This is an environment that will always acknowledge you, but its a cozy interactivity, the softer side of technology.
Ms. Lewis, 35, is part of a wave of young product designers intent on embedding electronics into soft areas like fashion or home furnishings. She has the can-do spirit that defines the modern crafter and hopes to engage other young women in her blinking, D.I.Y.
world. Threading LEDs, she claims, is akin to knitting. (LED beads are like tiny glowing sequins; Ms. Lewis uses conductive thread to sew them onto fabric.) I do it to relax, she said.
Her work can involve some unlikely materials: perhaps a length of electroluminescent wire or yards of conductive fabric; the motor prized out of an electric toothbrush; a motion sensor.
Her thesis project for Parsons, from which she has a masters degree in design and technology, was a pair of garments called Closer: one sings when you pat it, a twinkling, rolling melody composed by Ms. Lewis; the other sports an LED-embellished plastic heart the more pats and hugs its wearer receives, the more colored lights ignite within its heart. Its about building tender moments and bringing people closer, which is my whole thing, Ms. Lewis said.
Ms. Lewis has been spreading this high-tech, high-touch manifesto through her four-year-old blog, an electronic crafters how-to guide called Iheartswitch.com; her book, Switch Craft: Battery-Powered Crafts to Make and Sew, was published last year. There was a TV moment, hosting five episodes of a show on a local Fox Network affiliate last fall called My Home 2.0, in which she performed electronic domestic makeovers, the same sort of technological interventions she has practiced in her own apartment, which she shares with her boyfriend, Chris Arnold, a screenwriter and helicopter pilot she met through eHarmony.
Mr. Arnold, 34, is nearly as handy as Ms. Lewis: in his spare time, he makes latex weapons for film and theater sets. And he can solder wires with ease. But I cant solder a circuit board like Alison, he said. Thats real artistry.
Ms. Lewis has an impeccable crafters pedigree. Her grandmother, Alice Merryman, who died two years ago at the age of 100, was a quilter and practitioner of corn shuckery, the art of weaving corn husks into brooms, baskets, benches and other objects, including dolls. A corn husk bench has pride of place in Ms. Lewiss living room. My grandmother made that for me when she was 96, she said. Alice was honest and spry and creative and she loved being in your business.
Ms. Lewis spent summers in Clinton, Ark., with her grandmother, for whom she is named. But she grew up in Arlington, Tex.; her mother, a dietitian, taught Ms. Lewis to sew at age 4. Mom is an expert seamstress, though extremely humble about her skill set, Ms. Lewis said. She acts like its no big deal. In her experience, sewing was just how you got clothes.
Ms. Lewis sewed her own clothes, too, including a pair of blue pleather pants with black pockets she wore throughout the sixth grade. At Arizona State University, in the degree program for interior architecture, a professor advised Ms. Lewis to switch to the painting program, which she did. Im not sure if it was a compliment or an insult.
When she graduated, she worked as a Web designer what do artists do to make money? When the technology boom fizzled and she was laid off in 2000, she moved to New York and attended Parsons, where she taught for a few years after graduation. Nearly two years ago, she moved to Philadelphia to take a job building interactive exhibits for museums. When the job dried up last year the economic crash hit museums hard she decided to stay.
We have 2,200 square feet and the rent is $1,500, said Ms. Lewis. We have a basement. I dont think I could give that up.
She led a visitor down to the basement workroom that holds her extensive batterie de cuisine. There was soldering equipment; boxes of routers and power cords; hanks of stranded wire; yards of Luminex fabric (a glowing, fiber-optic textile); packages of tiny portable speakers.
Im always trying to figure out whats the best one to hack apart, so I buy everything, she explained.
There were motion sensors and stacks of conductive fabric literally, fabric woven with conductive material like wire. Her sources include Michaels, the crafting supply store, Radio Shack and Build-a-Bear Workshop, which sells sound devices tiny objects which, when pressed, emit sounds like a frog croaking or chicken clucking. They are meant to go into childrens toys but Ms. Lewis embeds them in chew toys for pets. (She also hacks sounds from other sources: she extracted the sound device from a dollar-store chick and sewed it into a toy for Mojo, her 9-month-old Pomeranian.)
Ms. Lewis, who once worked for DuPont creating prototypes like a WiFi-detecting scarf, is developing products under her Switch brand. A flexible pocket of zebra-patterned silk holds six bud vases made from test tubes and a volume meter. When it detects sound Ms. Lewis demonstrated by singing softly the vases light up. Shes proudest of a squashy pale blue felt rectangle with a bright red canvas pompom she calls Pillow Talk. Its made to be hooked up to an iPhone, which turns the whole pillow into a phone.
A visitor, sitting upright, held it up to her ear. Ms. Lewis rolled her eyes. No, no, youre supposed to lie down and cuddle with it. She curled up on the couch and tucked the pillow under her head. Cmon, Target, hire me!