Staff Q&A with Dennis Pierattini

Dennis Pierattini-slideshow

Peter Tobia

For the better part of 26 years, the Fabrication Lab has been dedicated to woodworking, metalworking, and digital fabrication for PennDesign students and has been run by Dennis Pierattini, a self-described “technician” by trade.

Above classrooms, galleries, and professors’ offices on the fourth floor of Meyerson Hall sits a room filled with table saws, sanders, hand tools, metal bandsaws, a 3-D printer, and laser cutter.

Maybe it’s not the typical classroom for many Penn students, but for those enrolled at PennDesign, the Fabrication Lab is where students put lessons from the classroom into practice.

It’s a place where artists design a geometric form from scratch and print out a model on a 3-D printer, or architecture students design and build small-scale representations of buildings or landscapes.

For the better part of 26 years, this lab dedicated to woodworking, metalworking, and digital fabrication has been run by Dennis Pierattini, a self-described “technician” by trade. A Penn grad, Pierattini oversees the 3,100-square-foot lab and helps to train students on some serious equipment. He also gently offers a helping hand.

“I work with some of the best people in the world right here who are all fabulously professional and well trained,” says Pierattini. “This is a dream job. I get to play with all kinds of good toys.”

In the course of any school year, between 700 and 800 students will be qualified to use the lab. Some don’t care for working with a jointer or engine lathes—but others take to the lab like fish to water.

The lab is incredibly important in students’ development, Pierattini says. “The problems of the world are becoming bigger and bigger. … The more tools in your toolbox, the better chance we have of fixing the really big problems,” he says. “It’s not theory that’s going to do it, it’s practice and theory. Bigger problems, bigger solutions, smarter people, better equipment.”

Q. More or less, does every PennDesign student come through here at one point?
A. It depends on what they’re studying and what their professors require them [to do]. We work collaboratively with the faculty and in conjunction with the faculty. We serve as an extension of classroom theory. The professor will lecture on some particular subject … it might be materiality or actual design of a building, or whatever thought that he wants to express, and he’ll say, ‘OK, well go into the shop and make a physical representation on your take on this idea.’ So they come and do that.
A materiality question might be: Take three dissimilar materials and arrange them in a hierarchical manner. It gets to be real open-ended and that allows the students to explore the difference between metal and wood or the difference between aluminum and brass and steel and then play with those ideas. The objects become process-oriented assemblages then. ‘Well, aluminum allows me to do this with it, or it lends itself to do this, steel lends itself to that. One likes to be milled, one likes to be folded or bent or has ductile properties,’ and then the students take those ideas and decide, because of these qualities, things come together in a particular way.

Q. I imagine you’ve seen plenty of students being surprised by what different materials can do.
A. Yes. I’ve been here a long time and it’s kind of interesting to see the difference in the student profiles from when I started, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, up until now. When I was a kid, you spent your days outside, doing things with things. You watched some guy’s dad build a porch, or pour concrete, or fix a car. That was the focus, but now, I think the focus is very different for the students. They’re very much in front of computer screens so it’s a very different world to them. They don’t have the sort of built-in hands-on [experience] that the students used to have.
They come in here, and for some of them, this is their very first exposure to building things. They’re very capable on computers but this is their very first exposure to actually building things. It’s very much ‘ah-ha’ moments.

Q. What was the Materials Shop like when you first came here, nearly 26 years ago?
A. I started off in Smith Hall, in the basement, and it was the Fine Arts shop. The architecture students weren’t allowed into it …[but they] wanted to be able to use the shop, so they hired me with the idea that part of my salary would be taken over by that department, and because of their buy-in they would be allowed to use the shop. They moved me out of Smith Hall. They tore Smith Hall down; the Vagelos Labs are there now. They moved me into the Blauhaus. It was a blue plywood building at the base of Hill Field. We were there for several years until they decided they could no longer have a blue plywood building on Hill Field and so they then moved me into [Meyerson Hall].

Q. Did they move all of the equipment with you?
A. Yes. Some of this stuff was [at Penn] when I got here. It’s original equipment. This planer, for instance, has been here much longer than me. We’ve brought it with us everywhere we’ve gone.
We’ve replaced most everything [else] in here. We modernized everything. The newer machines have better ports for dust collection, which wasn’t an issue when some of them were manufactured. We have machines that have all the modern safeties on them, trying to keep up to OSHA standards.

Q. What brought you to Penn?
A. I was a student here. I was the Class of ’80 and I put myself through college doing carpentry work and construction work. After college, I branched out and was a contractor for a while and did some work for the chairman of the Fine Arts Department’s place and this job opened up and he said, ‘You’d be perfect for this job. Do you want it?’ I was like, ‘Sure, let’s go.’

Q. I imagine the shop looks different now than when you started. What are some things you’ve learned over the years?
A. When I first started, the programs didn’t do a whole lot of this sort of work. I’m not sure if it was chicken or egg—obviously they felt the need to have this sort of facility available to them because they hired someone who allowed them to expand into shop use. The shop and the programs have grown together with the demand from the students and faculty. It’s been very organic as well, because methods change over time, the focus changes over time, the theory changes over time. What we were doing 20 years ago is very, very different from what we’re doing right now.

Q. What kinds of things were you and students doing 20 years ago?
A. Right now, we’re doing a lot of theoretical sort of stuff, and the search is on for form and how to generate form, and how [to] integrate computing into architecture and how [to] use computers to help generate form, that kind of thing. Previously, it had been more along the lines of almost photo-realistic models.

Q. Do you and your staff work with the faculty as they plan their classes?
A. Yes, we try to be very collaborative with them. The invitation is out and a lot of them do take the invitation to share the syllabus with us. We offer tutorials for the different classes, saying, ‘Well you want to do mold-making. We can have your whole class come in here and do a demonstration of mold-making. Oh, you’re interested in wood-joinery. Well, we’ll do a formal demonstration of wood-joinery, or machining metal.’
Recently, they’ve expanded the use of this shop to include the integrated product people from the Engineering School, and they spend a fair amount of time working in here. I have a couple of professors in [Penn Engineering] who are very involved with shop work in here. In fact, one will have his class meet in here so they won’t have the distance between theory and practice and work the two things together.

Q. You train students before they can even use the lab. So, they can use this heavy equipment under your supervision?
A. You have to take a safety course, it’s about 2 1/2 hours. It’s mandated by the Risk Management Department, so a lot of information is covered. Once you’ve completed that safety course, you’re allowed access to the lab. We staff this place very heavily. When you come in here, there will be two people in [the front] area, most likely one person working in the digital fabrication area, and also people staffing the laser cutters.
The idea is that you let the students know that you’re there and available for them, but you don’t want to be the guiding hand in their project. You want them to make their own mistakes, you want them to experiment, you want them to try different things. You want them to be expansive in their approaches and their methods. I think the majority of your best learning is represented by the stuff that’s in the dumpster. This didn’t work and now they know this about a material or this process. There’s a lot of trial-and-error and they have to figure it out for themselves. But you don’t want a kid to get too far off base and so you give them nudges and that kind of thing.
Then there are people who come in here and you ask them to go get a crescent wrench and they look at you like it could be anything.

Q. Were you an artist at all?
A. No, I’m a technician. I’ve been that way since I was a kid, when I was building stuff all the time. I drove my parents crazy.

Originally published on September 13, 2012