Category: Deliverables

The bricoleur vs the engineer

On “The Savage Mind, chapter one: The Science of the Concrete”

by Claude Levi-Strauss (1962)

The first edition of “The Savage Mind”


In the first chapter of his book “The Savage Mind”, Claude Levi-Strauss distinguishes two different approaches towards acquiring knowledge. He explains how primitive societies used ‘mythical thought’ – or what Levi-Strauss calls ‘science of the concrete’ – to make sense of the world. He explains this science of the concrete as the primitive logic of understanding the environment through smell, taste, texture and interaction with the environment. The idea that the logic of the world reveals itself through a very hand-on subjective approach.

Using mythology as a way of illustrating this science of the concrete, he states that all myths are bases on a limited number of core ingredients, and all that the mythical thinker does is recombine these elements into new variations.

In contrast, modern (western) science has a much more deterministic approach, and tries to explain that which cannot be experiences or sensed, resulting in new knowledge that was not existing before.

Elaborating on this definition of mythical thought, he introduces the concept of ‘bricolage’ (a French term that roughly means ‘tinkering’). The bricoleur uses the tools and materials available to him, and although there may be a vague imagined outcome, the endresult is predominantly shaped by the process, and will therefore “always be removed from the initial aim” (p.21).

On the modern scientist he writes: “The engineer is always trying to make his way out of and go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular state of civilization while the “bricoleur” by inclination or necessity always remains within them.” (p. 19)

In the last part of the chapter the connection is made to art and the tension between working with the materials (letting the available materials determine the process) or with a model (blueprint, or pre-imagined outcome).

And finally he compares art to mythology, where art is the outcome of objects that are shaped through events, and myths are the outcome of events that are shaped through objects.



Levi-Strauss has an anthropological perspective based very much on linquistics. His writing is extremely dense, and on the face of it, it may seem that he prefers the modern scientist over the inherently limited mythical thinker. The engineer over the bricoleur.

But apart from acknowledging that the “difference is … less absolute than it might appear” (p.19), and “both approaches are equally valid” (p.22), he also also states that “art lies half-way between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought” (p.22).



Although the name of Levi-Strauss is only mentioned once in Richard Sennets book “The Craftsman”, Sennets thoughts on craftmanship are building on his ideas.

In my research I am exploring the idea that there is a lot of value in integrating the thinking and making when applied to making visual effects for cinema. In this context the term ‘bricoleur’ and its relationship to craftsmanship becomes important.

Although (or maybe because) Levi-Strauss’ writing is somewhat opaque he has influenced a lot of later thinkers and writers on the subject of craftmanship.

“The engineer works by way of concept, and the ‘bricoleur’ by way of signs.” (p.20)

The painter is always mid-way between design and anecdote, and his genius consists in uniting internal and external knowledge, ‘being’ and a ‘becoming’, in producing with his brush an object which does not exist as such and which he is nevertheless able to create on his canvas.” (p.25)

 These quotes show that Levi-Strauss must have had an influence on Richard Sennett, who elaborates on his own ideas on this subject in the book “The Craftsman”.



On material consciousness

On “The Craftsman” (Richard Sennett) Chapter 4: Material Consciousness

In The Craftsman Richard Sennett explores the the idea of craftsmanship, the desire to do a job well for its own sake – as a template for living. Very broadly speaking the book deals with the integration of thinking and making.

In the chapter about material consciousness he specifically discusses the relationship between a craftsman and his materials and tools. “

“The painter Edgar Degas is once supposed to have remarked to Stephane Mallarme, “I have a wonderful idea for a poem but can’t seem to work it out,” whereupon Mallarme replied, “My dear Edgar, poems are not made with ideas, they are made with words.” (p.119)

Sennett proposes that a craftsman is driven by the ability to change things, and that their thinking revolves around three key issues: metamorphosis, presence and anthropomorphosis.

