By Amy Spooner
Technology gives Emily Fischer, M.Arch ’05, design inspiration. But soon after launching her startup, she found that eschewing technology in the creation of her products simplified the process — and provided the craftsman’s touch that seems fitting given that her company’s name is Haptic Lab.
“After a year of working in a way that was exhaustive and stupid, I saw that in the space of the computer, the scale of the human hand is lost,” Fischer says. “There’s a real talent in architecture to understand and assert human scale in a space where there is no scale and no law of physics. I still use a lot of technology in the work that I do, but I use it strategically.
“Craft, nowadays, is celebrated more and more.”
Haptic Lab’s craft is quilt making and kite making (“It’s such an interesting design problem to make something fly,” Fischer notes), and Fischer has received acclaim for both. She has been featured in Architectural Digest and Martha Stewart Weddings, and in 2009 she was commissioned by upscale retailer Opening Ceremony to make a kite for a video starring actor Jason Schwartzman.
“Within weeks of getting laid off from my firm because of the recession, I had been anointed ‘the kite girl of New York City,’” says Fischer, who caught Opening Ceremony’s attention after winning second place in a kite-design contest that she entered on a whim. “It was crazy, and exciting, and fun — and it was a sign that I could start investing in my own ideas, since I wasn’t designing for a client anymore.”
Today, Fischer manages a team of seven in her Brooklyn studio, as well as tradespeople in India who hand stitch the quilts. It is a sharing of responsibility necessitated by lessons Fischer says she learned the hard way. “How did I understand all the challenges of starting and running a small business? By making all of the mistakes.”
Fischer began exploring quilting as a study in tactility and wayfinding in her first M.Arch studio, with Professor Craig Borum, where she was tasked with design exploration of a map piece of Detroit’s Jefferson Avenue. “I wondered, what if it were dimensional beyond the surface of the paper? I kept returning to the idea of tactility for different projects in different studios. Quilts just happened to be a centrifuge,” says Fischer, who grew up around quilters and jokingly fears that even today, her mother’s quilting circle will criticize her miters. At the same time she began her reign as New York’s queen of kite design, Fischer’s quilts — featuring constellation maps, city maps, and coastlines — began generating buzz in the burgeoning online DIY and e-commerce communities of the late 2000s. She began selling quilts on commission, soon finding that she needed to automate to keep up with demand. So she found a partner with an 11-foot-long quilting machine and learned how to get vector map data “back when I still had to pay for it” — but soon found that the complexity of automating such intricate designs was hurting, not helping, her process. That’s when she went back to basics, connecting with a group of quilters in India who still produce her quilts today based on maps that Fischer and her team draw by hand. Fischer and her team give the final touch of approval to each quilt before sending them to customers.
“The handmade is appreciated in a different way. There’s a benefit not just culturally, but socially — a connection to people, resources, and the planet.”
— Emily Fischer
“It’s sort of a William Morris-type thing, but we’re not trying to fight against the age of mechanical reproduction,” says Fischer of the slow design movement that she sees as parallel to the renewed popularity of farm-to-table dining. “The handmade is appreciated in a different way. There’s a benefit not just culturally, but socially — a connection to people, resources, and the planet.”
Benefiting the planet also lies at the core of Haptic Lab’s business model. The company — which is pursuing b-corp certification for its commitment to a double-bottom line of profit and social good — donates kites to low-income schools, donates a portion of profits to support positive climate action, and aims to be 100 percent carbon neutral within the next year. She says Haptic Lab is inspired by design that tells stories and currently is exploring a project involving displaced persons in Europe. “In the day-to-day of running a business, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture, like the refugee crisis or the fact that our planet will kill us if we don’t do something,” Fischer says. “We are a company that wears its heart on its sleeve.”