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The Power of Experimentation

The Power of Experimentation

Students involved in the RISD and Brown STEAM groups welcome Dutch polymath Theo Jansen to campus.

Walking through RISD’s Industrial Design building, renowned Dutch artist and physicist Theo Jansen happens upon a partially-finished beast made of wooden dowels, cardboard and a PVC crankshaft. “This is a familiar shape,” the visiting designer remarks while patting the creature’s nose as if it’s the family dog. “Who is behind this?”

With shy smiles, a dozen students from RISD and Brown confess to building the five-foot-tall beast, which has the capacity to propel itself forward. As members of the RISD and Brown STEAM group, they had attempted to make an iteration of Jansen’s Strandbeest, the family of remarkable kinetic sculptures that have made him known throughout the world – especially after he shared his work through a popular TED talk in 2007. Powered by wind, his elephantine "beach beasts" are made from electrical pipe, wood and wing-like sails that enable them to skitter across stretches of wet sand. Advanced models change direction when sensing water or an impending storm.

“For me, Jansen’s process brings to mind Thomas Edison,” notes Ryan Mather 15 ID, president of the RISD STEAM group. “His work is successful because he isn’t afraid of failure. He solves problems in creative and innovative ways through calculated experimentation.”

The Dutch polymath visited RISD from November 20–21 to speak with students, tour facilities and present his work to the community on Friday evening. Speaking to a packed house in the RISD Auditorium, Jansen presented a video of one of his earliest projects – a four-meter-wide inflatable flying saucer he designed in 1980. While still a student at the Delft Institute of Technology, he unleashed the helium-filled inflatable over the small Dutch city. Those who took notice were either deeply disturbed or positively elated by the good-natured prank.

“After I [launched the saucer], I knew I’d never be able to create art alone in a room,” Jansen – who’s now in his 60s – told the audience. “I wanted to create things that live in the world and make an impact.”

In 1990 Jansen began to experiment with electrical pipe to make his first Strandbeest. Through trial and multiple errors, he managed to get the creature to walk in fluid, horizontal movements. He discovered that by attaching small rods of varying length to an interior rotating crankshaft, he could recreate a “spine” that facilitates movement.

“Evolution has generated many species,” Jansen told students. “Every animal is different. The winning designs will survive.”

Prior to his talk, Jansen dropped by a Foundation Studies Spatial Dynamics studio taught by longtime faculty member Deborah Coolidge MFA 80 CR. First-year students were delighted to receive off-the-cuff critiques on their latest work – Coolidge’s classic assignment to make a simple tool out of wood that allows each user to pick up, break and eat an egg without ever touching it with his or her hands.

“Jansen advised students to design with function in mind, rather than form,” noted Coolidge. “It was an inspiring visit.”