Borough Furnace – John Truex
Our cast iron skillet is made from recycled iron and produced in small batches, hand cast and finished. The design updates the classic iron skillet with improved weight distribution and easily accessible, heat dissipating handles.
The skillets were designed for Borough Furnace, a two-person company that I run with Jason Connelly. Jason manages business development and was influential in both the production process and the research into small scale manufacturing.
Zoe Coombes: I love this product. It's reflective of a few current trends in design, which I think are all very positive and exciting. First of all, it's made in New York in small batches. There's the idea that America hasn't been thinking of 'making things' for a few generations and I now slowly, people are beginning to re-learn what America has long known – how to design and produce basic goods. The finish has a somewhat prehistoric feel; there's no Teflon involved. There are no rubber caps hiding the screws, and yet, it unashamedly has been designed using a digital palette of tools- from the model, the mold, the rapid prototype SLAs used to produce the mold. The designers are learning from the past and finding form with contemporary techniques and tools. Somehow this return to a basic skillet, feels like an advance for design rather than a retreat. Cast iron is a very healthy way of cooking food.
Rama Chorpash: The competition had lot of beautifully crafted and designed self produced products. Many designers have lost connection to witnessing manufacturing, and some are taking a nostalgic look back, literally taking crucibles and molten metal into their own hands. After decades of polished, tri-ply, enameled and super non-stick Teflon bonded chef endorsed cookware from who knows where, a growing crowd of independent designers have had enough. Perhaps this is the start of a second Iron Age? Time will tell how innovative these outer borough pioneers evolve their wares and ways.
1. Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the challenge posed to you? Did it get you excited and why?
The project was self-initiated. We set out to create a contemporary form for a traditional artifact. Cast iron skillets have an iconic and very consistent form across the market. Some of the existing formal elements stem from manufacturing constraints, some are simply informed by aesthetic tradition. Cast iron skillets are sturdy workhorses, but have never been designed for the hand of the user.
Our problem set was to make a pan that was, like the classic skillet, cast in one piece in a recycled and easily recyclable material. In addition, it needed to be easier to handle and cool to the touch when cooking on the stovetop.
I was very excited to reinterpret a beloved and iconic cooking tool, but the most engaging part of the process was the exploration of iron casting that led to the finished form. Through trial and error we discovered why skillets are made the way they are (it is the foolproof form of handmade patterns in early industry). While overcoming these obstacles with contemporary manufacturing practices (e.g. CNC milled mold patterns) we experienced the magic of melting metal scraps into liquid and casting them into new solid form. It turns out to be a relatively low-tech process (we built a furnace out of old steel milk jugs in my dad's backyard) but the Skilletron still seems like a magical making machine.
2. What point of view did you bring to the challenge? Was there anything additional that you wanted to achieve with this project or bring to this project that was not part of the original brief?
The physical production of the object was intrinsic to the design process. I'm no metal craftsman, but I aspire to be one, so the project started by learning from experts in the pattern making and metal casting fields. Throughout the process our frame of reference was that we would eventually control the manufacture from design to finished object. Our production capability is still developing, but I think we're pretty close.
The project was informed by our continuing research into small batch manufacturing and local, distributed production. In terms of the product design, being invested in the production methods has a tremendous effect on design details, leading to a product that synthesizes the requirements of the user with the requirements of the maker.
3. When designing this project, whose interests did you consider? (Discuss various stakeholders, audiences, retailing, manufacturing, assembly, distribution, etc., for example.)
The primary stakeholder is the cook. Our skillet provides the traditional benefits of cast iron: even heat distribution, a large thermal mass to keep temperatures constant, and a natural non-stick surface. Additionally, the handles make it easier to hold and serve to dissipate heat, remaining cool to the touch.
Our small batch manufacturing model is intended to connect with an audience that seeks authenticity – a closer connection to the provenance of the objects they buy and use. We hope to add meaning to the objects by making connections between the end use and the craft of production.
4. Describe the rigor that informed your design. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) If this was a strictly research or strategy project, please provide more detail here.
Once the basic parameters of the design were in place, we went through several iterations of mockup and testing, producing paper and cardboard mockups, modeling clay and thrown porcelain proportion studies, and digitally printed SLA models. Alongside these form studies we developed the tools and equipment needed to produce iron prototypes (versions of which will be used for small scale production).
The casting process (and in turn elements of the form, material thickness, etc.) was informed by a litany of texts and conversations with experienced foundry workers. Central to our process were Navy foundry manuals, pattern making books, descriptions of metal flow dynamics, and references for pattern gating and mold making. The bulk of our research was hands-on experimentation – a day of mold making followed by a day of firing the furnace and casting test pieces (then repeat). We poured test castings of our skillets, new and antique Lodge skillets, pieces of sewer grate, etc., examining each to learn something more about the airflow through the mold cavity, the makeup of the sand and clay in the molds, or the temperature of the furnace.
5. What is the social value of your design? (Gladdening, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, labor-mindful, environmental, cultural, etc.) How does it earn its keep in the world?
On the most basic level the skillets provide quality, durable cookware made from recycled materials – old steam radiators and other scrap. Heat-fixed linseed oil, rather than Teflon, provides the non-stick surface. In a broader sense, the skillet is an artifact of our research in small-scale, distributed manufacturing. In opposition to economies of scale, outsourced to the cheapest labor force, our goal is to create a product whose value lies in its thoughtful production.
6. If you could have done one thing differently with the project, what would you have changed?
In exploring the casting process we excitedly jumped in with what turned out to be very difficult molds to work with. Skillets, by nature of their thin section and large surface area, are troublesome castings. A lot of time was spent trouble shooting these relatively complex castings that would have been better spent making chunky test castings and approaching the process in a more methodological way. We came to this conclusion after a great deal of labor and trial and error, and in the end the smaller patterns that we made (trivets, bottle openers, etc.) were our first successes and invaluable learning experiences.