Through three stories on pottery, brick making and stucco, Sennett argues that these crafts and the thinking about them have developed over the centuries through intimate interaction with the materials, through trial and error. Gradually perfecting techniques, or applying them to a different context. But also identifying themselves in and with the work by leaving makers marks or signing. Sennett uses brick making as an example of how anthropomorphism becomes part of the discourse:

“Honest”brick describes brickwork in which all the bricks laid, say, in a Flemish bond course come from the same kiln, and even more, “honest” brick evokes a building surface in which the brick work is exposed rather than covered over: no cosmetics, no “pots of whore’s rouge” have been applied to its face”. (p.140)

This is in contrast with the developments in stucco, which could be used mimic other materials, or hide any underlying materials. This sparked a modern debate on the virtues of naturalness, and the contrary freedoms of fantasy artifice, with brick embodying the Enlightenment desires to live in harmony with simple things.

The projection of human qualities to materials (anthropomorphism) leads to a philosophical debate on simulated materials or objects, made to look like they were hand-made.

Position of the author

Sennett is not one to take a very explicit position but throughout the book it is clear he is proposing the craftsmans integrated thinking and making as a model for living a productive and meaningful life. On multiple occasions he is critical of the split between thinking and doing that has been central to a lot of western thinking since Plato.

Why is this relevant

Within the last century effects for cinema have moved from physical and photo-chemical to much more metaphorical using digital tools.

My argument is that although digital visual effects may not have as much of the tactile physical interaction that, say, clay has – it can be seen as craftsmanship in that the result is shaped through integrated thinking and making. For most visual effects artists, their craft is part of a way of life, and they are driven by a desire to do great work for its own sake.

Second: I am exploring the issue of material ‘honesty’ and how it relates to digital work. On the ‘surface’  it would be convincing to propose that digital effects are to traditional effects as bricks are to stucco (which according to Sennett renowned historian John Summerson classified as ‘fake material’ p.139). This would imply that for instance brick (and especially hand-made brick) have an intrinsic honesty whereas stucco is actively trying to fool people.

Upon further thinking this concept seems more and more ridiculous. Or better: it is a cultural construct. But nonetheless an important part of my motivation.




Subjective Atlas

As part of my research I developed a prototype of a subjective atlas. This atlas could be the starting point of a ‘world bible’ to develop the design of the world of “FIGHT” a science fiction film that is currently in development. Written and directed by Simon Pummell.

Although the actual questions this atlas explores are very specific to our imagining of a world 50 years into the future, my underlying research questions are not specific to this project.

I stated my expectations for this project in a previous post:

Primary goal:
This is first and foremost an experiment in designing a creative process. So I hope to learn about creating a shared mental space that is an emotionally safe space for the participants to really engage in an open collaborative atmosphere.

Secondary goal:
I will be working on a shared design vision of a futuristic world specifically for a feature film that we will be working on during the years to come.

On may 24th I spend three hours in an open conversation with three others: Tim Roza (film editor), Jasper Wessels and Adriaan van Veldhuizen (both animators). I explained a couple of basic parameters and invited a discussion speculating on how we could envision a future world. During the conversation images were collected and discussed, and after the conversation we put those into a Pinterest board that we kept contributing to over the following week. From my notes of the conversation and these collections of images I selected material to create the Subjective Atlas of London Freeport in the year 2070.

Preliminary conclusions:

My main surprise is how excited and motivated the contributors were to be part of this process at this stage. There is no budget yet, and not even a guarantee that this film will get made (although we are optimistic). But there was an enormous willingness to participate.

I have in the past been very reluctant to invite people to collaborate without budget, wanting to avoid ‘wasting their time’, but unintentionally I have been keeping them ‘out of the loop’ and ‘at distance’. Whereas working on this atlas together clearly shows me there is a more exiting way.

This way of working also has an influence on how we position ourselves. In the past we would have been credited as visual effects artists, but at this point we are much more speculative designers of fictional future worlds. Not sure how this will end up in the final credit roll though…

Although the first session was only a week ago, and I have just created the first version of the atlas, I am very optimistic about using this atlas as a conversation piece to collaboratively further develop this fictional world. I will keep the director informed of our ideas and will ask for contibutions but we all agree that at this point it is good to avoid too much focus on the narrative scenario, but much more let the world tell its own story.

So on the surface this atlas may look like a straightforward collection of moodboards but for me it has opened up the design process immensely.

