Dutch design studio Raw Color has invented a device for turning text messages into a printable textile pattern. The Cryptographer, as Christoph Brach and Daniera ter Haar call their machine, converts letters into a set of shapes using a graphic code. The coded shapes are then bleached on to lengths of coloured cotton to wear as a scarf or use as a throw.
“It’s the fascination of seeing a machine or piece of technology react to your own input,” Brach says about the Cryptographer, a project originally conceived for the Dutch Invertuals exhibition at Milan Furniture Fair this year. “We began with text messages because everyone is so used to sending them. But it wouldn’t be that interesting to have a real message written on your scarf so our approach was to code it with some nice graphical signs and shapes.”
The pair decided to build their own machine after unsuccessful attempts to hack existing printers. They collaborated with others to engineer the machine and write the software. “For the printing head we used a kind of marker pen filled with liquid bleach,” Brach says. “The head can’t move on and off the textile like a laser cutter, so the pattern has to be continuous.”
With this constraint, Raw Color devised a set of symbols using only horizontal and vertical lines. Two motors create the pattern – one moves the pen across the fabric; another rolls the fabric up. Writing the code proved to be the most enjoyable part of the process. “The basic principle was to group symbols in terms of letter frequency,” Brach says. In English, the most commonly used letters follow the order: etaoin shrdlc umwfgy pbvkj xqz. This gave the designers a system to balance the overall composition.
“We didn’t want too many square shapes at the beginning and all the round ones at the end, for example,” Brach explains. “And we tried to make some matches, too. There is a diagonal in the letter N, so you find a diagonal in the shape too. Likewise, the B has some round shapes in it.”
And what messages did people use the textiles to convey? Brach says everything from “Good morning” and “How are you?” to “Darling, we’re having a baby!”
“In a way it’s quite poetic,” Brach says. “Our phones have such big memories now that we don’t have to go through deleting all but the important or sentimental messages. This project is a nice way to bring those messages into the physical world again.”