Marjo Niemelä is the manager of the Architectural and Technical Services Centre (ATSC) in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. The Finnish-born, architecturally trained furniture and fabrication expert has guided the development of the Faculty's digital fabrication facilities. The breadth and extent of facilities and expertise in the faculty today is a testament to her commitment to the importance and integration of fabrication across the numerous programs offered by the Faculty.
Downstairs in the ATSC laboratory, we're talking about the journey that has brought Marjo to the faculty and how she came to lead this new venture into digital fabrication. Surrounded by the raw sounds of drills, saws and sanders, Marjo's office is an oasis of calm amongst the hectic production that goes on around the clock in the ATSC. Our conversation is punctuated by students firing up new equipment and the faint buzz of a laser cutter making the finishing touches to a model.
Marjo was born in Lappeenranta, south-eastern Finland. She later moved back and forth between Finland and Australia, starting in 1983. Marjo completed studies in architecture in Canberra and later in Oulu, Finland. Afterwards, she travelled to Japan where she completed a variety of design-based roles. She came back to Australia and completed a fine woodworking course at Sturt School for Wood in Mittagong, NSW. She later moved to Sydney and set up her own company in furniture design and fabrication. It was during this time that she began working with the Faculty to coordinate the fledgling digital fabrication program that was in development.
From this diverse and multi-cultural experience, Marjo brings a fresh approach to the importance of fabrication. She recognised early on that one of the distinguishing factors of a degree from the Faculty is that we have access to our own equipment. Under her guidance, the ATSC has demonstrated the relevance of fabrication to an ever-increasing array of subjects.
"When we started, digital fabrication was just for the Master of Digital Architecture students. We produced an exhibition, Metamorphoses of which I am immensely proud. The work we created for that exhibition demonstrated what could be done with the first set of equipment the faculty bought. Of course, we've since improved our tools. For the exhibition, we completed about 340 hours of routing time on just one piece. The new equipment can do all of that work in about 30 hours. It's that kind of efficiency that makes digital fabrication really attractive to students and industry," Marjo said.
"What I'm really looking forward to is what the Architectural Communications III students will achieve next year as Master students. There has been a general upskilling in the use of the equipment and students are creating more and more ambitious designs. It's great to see that undergraduates are now at the level of the masters students when we first started the program."
"In other design schools, you send your [digital] files off and then you pick up the pieces when they have been cut or the model has been printed. And those schools charge a lot for that service. We train our students to use the machines themselves. The way we do it is what is normal and expected in design schools across Europe. The other universities are now coming to us to learn how we achieved that level of student expertise," Marjo said.
"I pushed for everything to be student run," Marjo said. "Supervised, of course, but to ensure that students understand the whole process. That's respected in industry because our graduates know that they are sending correct and usable files to their company's fabrication partners."
Marjo has recently committed her energy to expanding the scope of the ATSC beyond current students. The Faculty will be launching a pilot program for use of ATSC equipment amongst alumni later this year. Marjo is excited for the opportunity this presents both for alumni and also for current staff.
"There will be so many benefits. Alumni will stay in touch with the faculty and will be able to pursue their own projects in first-class facilities. And the faculty will be able to retain many of the talented staff that work for us in the workshops. It's been difficult to maintain that talent when the university closes over the non-teaching period. It's these sorts of community programs that will allow the Faculty to maintain and attract such high calibre staff that provide the guidance and expertise for our fabrication facilities," Marjo said.
"Humans are the ones that operate machines. They always have done so. And being able to retain the humans that best run our machines, well, that"s something we're working hard at achieving".
I studied the Bachelor of Design in Architecture and graduated in 2011. I’ve done what you’re doing now, so I know what you’re going through. After I studied architecture, I decided that Wood is my area of expertise. I have also studied I studied Fine Woodwork at Sturt School for Wood and Furniture Design at School of Art, University of Tasmania. I also have a diploma in art and 15 years’ experience running furniture businesses.
I’ve always loved creating and problem solving; I started studying and making bespoke furniture in 1999. It’s been great to watch the evolution of technology and design to what we have now; the ability to manipulate wood to create a spectacular marriage between function, new technology and beauty.
My level of efficiency is my strongest asset, if a student is struggling to resolve a problem in the making process and has an impending deadline, we can usually get it sorted.
Working with physical models allows for an added dimension in the creative process, often mistakes can lead to breakthroughs and material choice will also influence the outcome in unexpected ways. There is never a “full stop” on the creative process and by working physically the designer is more open to the concept of evolution of process. You’re always learning, for instance, I have been learning to use the CNC router and have just produced an armchair.
