New model army

The popularity of computer-aided design and technologies such as rapid prototyping has marked a sharp decline in the use of maquettes and small-scale, handmade models in the design process. But, says Anna Norman, even in this digital age model-making still has its place

Maquettes and small hand-crafted models were once considered fundamental to the creative process across most design disciplines from animation to theatre design. Akin to a painter’s sketchbook, handmade models have traditionally been used to develop and visualise ideas, to test shapes and materials, and to serve as working models for large-scale projects.

’Often fascinating works in their own right’ is how the Tate Gallery describes maquettes, while the exhibition of William Gorringe’s wood-and-cardboard models of British cathedrals currently on at London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum highlights how important handmade models were for architecture students before the advent of CAD.

But with the development of programs such as Auto CAD and Rhino, as well as CNC routers, stereolithography and rapid prototyping, is the handmade model still a valued part of the design process? ’Twenty years ago, people spent money like water on maquettes,’ says toy and product designer Matt Jones. ’We used to spend months on them, but the budgets just aren’t there nowadays.’

Jones views this as ’absolutely terrible’, citing mistakes occurring because of a client’s push to get the job done solely by CAD, sometimes sending a digital design to manufacturers in China without physical samples. ’They often come back looking weird,’ says Jones, bemoaning that more time is now spent going back and forth with the manufacturers.

Even with bigger budgets, such as in the film industry, maquettes are used less frequently than a few years ago. Damon Bard, maquette sculptor and character designer for animation features Ratatouille and Coraline, says, ’Some studios have cut the process completely and gone straight to the computer.’

Sculptor Neil Lemaire, who also works as a fabricator for furniture designers, sees maquette-making as ’an important part of the research process that helps me to avoid giving a design to a manufacturer that is unrealistic’. ’Similarly, I always find it easier to work with designers who understand their materials when I’m fabricating work for them,’ he says.

Lemaire’s most persuasive argument for model-making is a warning. ’All too often I see large-scale projects fail because the designers have not explored them on a smaller scale first,’ he says.

Yet both Lemaire and Bard are open to the possibilities of the digital age. ’I’m all for more tools’, says Bard, ’but they have to have the right application. Using a computer to complement my skills is fine.’

A multi-tool approach is particularly prevalent in architecture and furniture design, where CAD is now universal. For Sam Hoey, studio manager at Jason Bruges Studio, handmade 3D models still play an integral part in the design process, parallel to digital rendering. ’They are one of the many tools we use in our projects for developing concepts, illustrating ideas, refining details, prompting discussions and solving problems,’ he explains.

Ian Whittaker, senior technician at the Royal College of Art, believes that the practice of traditional handmade models, maquettes and prototypes is ’if anything, increasing’. He says, ’Students now are far more likely to be able to use digital modelling, rapid prototyping and the traditional modelling methods. The best users of the 3D modelling software are usually those who are proficient in traditional craft skills.’

The specialist model-making sector has incorporated new technologies as they have come along. Model-maker Chlo’ Allen, who worked for four years as an architectural model-maker for Kandor, says, ’Additional technology is used for accuracy and to speed up certain elements, but the handmade element hasn’t yet been lost. It’s the consideration of the materials and how everything connects together that is the art, and this can’t yet be replicated by computers.’

Bard agrees. ’There really isn’t a replacement for a handmade clay sculpture. I love the process of making a maquette and have had wonderful experiences with actors and directors where they can really feel what I’m trying to put into the character through the sculpture.’ He adds, ’People think that the computer is this magic tool that can solve everything and that is just not the case.’

It seems that despite the rise of computer-aided design, there is still an important place for handmade models, which can enhance collaboration and creativity, and which, like Gorringe’s cathedral models, can be kept for posterity.

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