“Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it.” – Mostly Harmless, Douglas Adams, 1992
This was the quote which inspired RCA graduate Thomas Thwaites to embark on a mission to make a toaster from scratch.
He wanted to look into the “magical transformation” which starts with taking raw materials from the earth and ends with the polished products that surround us. Do we need the large scale manufacturing processes or can one man do it by himself?
Over his journey he realised that modern day processes have come so far from their small scale beginnings. Perhaps it is this evolution of technology and possibility that has disconnected our association with natural materials and ‘man-made’ outcomes. Maybe if we understand more about the materials and where they come from we would have more respect for the items we regard as ‘ordinary’ and ‘cheap’.
Thwaites says, “The real cost of objects is hidden. It seems the need to buy more stuff to save our economy and the need to buy less to save our environment are on a collision course. So, we either have to value what we’ve got a lot more, or spend as much time and effort taking things apart and disposing of them as we do putting them together.”
His mission led him to locate and collect five essential component materials of the toaster: copper, iron, nickel, mica and plastic. It was a long and arduous sequence of events but eventually he constructed a complete toaster of sorts. It’s interesting to note however that despite the difficulty of his journey he only actually focused on 5 of about 100 materials which go into a manufactured toaster, so this is only really the tip of the iceberg.
Steve Furlonger, the former Head of Sculpture at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, and Director of Windsor Workshops, described Thwaites’ project as “disguised information”, adding, “Under his toaster making project he is saying profound things, of a different order. The ‘failures’ he encounters, during his toaster making, point to the success of his real message; that we have become disconnected from how our world is supported and sustained.”
The lecture Thomas gave to us was inspiring and original. I was really impressed by his determination and resourcefulness; I spent a lot of the time thinking, how did he do this!? I think as project it is a brilliant way to illustrate the overlooked complexity of the things we take for granted everyday – and also our relationship with our environment, particularly our detachment with it. I’d love to have a go at this myself but perhaps choose something a little less complicated than a toaster!
Thomas Thwaites: How I Built a Toaster — from scratch (2010) Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/thomas_thwaites_how_i_built_a_toaster_from_scratch?language=en#t-632493 (Accessed: 4/11/16).
Fairs, Ml. (2009) The Toaster Project by Thomas Thwaites. Available at: http://www.dezeen.com/2009/06/27/the-toaster-project-by-thomas-thwaites/ (Accessed: 4/11/16).