Upcycle Final Report: Mechanical Bonsai

Inspiration: letting the artist in and giving the engineer a timeout

After a frustrating brainstorming session over the weekend, I ended up making almost no progress. Hence, I decided to go ahead and build something out of discarded foam boards which I found in my RA resource room in my residence hall. I thought it would be sweet if I could build a whole arsenal of Batman gadgets out of  foam boards, starting with some sweet Batarangs that could go in my dorm room. While raiding the junk in the room, I stumbled upon a discarded heat sink that had some interesting patterns formed by the cooling fins that I really wanted to use for my project. ( I also liked how the most optimal engineering design, had some artistic appeal as well!) That’s when I my project took a hard turn. My inspiration for the mechanical-Bonsai comes from the art of Bonsai and art made from junk. I wanted something that was personal and customizable. I eventually ended up making a bonsai-type artifact with a metal base that I found in the junk.

Initial Idea, before critique.
Final version, incorporating some suggestions



Goals: Getting out of my comfort zone

The engineer in me was constantly looking to include some kind of functionality in the project, perhaps including a groove for a pen holder or a small pocket for storage. I finally decided to scrap it entirely and do art for art’s sake. My final goal was to simply have a small artifact that i would keep in my desk and enjoy looking at it when it catches my eye. The mechanical bonsai plant has a green-silver which is soft on the eyes, the subtle patterns in the metal base had artistic appeal to me and I decided to not tamper with it. I decided that the fusion of metal and wood would have a a nice aesthetic. The beige, and green color of the wood-sticks would go well with the raw metal finish of the base. and would provide a contrast of materials.

Design Loop: Creative Chaos

My project started out without any set goal or a direction. After taking tedious classes which requires planning just shy of a German train schedule. It was much more tempting for me to remove the cobwebs out of the creative thinking section of the brain and let those neurons loose. Luckily for me, being a Resident Advisor has it’s perks. I have access to a resource room, with tons of crafting material; however, I was more interested in the junk. I initially started with an idea of making an array of Bat-gadgets (although I must say, the shark-repellent Bat-Spray would have been a challenge!) I started out cutting out a template out of discarded foam-boards to make some Batarangs. Admittedly they looked cool, but it didn’t wow the person I showed it to or even raise an eyebrow for that matter.

My initial pursuit to make Batman-weapons
Everything changed when I found this heat-sink in the trash








So back to the drawing board I went, which in this case was the discarded electronics trash-pile where I found a rather interesting artifact. I found a heat sink which had groovy patterns (sad, but pun intended). I started Ideating again as to what could be made with it. I decided to make ‘trees’ out of some wood sticks. Lo and behold, I had mecha-bonsai. The following class was perhaps the most important to me, as I got the opportunity to talk about the idea to my teammates Gautham and Ryan, who gave me excellent and insightful feedback. After showing my initial design; I walked away with two very important suggestions.

  1. That the ‘tree’ could be three dimensional, instead of a flat profile.
  2. The ‘branches’ could have a color.
Began work after critique
The design taking shape








With this, I took the took the wood-sticks apart and began gluing the sticks in different directions and inculcated randomness into it, giving it a deliberately ‘shabby’ look. Next I proceeded to make it denser by gluing more sticks into it. Finally I decided to paint the sticks green and retain the metal finish on the base to show contrast. Although I did preserve my flat-profile sticks, which happened to be a happy accident as a result of the glue being stronger than expected. Now, according to my whim, I can switch out the ‘tree’ part of the design by simply taking the top and replacing it with the older profile. Which in my opinion is a nice little feature.Additionally, I made a conscious choice to leave the base untouched because I felt it had artistic appeal as it was and felt that anything I would do would simply make it complicated.

The design loop that I followed


I was quite comfortable with the design process that I followed in my project, incorporating critique in the loop was both a fruitful and a humbling experience. if I had not found the base, I would have stuck to the Batman gadgets. The heat sink happened to be a happy accident! I took the opportunity to explore and experiment with different objects and found that it better helps my thought process, if I physically have them with me. This might not be the case with most people, but I was comfortable with having an element of volatility in my creative process. I feel it exposes me to more ideas and preventing creative block at the same time. Of course, this process is not ideal, and will not work for most situations, but the creative freedom given in the class allowed me to experiment with ideas as it came to me. If I have the opportunity to use the loop I would do it again!

What’s Next

I am quite happy with my design, although in hindsight, I could have also had a version with the sticks in a more organized pattern, closely resembling an actual bonsai plant. Perhaps when I find the time I can work on that and update this blog post with more pictures. I could also experiment with color and texture. The idea using something else altogether instead of wooden sticks comes to mind. I found that the activity of creating the Bonsai ‘tree’ with sticks was a meditative and enjoyable and I see myself creating more variations for the sheer joy of it.

