Pure Genius

Q&A: Mark Frauenfelder, editor-in-chief at MAKE magazine, founder of Boing Boing, DIY legend

Posting in Food

Stuck in the "velvet rut"? Not sure what that is? Do-it-yourself legend Mark Frauenfelder explains.

When it comes to making, Mark Frauenfelder is a legend. Not because he’s particularly good at making things, and it’s definitely not in the Steve Jobs kind of way. Frauenfelder is less about the product than the process. But don’t let that fool you. He’s changed the world plenty.

Frauenfelder is the founding editor-in-chief of MAKE magazine, and the founder of Boing Boing, a pop culture and technology website he started as a print zine with his wife in 1988. He was an editor at Wired for five years, the founding editor of Wired.com, and Playboy magazine's technology columnist for three years. He’s also made appearances on The Colbert Report and the Martha Stewart Show.

I sat down with Frauenfelder to talk about the culture of DIY, the book he’s writing with his daughters, Jane and Serena (ages nine and fifteen, respectively), and the secret to staying out of the “velvet rut."

Could you give me a basic explanation of what DIY means? What is a Making Philosophy?

In the United States and most developed industrialized countries it’s easy to solve your problems by paying someone to fix the situation. But it can be really interesting to solve these problems yourself. You can make something from scratch, or repair or modify something you already have. You can customize things to fit your needs. This kind of thing can be really fulfilling. I think it’s something hardwired in us. We evolved to be makers, to create our own solutions to things. It’s as if we’re scratching a deep primal itch when we become a maker or a DIYer.

A lot of people don’t do this kind of thing -- they don’t knit or sew, they don’t do much in the way of cooking. When you start doing things yourself you develop a sense of self-efficacy. You start looking around and asking, “What else can I change?” Eventually you start to surround yourself with things that have your touch in them. Your time and care and skill have been imbedded in the things around you. These things become interesting to you and the people around you -- “Oh, you made this? You fixed this? How did you do that?”

We live in a world where we do not have very much control. So much is prescribed by the government, the economy, or the utility company that supplies things. It’s great to figure out a way to have some control in your life, even a small degree of it.

If it’s a primal itch we’re scratching -- why are only some people attracted to it? What is it that allows us to make the leap of faith required to make something?

I think you have to get over a hurdle. The hurdle of convenience. Being able to easily satisfy your needs by clicking a button online or making a telephone call is extremely compelling.

People work really hard. They get home tired and just feel like ordering Chinese food and watching some TV. I totally understand that. And we do that too. I always encourage people to try a lot of different things to see what interests them. Try making your own musical instruments and having a house concert. Try making your own yogurt. Get an arduino and learn a little bit of electronics. See if you feel more fulfilled.

I think you have to schedule it in to your life just like dates with your friends. Schedule some time for DIY. Hopefully you get past that velvet rut we get stuck in so easily and discover something that’s really rewarding.

Tell me about how MAKE Magazine started.

When Dale Dougherty called me and said he wanted to create a do-it-yourself magazine focused on making physical things, the idea appealed to me a lot. In 2005 the maker movement had really taken off, and it was such a cool thing to see. A lot of hackers and web developers started seeing the physical world as a place where they could exercise their creativity like they had online. They started to make their own stuff. Everything from furniture to gadgets to tree houses with their kids. It was the perfect time to start a magazine like MAKE.

I came across a posting on the MAKE website for a device that automatically answers your emails with the phrase "Go Fuck Yourself." The device interested me because on one hand, it's anti-utilitarian. On the other hand, it's helping you do something -- albeit with a big wink.

That sounds like an art project to me. The device is not particularly useful except as a consciousness raiser. And I think the artistic expression aspect of making something is also really important.

One of our frequent contributors, Matt Richardson, came up with something similar but more useful. It’s a little circuit called Enough Already.

He enters a key word, hooks it up to his TV, and then every time the word Kim Kardashian is mentioned the TV immediately mutes for 30 seconds. So he has different names in there, products, and news trends he doesn’t find interesting. It’s actually fairly easy to make because it’s just monitoring the closed captioning feed.

It’s such a brilliant project. It’s art but it’s also useful. I love those kinds of projects. I’m a fan of the Dada art movement, the Surrealists and the Situationists. So projects like this really play into my sensibility.

You are currently working on a new book. What’s it about?

I haven’t seen a lot of cool project books for girls. My girls aren’t that interested in the kind of crafting books that are out there right now. So this one is going to have fun projects for dads and daughters together, which is rare. A lot of the time the projects are fun for dads, while the girls don’t find them that interesting, or vice versa.

So one of the projects we’re working on now is a kitty cam. It’s a way to put a miniature video camera on a cat’s collar. Then when your cat runs around, either outside or in the house, you get the kitty’s eye view. We have one cat who likes to jump up in trees and on the roof. So we get all these great scenes from our cat.

That’s great. Where does the camera come from?

You can buy these tiny cameras that look like a key fob. They’re smaller than a Tic Tac box and cost about eight dollars. We’re still working on the rig.

Tell me about your process of inventing. It sounds like you do a lot of this work in collaboration with your family. Do you come up with the ideas on your own?

My daughters and I come up with the ideas, and my wife gives us great feedback on everything. For example my younger daughter Jane and I are writing a program for a retro arcade-style video game. We’re using a program called Scratch, developed at MIT’s Media Lab. Jane and I have written the program together and she’s created the art for it. A little character collects different kinds of droplets that fall out of the sky – some are bad for you, some give you bonus skills, etc... We collaborate with all of our different projects.

Have your daughters grown up to be expert makers?

They’ve grown up to be open to trying things. They are not afraid to experiment or explore. When we were raising chickens, before our coyotes ate them all, they helped take care of the chickens.  We also have a beehive in our back yard, so they love to smash up the honeycomb and strain all the honey. They’re involved in all of it.

I just taught my nine-year-old soldering a few weeks ago.  The electronic components can be really pretty, like little pieces of jewelry because they’re colorful and small and shiny. Initially that’s what attracted her. So she started asking questions about them. Like, “What does this one do?” It’s been a great way for her to learn and it was purely an aesthetic interest for her at first. I don’t blame her.

Your life sounds idyllic. Do you think there’s an explicit connection between a philosophy of making and a healthy family life? Maybe I’m out on a limb, but is the fact that your work allows you to spend more time with your family coincidental, or connected to a philosophy of making?

I feel really fortunate that the kinds of things I would like to do are the same things I can do to make money – writing books, editing articles on Boing Boing, and posting about things on MAKE Magazine.

It is kind of a philosophy. Otherwise we would get bored with passive forms of entertainment. We’re all pretty curious about things. For example, we were at the beach last weekend and we brought bubble stuff. But the bubbles coming out of that little wand were so tiny that it wasn’t very fun. So we looked around and found this seaweed that was really strong like string – it was pretty amazing. We rigged the pieces of string to a couple of sticks and then poured the bubble stuff into a Frisbee. We were able to get these huge bubbles. It was really fun.

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Sonya James

Contributing Writer

Sonya James is a multimedia producer based in New York. With creativity and innovation in mind, she speaks to diverse voices on topics from racism in the art world to the patriotic nature of southern food. She holds a Masters Degree in Community Development. Disclosure