Art and engineering: they’re closer than you might think

The Dream Series. (Courtesy Designs By Dash)

In judging people’s talents, we often make a rigid distinction between the “right-brained” (the creatives) and the “left-brained” (the geeks). But those labels are artificial, and nowadays, those boundaries are as blurred as ever.
Durell Coleman hopes his new company, Designs by Dash, can thrive in the margin between art and tech. So far, he’s off to a promising start. Coleman has raised more than $10,000 on Kickstarter for his company’s first product, the Dream Series: a set of laser-engraved wall maps, inspired by his travel to Nicaragua as a mechanical engineering student at Stanford.

Coleman says the reign of smartly designed tech, first championed by Apple but now evident in products from Google Glass to the Pebble smart watch, prompted him to start his company. “There’s been a shift from engineering to art,” he explains. “There’s a lot more thinking about how to make things more aesthetically pleasing, user-friendly. Designs by Dash is the reverse: taking art and moving to incorporate more engineering into it.”

With the Dream Series, Coleman sets out to merge art and technology through the manufacturing process. He first draws the landmasses for each map in Adobe Illustrator and uses a CNC laser to carve those shapes into acrylic glass. But the final production of each map is done by hand. Coleman arranges the individual cutouts onto backlit panels of acrylic glass to produce pieces that are at once industrially designed and manually assembled.

Coleman has a master’s degree in industrial design, but he wasn’t originally drawn to art. Through his first company, Project Spark, he sought to develop affordable power generators for the developing world, and he was accepted into StartX, Stanford’s business accelerator. But the renewable energy market proved tenuous, and Coleman put Project Spark on hiatus. In the meantime, he pondered the question of producing affordable yet functional and beautiful products. What if he approached the problem from the opposite end of the spectrum: producing inspirational art with a functional purpose?

The concept of engineering-inspired art isn’t new. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí have used common products to explore the connections between industrialism and art. That theme continues to resonate in the art world today. One recent reminder of this is Carl Swanson’s profile of Jeff Koons in New York magazine. Swanson describes how Koons’ works are meticulously manufactured, so as to bear virtually no traces of the human hand.

Few items, however, are designed at the outset to serve as functional art, though they may acquire that label retroactively. The company closest to achieving the union of art and engineering may be Apple. (The iPod, after all, found its way into MoMA.) But there’s a big difference between elegantly designed products and items made chiefly for aesthetic appeal. In the tech world, function still takes priority over form.

With Designs by Dash, Coleman seeks to break that hierarchy. By doing so, he believes, he will be better equipped to design products that elegantly serve real-world needs. “The laser maps,” he says, “are just the first step in the process.”

Update: Durell Coleman’s company is now known as DC Design.