Virtual Making and the New Normal: A Conversation with Fabrication Director Molly Sanford

April 27, 2020

When Molly Sanford accepted the position as fabrication director for the College of Design’s Fabrication Shops in March 2020, her most urgent problem was a dust collector on the fritz. Two weeks and one global pandemic later, Sanford began working to reframe the crisis as an opportunity for open-hearted collaboration, creative resourcefulness, and new beginnings.

Her childhood penchant for building and previous experience as an exhibit fabricator and museum artifact handler imbued her with the confident touch necessary to transition the Fabrication Shops online. In this time of uncertainty, she believes that making of all levels is a powerful outlet for connection and solace. Read more in Sanford’s interview about her life-long dedication to making, vision for the lab, and outlook on the role of design during and after the pandemic.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

I grew up in rural Minnesota, in Morris. My brother and I spent most of our free time entertaining ourselves by making things. We lived in an old farmhouse with a big red barn and scavenged for materials which we would use to build forts in the woods. We were very close to our Depression-era grandparents, whose resourcefulness and creativity I hope to carry with me throughout my work, especially now.

I attended St. Olaf College, where I studied studio art and theater, focusing on sculpture, falling in love with steel and installation art. My work pursuing arts internships paid off, and I started working as an exhibit fabricator at the Science Museum of Minnesota in 2011. There, I learned from master craftsmen (I was the only full-time female fabricator in a group of about 35) in woodworking, metalworking, artifact mount-making, and other sculptural work. I built and installed exhibits for museums across the world, handling high-stakes artifacts like triceratops bones and objects from the King Tut exhibit in Paris.

What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure as director?

We must create a space where all students know they are welcomed, regardless of skill level, cultural or gender identities, or academic program. We must believe that all levels of making are equally important and that both a highly polished model and a cardboard sketch model can produce valuable learning outcomes. As sector boundaries are blurring in all sorts of ways, it is crucial to provide a space for students from all disciplines to work side-by-side. I know we talk about this a lot—cross-pollination, interdisciplinary collaboration, etc.—but the fabrication spaces are a truly unique resource in our college where we can and do provide this valuable congregant space for young designers.

You assumed this position right in the middle of an unprecedented global event. How have you adapted the work of the Fabrication Shops to the new normal of doing everything virtually?

What has helped the shop adapt is asking ourselves the question: How can we work toward our mission and vision through small actions? In the FABshops, could our humble little “Mending Mondays” Zoom sessions have a ripple effect that helps people develop the skills they need to fix their clothing, or more importantly start to really see all the waste in the world and think about what they can do to contribute to a more sustainable future?

The fabrication department is obviously dependent on physical resources we can no longer access. However, in my position I ask, can making something offer much needed mental solace in a time of screen-overload? Our student technicians are working on an incredible variety of skill-building projects, like home remodeling, building a kayak, baking homemade croissants, and more. With all the unique talents across our College, what can each individual person contribute and what are the new ways in which we can work together? Can people learn to carve spoons over Zoom and create a space for open-hearted conversation, like at an in-person spoon carving workshop? The small actions of all of us add up to something greater, and we must seize this opportunity for radical collaboration.

Do you see a silver lining in our current situation?

Yes! I’ve been thinking more about my grandparents and their experiences growing up during the Great Depression. I want to use this time to help people realize how they can continue to make and learn new skills even with limited resources. And, in fact, there may be no greater creative challenge than that. I believe this could ripple into the way we think about resources and consumerism in general. I’m actually excited to think about the growth and positive cultural shifts that may come out of this crisis. It makes me wonder how I can use my own skills and experiences combined with my positional advantage to affect this change.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by my work teaching at Leonardo’s Basement (Leo’s), a makerspace for kids, and at Women’s Woodshop. I hope to bring Leo’s spirit of trying and failing and trying again into the shop. Too often, I think college students feel pressured to be good at things they’ve never done before when in reality, there is no way to be good at any fabrication process without failing first! Teaching at Women’s Woodshop has helped me feel okay bringing my emotional intelligence into shop instruction. The shop can be very intimidating, and I want students to know that we can help them navigate through discomfort to be able to use the shop. For a student who feels intimidated, making one cut on a chop saw is a huge win!

Any closing thoughts?

My FabShop colleagues and I are continuing to have conversations about our college’s role in navigating this crisis and we welcome your input! The shop staff is also here to help you troubleshoot making projects while we’re all at home so please reach out. You can contact us at designfab@umn.edu, show up to our office hours through z.umn.edu/fabzoom, or try a Mending Monday or Crafternoon session!

The College of Design is excited to welcome a number of new, full-time faculty and staff to the college this fall. In addition, a number of our current staff and faculty have moved into different positions within the college.

The College of Design is pleased to introduce our new Interim Design, Housing, and Apparel (DHA) Department Head, Professor Hye-Young Kim.

The College of Design is pleased to introduce our new assistant dean for student services, Steve Yang, and our new associate dean for academic affairs, Sauman Chu. In these roles, Yang and Chu will work closely with Dean Carol Strohecker and other college leaders to advance outreach goals for students, faculty, centers, and the college.