Post Presentation Feedback

The presentation, was a humbling experience. I received some wonderful feedback and gained confidence in my abilities, some students had great ideas, such as making seasonal and festive variations of the trees. It really opens new avenues previously that I did not think of, and that’s what I really enjoy about collaborative design.

Please click here for the presentation.


Previous Post
Upcycle Final Report: Casting Brass
Next Post
Upcycle Final Report: Art Deco Tissue Box

17 Comments. Leave new

  • Gautham Govindarajan
    February 15, 2017 12:31 pm

    A rather fancy looking paperweight. There’s endless possibilities for the patterns you could come up with this idea. Many you bring your Batman figures into this too. Beautiful work.

    • Yes! That’s what fascinated me, about the design. I really appreciate your valuable suggestions and being a part of the preliminary design which I indeed was able to incorporate into the design.

  • I love how modular this art piece is! You can go in many different directions with just simple materials. It’s also great how you found this exercise so relaxing- I think the best projects are something that promote that feeling.

    • Thank you Cryon! Indeed, the process of gluing wood-sticks and just letting it ‘grow’ is quite relaxing much like taking care of a real Bonsai tree. I really appreciate your comment.

  • The heatsink base is very eye catching; I really like all of the lines it has. Its almost disorienting to the eye, but in a good way. The modularity aspect of it is fantastic. What if you made a christmas tree top for around the holiday season? You could hang little lights from it too! The presentation was clear and to the point, which I liked a lot.

    • Yes! it was a great find, that I stumbled upon in the discarded junk. It’s cool that something so well engineered also happens to be aesthetically pleasing.
      I really like the Christmas tree Idea and will probably update this blog with more pictures soon with your version!

  • The transformation from the 2D uncolored product to the 3D colored product is pretty remarkable. The creative chaos that you referred to seems to have had a great influence on the actual aesthetics of the design, which is great because trees are chaotic! I find it very interesting that you originally drew inspiration of Batman gadgets. It seems like you made drastic changes with the bonsai idea. Do you think you would have preferred to stay with a distinct Batman gadget theme? This project is really fun to look at. Nice work!

    • Watching your design slowly evolve over time was indeed a great experience! In the initial brainstorming sessions (which were more hands on rather than sketching ideas) , I stumbled on the heat-sink which I used as a base for the Bonsai tree. Perhaps, If I had not found the base, I would have stuck to the Batman gadgets. The heat sink happened to be a happy accident! I took the opportunity to explore and experiment with different objects and found that it better helps my thought process, if I physically have them with me. Thank you for the comment!

  • Alexandra Rivas
    February 15, 2017 12:29 pm

    The suggestions from your teammate really made a difference! Its awesome that you took their suggestions and made it your own.
    Did you enjoy the process of being focused on form rather than function? Was it strange stepping out of your comfort zone?
    Your piece aligns with some of my favorite aesthetics, I could see myself putting something like this on my own desk.

    • Thank you for the comment Alex. Yes, it was a bit weird to silence the engineer inside, but definitely not a bad experience. I usually sketch cars or anime characters, but this was the first time I made an object completely for art’s sake, and I must admit, it provides the same amount of satisfaction.

  • Siddharth Nigam
    February 15, 2017 12:29 pm

    I like the blend of art and engineering – you made something functional and artistic and the emphasis on art for art’s sake was really good too!

  • It’s interesting that you incorporated critique in your design loop. I did not think about this in my design loop. Do you think it harmed your project or original idea, or furthered it? Also, your use of a heat sink is very resourceful and is exemplary of upcycle.

    • It is definitely a humbling experience to show something you create to another individual, especially when it involves such a talented bunch! But yes, I made up my mind to be receptive of everyone’s ideas so I was in fact looking forward to what my teammates suggested. I am happy how to turned out, so collaboration was a good step for me.

  • I like your approach to this project where you just went straight to building things instead of getting caught up in the ideation process. The heat sink you used looks really cool and brings a great mechanical aspect to the nature of the bonsai tree. Your ambitions to make make more of these artifacts would be really cool to create a miniature forest of these objects.

    • Indeed! That is one part of my engineering minded thought that I could not eliminate, because I felt the best way to avoid creative block in my case was to simply bypass that step altogether and go straight to building something. It was also a liberating experience to me. I will definitely keep hunting for more objects to make Bonsai trees!

  • I was immediately hooked into your presentation when you mentioned that batman inspired your bonsai tree. I love quirky juxtaposition. The project is full of mixed media from wood and metal which reflects the eccentric inspiration. It’s cool that you found the activity meditative and relaxing enough to make more than one iteration.

    • Being a comic-book nerd, I feel everything eventually boils down to Batman! Thank you for the comment! I was hoping someone would catch my love for anime and comics that i sneaked into the presentation.
      I really enjoyed making the ‘tree’ because it does indeed put you in a meditative state much like maintaining a real Bonsai tree!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.