will undervalue printed objects?
A. – Francis – If the consumer does not see value in what we’ve done, then we’re not doing our job right. I don’t think it’s a question right now of us, the design industry, trying to get people used to things that aren’t as good as we’ve had before. I mean look, if it’s not better than what we have already, it’s not going to be around. What are we working on everyday? I’m just trying to make things that exceed our expectations and I’m trying to make things with this technology that we couldn’t do before.
It’s very similar, I think, to the animation industry. If you look at the early stages of the computer graphics industry, they were really struggling to reinvent the way even the most simple task would be done. Trying to make smooth surfaces move or just making something move in general and we’re in a very similar situation right now. We’re just trying to do the most basic things like make soft surfaces, make things that are flexible. We’re trying to really just think about how you would get something like this to the consumer, how to get it to work at a reasonable point. These are the things that have already been figured out by industrial manufacturers.
I don’t know what the future of the designer is. I don’t know what role the designer is going to play. I do know that this technology that we’re working with is going to drastically change the way we consume goods and the way that we buy goods and the way that things are designed and the way that things are going to look. I want consumers to look at these things and think that they are comparable or even better.
And I’m extremely confident that we will produce something that’s better in every way. It might not be exactly the same. I don’t think it’s an issue of replication. I think it will be about exceeding our expectations which I think we’ve already done even in such a crude stage, the early development of these technologies.
Q. – STM – Your new line of luxury goods is slated to be released in February 2015. Tell us about the inspiration behind this collection. What type of customer will be drawn to this collection most?
A. – Francis – I don’t design for a particular consumer. Again, the idea here is that’s the way we’ve always thought about products. We got a brief in the studio while working with big companies and they’ll say, “This is the consumer. It’s a 30 year old woman who makes $200,000 a year and she has two kids.”, and they give you this fictional scenario.
I think what we’re doing now and what our design methodology offers is we’re the link to big data. It doesn’t make sense to design for one person anymore, specially a hypothetical person. People are so variable and so complex.
This is why we work through algorithms. We work through algorithms because they are adaptable and they’re capable of a range of behaviors. It’s not about static geometry. It’s about geometry that’s capable of evolution.
So I don’t want to design for a person. I don’t want to design for a type of consumer. I want to design for everybody and that’s what we’re going to do. Why try to take over sectors of the market and dump tons of resources into that when you can be thinking about universal design. You can be thinking about something that’s going to mirror that person’s desire.
We live in a search culture. When you think about it, this is the biggest difference between the generation we’re looking at now and the generations that have all come before. Think about how you organize your life, your folders, etc. Something like Google comes along and that completely changes everything. The importance of a search engine is not only that it organizes the internet, it also organizes our life in a completely different way. We moved away from hierarchical structures and we’re moving instead towards something that is a mirror of your desire.
When I search cat images online, it’s because I want to see cats at that point in time and I want to see all the information in the world organize itself in order of priority to what I want to see. That’s really, really dramatically different from having a set of folders and going through it in a kind of hierarchical navigation and looking for a topic like cats. I think now what we are trying to do is find ways to make materials work under that same logic.
Q. – STM – If you had not gone into the world of design, what other interests did you have as a young man? Where else do you think you might have landed career wise?
A. – Francis – I’m not sure if there’s anything else I could have done. I never set out to be a designer specifically. I started off as an undergraduate, I was a Writing major and then I switched to Marine Biology for a while and I ended up with an Art degree and I focused on Computer Graphics. I was just interested in a lot of things and I think people who really find what they’re meant to do in life have this common condition where they just love too many things in life.
I don’t really think there’s any other way that my life could have played out. I always did exactly as I wanted and I’m still doing exactly what I wanted everyday so I don’t think there’s any other way I could have turned out other than this.
Q. – STM – Who would you dress next if you could dress anyone you wanted, man or woman? Why them?
A. – Francis – This is a really hard question for me to answer.
I would really like to try menswear next if we’re going to try a fully printed garment. I think it will really open up a lot of other areas for us to learn. I think there’s another level of complexity in menswear that we haven’t really fully explored yet so I’d be really interested to see where that would take us.
Q. – Francis – Finally, what advice would you give to young fashion/industrial designers who are just starting out in the industry?
A. – Francis – Don’t try to be anything. Don’t look at other people’s careers. Don’t have heroes or role models. Just try your best to be yourself and try to set an environment up where you get to be yourself and work on topics that interest you and only you. Don’t try to work for really famous designers. You don’t want to get pulled into other people’s orbit. You want to create your own orbit and you want to be your own center.
I think too many young designers waste their youth working for people who have already become established. Sure, there’s a lot to learn from those people but you only understand your culture and you only get to be part of that youth culture once. By the time you’re older and you’re trying to understand young people again, it’s too late.
I think the work that I did independently in my 20’s maybe was not high-profile, not like what we’re doing now, but it was definitely really important. It took me to what I am doing today. You know what your generation wants. You know what your culture wants. You know what the world needs to be like for your generation. Don’t distract yourself from that. It’s a difficult challenge but try to build your world and your life in such a way that you’re free to create that world that you innately know the world needs.