It’s exciting when tradition and technology intersect in a meaningful way to create something unique, while also demonstrating what is possible when synergies between the old and the new are explored.
The first generative AI designed sink to be brought to market will be unveiled at the upcoming National Kitchen and Bath Show (KBIS) in Las Vegas at the end of February 2024.
The copper sink, named AILA (a nod to the role that AI played in its design), features soft, seashell-like edges and delicate details.
Digital innovator Leslie Carothers, principal of Texas-based Savour Partnership and former interior designer, designed this bespoke, elegant sink using text-to-image prompts in generative AI platform Midjourney.
Thompson, a family-owned, multi-generational metalsmith company, produced the design, using patient, detail-oriented artisanal processes, steeped for generations.
The custom sink will be produced in a small, numbered quantity, each slightly different, thanks to the hand-hammered technique.
Integrating tech into age-old tradition
The collaboration between Carothers and Thompson, and ultimately the creation of this sink, is both significant and symbolic.
Midjourney is a text-to-image bot that produces vivid images rapidly, with the user providing simple textual prompts. With its lightning-fast response time, it is a tool that gives a fast pass for ideation, useful for designers in generating and demonstrating concepts. It’s also easy enough to use for curious homeowners, experimenting with their design wish lists. It’s cutting-edge, cool tech.
For their part, Thompson is a family business that spans multiple generations. They specialize in hand-hammered, custom, metal vessels, such as sinks, bathtubs, range hoods and other accessories. Their artisans use techniques that take years to learn, passed from master to apprentice, some of which date back to the 16th century.
Also symbolic is that this sink, designed using emerging tech, is built from copper, which is one of the oldest metals known to humans, having been used in fashioning of home goods and other items for some 10,000 years.
Innovation happens when you can extract benefits around functionality, regardless of whether the product, process or material is old or new, and combine elements to make things better, stronger and more efficient.
This is the lynchpin of this project, where creativity and the speed of production of concepts is considerably faster using AI, but the success of the final product relies on specific, highly trained human skill.
“This is an inflection point in product development,” says Carothers, particularly when it comes to custom home products. “This democratizes design,” she says.
The collaboration between Carothers and Thompson occurred rather organically, when a member of Thompson’s executive team attended a session Carothers delivered on digital innovation at a conference. This piqued Thompson’s interest in the opportunity to explore a dynamic, new direction for the metalsmith company.
Thompson reached out to Carothers with an email proposing the collaboration to design a copper sink with Gen AI which would be manufactured by Thompson’s artisans. The subject line of the email was “Crazy Idea?” to which Carothers enthusiastically responded and the process began.
For the design, Carothers was inspired by coastal vibes and the recent mermaid core trend. She knew she wanted a seashell-type shape, and for the sink to have thin sides to have a more delicate appearance. Copper would be the material of choice, given that is Thompson’s milieu.
She spent three hours inputting various text commands in Midjourney, producing dozens of variations on the initial idea. While three hours is a fairly significant time investment using text-to-image AI, it’s dramatically less time than it would have taken to re-draw multiple images by hand.
“I started out with prompts that incorporated the word seashell, mermaid and copper, but what I kept getting were really fantastical images that were not what I was after,” says Carothers.
Carothers tweaked her prompts dozens of times to create a suite of images for Thompson to choose the design and introduce elements of functionality.
One of the major complaints with Midjourney is that, while images generated are rich and vivid, they lack real-world functionality. It is well known that it is tough to replicate these ideas without measurements and specifications, and the images are not created function first.
For example, Carothers’s Midjourney sink has no drain, an obvious necessity. The sink bowl was also too shallow, so it wouldn’t have been able to hold water.
Taking concepts presented to them from designers to create custom products is something that Thomspon does routinely, but usually those come with actionable specifications, or more functional guidance.
“We had to take a 2-D image and create a 3-D product that works. If we were to actually replicate it exactly as it was in Midjourney, the water would just spill all over your countertop,” says Bill Cook, director of communications at Thompson.
That’s where good “old-fashioned” training and experience comes in to bring the concept into the real world.
Carothers presented Thompson with a few different sink options, some of which were discarded because Thompson’s artisans immediately recognized challenges that would make those proposals impossible to build.
“Our artisans went through different iterations of AILA and created different versions, different types of drain holes, until we got one that looks almost exactly like the rendering, but it’s functional,” says Cook.
It was a bit of trial and error, but through the craftsman’s lens to refine a tech-generated idea to do the job it is intended to.
“It was a question of finessing the original concept to make it a realistic product that’s actually going to work,” says Cook.
What’s in store for home product design and Midjourney
It’s common to be cautious with emerging tech, but it is important to point out that, although this collaboration marks a first in design tech, the process begins and ends with human skills.
It started with Carothers considering what she wanted the design to look like and assigning the correct language to represent her inspiration and ended with skilled workers interpreting the tech-produced design in the context of their experience and bringing it to life.
“Artisans are using skills passed down from generation to generation, from person to person. AI can design anything you want to, but AI can’t build it. That’s the beauty here of keeping artistry-crafted products alive for the next generation.,” says Cook.
Tapping into the creative potential of Midjourney, “allows us to be nimble to create new products,” says Cook. “We don’t have to fear new technology. The opposite is true in that it will keep people employed, and set up for the next generation,” he says.
Midjourney is easy to access and to use, and as uptake increases in the industry, could have significant impact on custom product design. It’s not cost effective at this point for mass production and lifestyle brands, but with directed use and strategic collaboration, such as the one demonstrated with Carothers and Thompson, could be well-suited to custom opportunities.
Curious homeowners can easily experiment in Midjourney with their own ideas, but they should be mindful that the quality of the images they generate relies heavily on the prompts given.
“Think very clearly about what you would love to see. Write it out on piece of paper and find words that get you as close as possible to what ideas you have in your head,” explains Carothers. Simple, short, descriptive prompts are most effective.
Although Midjourney opens the door widely for DIY, homeowners going this route are still advised to work with an interior designer, especially to help navigate the custom goods landscape, as many custom companies don’t deal directly with the consumer. A designer can help to refine a design idea, advise on functionality and liaise with the appropriate custom house.
This article first appeared on ARCHITECT magazine’s sister site, Livabl, North America's largest new home construction and builder marketplace.
For more on AI, read this special report on the future of Generative AI for the AEC industry.