Students must complete the Safety Induction and Competency Course. I can’t stress this enough. Not only do you learn to be safe when using the machines, but it introduce you to what you can make in the ATSC and expands your design thinking. There’s always a different machine or a new technique, and students should always consider their work as a prototype and not as a resolved model.
I have studied carpentry (Certificate III) at Meadowbank TAFE. I was motivated to do this after, when I was 18 I moved into a house that was built and designed by my boyfriend and his dad. I was really jealous and decided to learn to build my own house.
In March 2013, I finished building a house in the Brazilian jungle, which you can see in the images. Right now, I am fitting it out with storage, work spaces and all the other things that come with a new build. But, in the words of Derek Zoolander; “I shouldn’t even be talking about it. It’s nowhere near ready”.
I think model making is analogous to crawling and computer aided design is like being carried. It’s good to be carried sometimes because it the more efficient point to get from A to B. But if an architect wants to swagger they need to go through the process conceiving an idea and manifesting it in material form, all by themselves.
The equipment in the ATSC is there to be used. The Wood Technology Studio is like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of tools and there is almost certainly the exact tool that you need to use to do any job. Come to one of the ATSC staff, ask and we’ll point you in the right direction. We might even do it for you on the bigger machines. But don’t do anything crazy…. We are watching you.
I can help you with all of the machines in the Wood Technology studio except the lathe. I can help you choose the best tools to achieve what you want for their model. I can cut things for you on the table saw, or lend you a drill for the weekend or show you how to use the thicknesser; just ask I and I can help.
Technological innovations and tool designs are allowing carpenters to do increasingly detailed work, increasingly fast. My advice to students is know about these tools, and keep in mind where the design is headed: what does it look like 10,000 times bigger; is it something that will be useful and beautiful in a building. Those are important things to
I have a Bachelor of Industrial Design from UNSW and a Certificate in Metal Fabrication and Welding Techniques from TAFE. A lot of my experience comes from set construction and dressing for opera and television. I’m currently helping a friend in New Zealand build a temporary Temple for the people of Christchurch as a way to release their earthquake experiences.
From as early as seven years old, I remember playtime being about tinkering and building. Pulling apart the Beta video player to see how it worked, using LEGO, Dick Smith electronics kits, crystal radios, femo, cubby houses. I was always exploring how things are made.
Model making is a key physical part of the design process. It gives the designer the sense and knowledge of their design and the hands-on experience of building it. I’m excited by how open-source 3D printing is democratising fabrication and changing who is involved - it’s not just specialists anymore.
I like to think I am super approachable, even a sounding board for students to bounce ideas off. I love that part of the design process. I’m also handy when it comes to how to make something. Please let me know if it’s working for you. No point putting a dodgy tool back in the cupboard for someone else.
In your creative works, you should capture design accidents. The wrong answer only is the right answer in search of a different question. Collect wrong answers as part of your design process. Ask different questions. I’ve borrowed this idea from Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth. You should too.
I work in the metalastics studio. I’ve been involved since the start of the year, but I was helping on a PHD project during the last year. I’ve specialised in metal fabrication.
I have always been interested in metalworking and machinery. Growing up I was always pulling things apart to see how they worked, and fixing when possible. In my later teens I started to play around with an old arc welder I found and this was very exciting, as it opened up many possibilities. No longer was I bound to cutting, and bolting pieces of steel together, they could be welded!
I hold a Trade Certificate III in Vehicle Mechanics and an Advanced Diploma of Mechanical Engineering. I’ve worked at many differnt workshops and acquired my fabrication skills during this hands-on experience.
When I finished my apprenticeship, I was looking for a new challenge and pursued engineering, which is how I completed my advanced diploma. The diploma gave me extra skills in machining, turning and welding, complementing the practical experience I had already recieved as a mechanic.
I’m excited by the additive manufacturing processes, such as 3D printing. These processes allow for designs that were previously impossible to manufacture to be made, even in your living room (if you want!). I’m working on a folding bicycle that is based on a full frame road bike. The idea is to allow comfort when riding and to take the bike on public transport.
As a designer, you need to understand the process of manufacturing. You can’t design a practical product if all you’ve got is an amazing product. You need to know the manufacturing constraints.
In the ATSC, I can help you with sheet metal working, welding and basic fabrication using only hand tools, turning and milling. While metalwork can seem intimidating, it’s not any more dangerous than driving a car. Both are useful, but both require care and skill. That’s why it’s so important that you speak to the staff if you’re unsure and that you complete the safety course.