Designer Spotlight: Tim Eads Designs Rugs With a Little Help From AI and Robots
Tim Eads, CEO/founder at Tuft the World is an artist who has embraced technology, working with giant robotic tufting machines to create rugs and using A.I. to help design them.
He started out as a graphic design major at Texas Tech University, graduating in 2000. He also obtained an M.F.A. in ceramics, sculpture and printmaking from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in 2009. His career path would go in many directions. Eads taught high school art in Dallas, Texas, from 2002-2007. He went on to become a project manager and master printer at The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia from 2009-2015.
After receiving his master’s, Eads participated in many art shows across the country, including at Pentimenti Gallery in Philadelphia. His work was mostly sculpture and installation in nature, but he also explored wall pieces.
He started screen printing in college and eventually formed a small business selling shirts and limited edition prints. “This primed me for a job at the Fabric Workshop, where I added to my toolbox on how to print fabric yardage,” he said. “FWM sparked my creativity and I started printing my own designs on fabric at night and on the weekends, which eventually turned into a business selling canvas bags, totes and zipper pouches made from fabric I printed. At one point I had wholesale accounts in about 40 stores in the U.S. It was all printed, cut and sewn in my studio in Philly.”
Eads also taught college classes on repeat pattern printing at the Tyler School of Art, and summer and fall courses at the Penland School of Craft.
He learned about tufting in 2018 from Kate Garmen, who had been his teacher’s assistant at Tyler. Eads then hired her to help with his bag business. “I originally thought I was going to simply add tufted elements to my bags, but it quickly evolved into selling the supplies,” he said. “Tufting as a craft was mostly behind doors in industries so the knowledge was hard to find. After posting a few tufting videos it became apparent it could evolve into its own business, which it did.”
By 2020, Eads tufting business had moved out of his studio in West Philly to a nearby warehouse. Fabrics & Home talked to Eads about his career and how robotics and artificial intelligence is helping him create art.
Q: How did you get into this industry? Did it start in school? Did something happen that inspired you? Take me through that journey.
A: My undergraduate degree is in graphic design, so pattern, color and layout have been a part of my practice for over two decades. Over the years I have worked as a master printer, museum project manager, art teacher, sculptor and business owner.
In 2018 a friend told me about tufting, which started my rug-making journey. I had most recently worked at the Fabric Workshop and Museum and built a business designing fabric prints and sewing them into a line of handbags, wallets and totes.
As soon as I heard about tufting, I bought a machine from a factory in China and immediately other makers started asking to buy them so often that I became that factory's North American distributor. I realized that folks who wanted to try tufting needed not just the tool, but a manual, the fabric, frames, and appropriate yarn to make rugs. And tons of folks kept asking for “how to’s.”
All of that came together to become Tuft the World in 2018. My wife, Tiernan Alexander, joined to help with demand not long after. Although tufting has been around for about 100 years it has been exclusively in the hands of large manufacturers and not individual crafters. Our goal was to connect this tool and technique to everyday makers and artists.
After five years of sourcing and selling supplies to make rugs we decided it was time to launch our own line of rugs under the brand TTW editions using everything we have learned in the process. Using a computer controlled tufting machine (dubbed the “roboTufter”) we are now able to produce rugs for designers and artists who don’t or can’t tuft their own rugs by hand.
Q: Where do you find inspiration for your work in general? Does one moment/job stand out for you as an especially motivating time?
A: I’m a huge fan of repeating patterns found in nature and architecture. The order and chaos found between them is attractive and an unending source of inspiration. My own designs emphasize abstraction, repetition and, often, high contrast colors. I am also always intrigued by technology — a new tool, technique or concept will push me to develop some new work in response. Most recently, I have become fascinated with how artists can use artificial intelligence to expand their design horizons.
Q: What do you like about the work you do? What informs your designs?
A: Tuft the World is lucky to have a number of talented artists on staff who contribute to the designs in our collection. As a group we have been experimenting with taking our own drawings or concepts, bringing them into an AI program like Midjourney or Dall-e, and asking the AI to make variations on our work.
Our first series of rugs was created using text to instruct the software to generate a number of variations on our idea. We then select one or more and instruct the system to keep making changes until we have something with the feeling we were looking for but that is also surprising. Small changes in the text prompts can generate wildly different results and it takes some practice to get imagery that you’re happy with.
The AI introduces changes to the original design or idea that I might never have come up with alone. And while dozens of those designs are not what I am looking for, the speed with which it can make these changes allows me to experiment infinitely more quickly than making each design by hand.
The work doesn’t end there though. There are often many hours of editing and refining the images before they can be tufted. This is where the real artistic eye comes into play. The product of the AI is akin to a rough draft that keeps being revised and reworked until it is ready to tuft.
Q: What moments of your career were especially important for you? What type of advice would you give to a younger you trying to enter the field?
A: I would tell my younger self to not make things that others want, rather make things that I enjoy making and looking at. And that it’s OK to explore new ideas that feel uncomfortable. Often in school we are so pushed to get it right, or to make a good grade, that it feels unacceptable to fail. But mistakes and failures are often the path to the most successful and enjoyable projects.
Q: What are the challenges of doing what you do?
A: Many of our challenges so far have been learning our new RoboTufter. Although we’ve been hand tufting for years this is a new endeavor and getting it set up and creating rugs to our standards has been interesting. We’ve learned a lot in the process. The machine allows for much greater precision than hand work, but it is only as good as the technical drawings we put into it. And the mechanical set up and maintenance has been a whole other project.
Q: Tell me about some of your favorite creations/products?
A: When I first started tufting, I created a fully tufted room (floor, ceiling, and walls) for a show at Pentimenti Gallery in Philadelphia. I was working with a family-owned company that made traditional mop heads and I used hundreds of pounds of mop yarn creating these shaggy, soft expanses of heavy cream cotton.
Once it was installed, I got to watch as people experienced the space, sitting on the floor, touching the walls, even dancing inside this gentle enclosure.
Since the RoboTufter, I have gotten to help different artists translate their work into an entirely different medium. That experience has been so enjoyable to help others find a new medium to express themselves.
Q: What goals do you have for the next three years?
A: The RoboTufter is another product that has existed for a while but not very often been available to individuals. It is so expensive to set up and hard to learn and maintain that most designers and artists would never get the chance to use one. We really want to use this as a way for folks to be able to create their own rug dreams. We’d also like to keep working on our own rug collection.
Q: How would you describe yourself to a stranger? What is your most favorite thing to do, eat? What type of pet do you like best and why?
A: Tiernan and I have the greatest pet of all time, Pinky, our hairless wonder cat. She’s naked and beautiful. We try to feature her in at least one rug or rug project a year since she is the most interesting member of our family.
We love cooking, eating, traveling and playing. Tiernan has done extensive research and writing on historic Mexican cuisine after living in Oaxaca, Mexico. I am currently grilling and smoking meat as often as possible trying to perfect my skills in that area. We love West Philadelphia and Southern Mexico and wherever we go next.
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