Not new

This type of document is not new. On the surface it will look like any moodboard even. But for me it is a small breakthrough in inviting participation and taking the design process out of my head and hands and into the group.

What is new, is that usually these types of documents are created by a production designer or concept artist – who then sends the material to the craftsmen who will create the sets, costumes and props. Practically or digitally. But in this case it is these craftsmen, who are usually not invited until much later, who are part of the co-creation process.

And by starting the design of this world at such an early stage (before the scenario is finished) allows for the narrative to be partly informed by the world design, which should lead to the futuristic world being much more than a wallpaper backdrop to set the narrative against.

Download the atlas here:

(As this is a document that is part of the development of a feature film, please do not spread.)

Critical Reading 01

Session summary

When using a text as part of a research project it’s important to be able to judge the origins and context of the text. Especially now that texts are so easily published and spread, the quality of texts available is wildly variable. Who wrote this? And what makes him or her an authority on the subject? And what agenda is being pushed?

I believe that I generally have a decent ‘bull-shit radar’, and I tend to quickly become a bit adversarial when I come across strong statements…

But although this may  be helpful most of the time there is no method to it, and it’s also not very helpful in developing my understanding on any subject. And of course we are all inherently biased even when we think we are not. So in that regard reading these texts together was a really good reminder of the inherent bias we all carry around. Adopting a more methodical approach to critical reading can be

“My city is the city where 2000 people died in the first two days of a massive heat-wave last week, among the first wave of casualties to global climate change, and where thousands of citizens mobilized and shouldered the responsibilities of supplying overcrowded hospitals and clinics with water, ice, and medicines when the government failed to act and the clergy was still exhorting people to keep fasting in the heat.”

Ahmed Ansari sketches a dramatic image of urgency. People are suffering. Today. And in the mean time the white privileged design professional is entertaining himself with frivolous provocations and showing very little understanding of today’s world. Or this is at least what Ansari states.

And it’s not hard to see where he is coming from. It reminds me of the image of a daydreaming child, looking up into the sky, imagining space travel while oblivious to the traffic around him. Some problems are more urgent then others, and it’s a good idea to plug the holes in the boat before setting a course for the horizon.

And I cannot help but feel Ansari is talking directly to me: the white privileged designer who has never had to worry about the roof over his head. So it makes sense then that organizations like WhatDesignCanDo sets up competitions to invite designers to engage with these urgent challenges, such as the refugee crisis.

But of this “Refugee Challenge” organized by WDCD Ruben Pater says it is “…absurd to suggest that design can come up with solutions for a crisis that is political and socio-economic at heart.” Which also makes sense. Developing better refugee shelters is not likely going to bring peace to the Middle East.

Or, as Dunne and Raby put it:

“Clearly, the world is not in a good shape and there is plenty of scope for making things better, but using design to solve problems is not always possible, especially when we are facing such an extreme and complex situation.”

Obviously there are are contrasting philosophies here, and emotions can run a bit hot even. Especially when topics are as polarizing as the refugee crisis.

But I’m going to take a slightly unexciting position here. These approaches are not mutually exclusive. There is a need for designers to work on todays urgent challenges, responding to the world around us with direct solutions or comments. But if we dismiss any project that is a bit more speculative or fictional as provocations that reflect the fears, anxieties, desires, imaginaries, and ultimately, politics of an intellectual, liberal progressive white middle class that believes in the promise and purity of technological progress” (Ahmed Ansari) that also disqualifies most art, music and a lot of other things.

























My point of view on the subject of social design, in response to the articles we read:

First of all ‘design’ is a word that is used in different ways – and it seems to me we are not always speaking about the same thing in this debate.

As people have different types of personalities, talents and skillsets there are a range of very different types of designers. Some designers are really good at solving small day-to-day problems. Other designers are really good at bringing people together. Other designers are more interested in looking beyond short term challenges and want to bring future problems to our attention. All these approaches are valid


nd I don’t think it would be productive to have all designers work on the same subjects, with the same philosopies. I




When Lucas Verweij states “back then design was still an adjective, not a verb”, this is factually untrue (  but also it’s not a very productive statement.