Starter Stories: Meet Emily Fischer from Haptic Lab
Meet Emily Fischer: founder of Haptic Lab, environmental activist, lover of craft and member of the slow design movement. Utilizing both her left and right brainedness, Emily brings good design and important social issues to life, enlivening those stories through a sense of touch – through haptics.
Q: Tell us more about your journey to start Haptic Lab.
A: I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin and definitely participated in the ad hoc craft industry, like the kind of craft sales that happen in church basements and school cafeterias while all the men go deer hunting. I’ve always been around craft as an activity and a community-type project. Then I went to architecture school at the University of Michigan where I got my masters and grew in my own understanding of what I was capable of doing.
One of the things that happened in my early education was I thought I wasn’t good at math and science. I didn’t get a good STEM education and it wasn’t until I was in college that I realized I actually was really good at math and indeed enjoyed it. I wanted to study something that had a kind of rigor to it beyond a creative practice. I found architecture to be such a sweet spot for me. It really satisfied the left and right brain interests of mine.
Out of school, I worked as an architect in New York for about four and a half years and loved it. It was great but I also felt stifled in a professional working environment.
During the recession in 2009, I got laid off. In retrospect it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me because it forced me to take stock in my own ideas. Really, I accidentally started Haptic Lab within three weeks of losing my job. I had a website where I posted my projects and quilts, and it started getting a lot of attention. That’s when I thought, “Maybe this is something I can do”. If someone had ever told me before that point in life that I was going to be a professional quilter, I would have laughed in their face. That didn’t seem like a trajectory my life path was taking.
Q: Can you explain the significance and meaning behind the name “Haptic Lab”?
A: The word haptic itself relates to the sense of touch, which is fascinating from a behavioral psychology and architectural design standpoint. It’s the only sense mechanism we have that can be extended by an object. Someone who is visually impaired can physically extend themselves with the tip of the cane, which acts as an extension of their body. The tip of the cane becomes fingertips in a way, which is so cool.
By diving deep into tactility and choosing to weave that concept into physical items, through Haptic Lab I realized that we really don’t have things that are made intentionally anymore. I think having a goal to produce stuff that isn’t disposable has a grounding aspect to it — a physical grounding — which is very necessary in the world we live in right now. Memories are important and so is tactility.
“The objects in our life tend to be quite disposable. So in a way, by making things that are beautiful and handmade, they start to become more meaningful.”
Q: Memories and tactility. That leads us to ask…why quilting?
A: I am always drawn to handmade things. I think material culture is amazing and one of the really great pleasures and experiences in life. I think crafts like quilting are becoming more and more respected as incredible art forms, and the more I learn about their history, the more I’m excited to comment on them and make them my own.
The work we’re creating becomes an heirloom from the onset which also makes it very interesting and emotionally impactful. In some cases, quilts have been continuously used among families for over 150 years, which is incredible. No matter the place or community, what’s nice about quilts is that they’re very approachable. They aren’t intellectual things — they’re something you can touch. You can feel them and make them part of your own story.
Q: …and why kites?
A: Oh gosh, I love kites. To relate it back to haptics, when I was talking about the cane and extending your touch, a kite does the same thing. It’s a way to experience flight, if that makes sense. When you feel a kite pull on your hand, you also have the sensation of flying.
Q: How much does a sense of home influence the pieces you are creating? Are the location choices intentional?
A: Sometimes there’s a mass of people who are like, “Please, please, please. We want the thing.” But most pieces reflect places that I find interesting with stories that I want to tell. Right now I am about to launch an Antarctica quilt that shows glacial movement and tells a story of how the ice sheets (which are living moving things) are accelerating. The biggest changes in our world seem to be happening in very inaccessible/remote places, so some of the projects I am working on talk about the places we don’t get to see. I want to make them very tactile and real.
Q: There’s evident purposefulness in your work. Can you tell us more about your B Corp journey?
A: Oh, it’s a journey alright.
I was attending some activist meetings in New York and one of my friends who’s a seasoned activist said, “Just pick one thing and you won’t get burnt out. You will find joy in that practice.” And I was like, “That’s obvious. My work is already about climate.”
From there, I took a very clear-headed look at my own business and said, “Whoa. There are a lot of things I can do differently to make this better.” At the same time, there were things we were already doing that we hadn’t really measured. So I thought, “Let’s measure everything and see where we land and then identify areas of improvement.” That’s what is really cool about the B Corp: it encourages you to work with everyone to get on board with a shared goal.
It’s not just about the consumer but the producers as well. When you buy organic, products are often marketed as being “better for you and your baby.” And we’re like, “No, no, no. You buy organic because it’s better for the people who are making the products. Because it’s better for everyone.” I think customers are really starting to understand that.
“It’s incredible. Everyone should be a B Corp.”
Q: So you’re not only training consumers “why” to buy [organic], but you’re also able to help guide conversations about landscapes in need of attention. There’s intention behind the quilts, which is so attractive to people.
A: Yeah, it’s purpose-driven, mission-driven work. That’s literally what my therapist will tell you. “A purpose-led life is a fulfilling life” — one that provides us with the greatest happiness. Being hopeful doesn’t mean that I’m putting on my rose-colored glasses while saying, “Everything’s going to be fine.” It’s saying “Okay. There’s work to be done.”
I think that’s what is so cool.
In the past few months I’ve shared that “I’m a B Corp (and it’s great!)” Now, other small design companies I’m friends with will ask, “How do you do it? We want to do it too.” It’s sort of informal, but this is what it’s all about: coalitions, groups of businesses and people getting together to ask “How do I reduce my plastic waste? What shipping service am I using? How do I offset this?”. I encourage you to get together with people and start to really advocate for things.
Q: Are there any other backburner projects waiting to come to life? Do you feel motivated by your buzzing ideas?
A: Yes, I’m totally motivated. The filter that happens now is: “Will this be impactful? Is this going to be something that I can look back on in 30 years and say, ‘Yes, that was the right thing to do at that moment?’”
“I aim to create with a lens that isn’t just about what people will buy, but rather what will make a lasting impact. It’s a healthier framework for the producer and consumer, and healthier for our world.”
To learn more about Haptic Lab and the work they’re doing to “craft products that create meaningful, positive connections between people and planet”, visit hapticlab.com.