On a warm afternoon recently, a group of visiting designers were trying to figure out the best way to package a hammer. One hundred hammers, actually. The task, aptly named “100 Hammers,” was to be one of several community-based artworks conceived and produced by the group during a two-week residency in Belfast as part of a program called Project M.

It wasn’t what they had originally planned to do, but the group — primed with the Project M mantra, “think wrong” — had come to Belfast expecting to conceive and execute their work in a very compressed timeframe, based on what they were able to glean from the community. Past sessions of Project M had managed to be both fun and meaningful, often relying on an element of surprise.

This year, the surprise was on the designers, and though they attempted to make lemonade from the proverbial lemons, it wasn’t really fun.

Belfast-based graphic designer John Bielenberg started Project M around 10 years ago after hearing a lecture by the architect and social and environmental crusader Samuel Mockbee. The talk was inspiring and left Bielenberg wondering, as he recalled, “Why isn’t there a program like this for other kinds of design?”

Today Project M has a base in Greensboro, Ala., the same county as Mockbee’s Rural Studio. Young designers have been coming to Belfast once a year since 2003 to participate in what is known as Project M North. Here they’ve taken on the challenge of getting to know each other and their host community well enough to make art that is relevant, all within the super-compressed timeframe of two weeks.

Last year’s group crashed a normally quiet part of Upper Main Street with a van full of pies and good cheer. Slices of pie were served out to passersby who were caught unaware but not unappreciative by the sudden appearance of dessert. The idea of strengthening community ties by inviting strangers to linger together over pie was inspiring enough that a permanent version, dubbed “Pie Lab” was subsequently set up in an abandoned pool hall in Greensboro, Ala. In April, the James Beard Foundation named Pie Lab one of three finalists for its outstanding restaurant design honors.

The 2010 participants arrived May 3 and within days made a splash appearance at the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce’s Good Life Fest, where they gave impromptu haircuts to attendees — stuffing the hair into panty hose to make “hair booms” that could be strung together to encircle and sop up oil in the Gulf of Mexico — and performed a bit of political theater featuring a British Petroleum executive standing symbolically in a kiddie pool filled with black ink, surrounded by red tape.

To supplement the hair collected at the Good Life Fest, the group took up collections at hair salons, pet groomers and at least one local farm. The whole package – oil spill awareness, hair, theater – was allegedly captured on the Web site, StuffitBP.com, though the site was offline when we checked.

Before the last of the hair booms had been packed in boxes to be sent south, the M’ers paid a visit to the converted cannery workshop of Liberty-based artist David McLaughlin. The visit was exploratory — designed to spark the imagination.

Two days later, McLaughlin died unexpectedly.

The designers seized on the occurrence — not opportunistically, but because it became the unavoidable feature of the short time they would spend in Belfast. They quickly decided they wanted to do something in honor and memory of McLaughlin. A statement they had seen posted in his studio seemed to capture what they knew of the artist:

“The act and the thought are the same.”

Some of people thought of it as a negative thing, said Thomas Gaskin of Project M, “like if you think of it you don’t have to do it.” Others, he said, saw the statement as an expression of the unity of thought and action in the creative process — something like what happens, they decided, when you hit a nail with a hammer.

The designers wanted whatever they made to be something that would encourage people to take action. McLaughlin’s own work was about taking action and was heavily informed by traditions of handcraft and tools. The idea they settled upon was to sell 100 hammers, numbered in a series, from 1/100 to 100/100, for $100 apiece. The sales, they originally thought, would benefit Waterfall Arts, where McLaughlin was a member of the board of directors, though the plan later changed.

What they did resolve was that each hammer would be mounted on a white rectangular panel that could serve as a backing in the event that the owner wanted to mount the piece on the wall. The mounting ideally would allow the hammer to be lifted off and used.

Simplicity seemed to be the guiding principle in the presentation, with members trying to strike a balance between functional packaging and handsome presentation. There were references to Apple Computers’ minimalist product packaging and also to the less slick but similarly spare aesthetic of tool sheds, where a hammer might hang between two nails or from a piece of twine.

“It’s just in his mode in a lot of ways, taking tools, taking 100 tools and selling them at a high price to make something well-conceived and beautifully-executed occur,” said Alan Crichton of Waterfall Arts, letting out a chuckle after the mention of selling the tools at a high price, as though imagining what McLaughlin would think.

“Everybody’s feeling so dark about it,” he said. “It’s nice to say, ‘OK, here’s something positive’.”

The group rounded up hammers from Liberty Tool, Captain Tinkers, Treasures and Trash and anywhere else they could find them and made what Bielenberg referred to as “portraits” of the hammers – silhouettes of each hammer on the white panels.

The designers left Belfast on May 16, but plan to continue with the project. Before they left, Bielenberg, who was uneasy with simply selling the hammers as “souvenirs,” challenged the group to develop the idea further.

“[The hammer] wasn’t just to sit there. It was potential material for projects. So we wanted to have these things go out in the world to have a life to them,” he said.

Speaking by phone from San Francisco, Thomas Gaskin described the evolution of the plan. The backing boards with silhouettes of hammers and the hammers themselves were to be installed in a new Project M North office to be opened in Belfast, he said. The hammers could then be checked out either in person or online for a fee — Bielenberg said he thought it would be around $25. The recipient would be asked to put the hammer to use and document the process of making something with it, then send the photos to the designers, who would post them to a common Web site — 100hammers.com.

In six months or a year, Gaskin said, the hammers and the objects they had helped create could potentially be collected for a show and at that point maybe auctioned off to raise money. The proceeds, he said, would go toward funding public art or design projects.

In 2008, Project M set up a permanent design studio in Greensboro, Ala. — referred to as Project M South — and Bielenberg said he plans to make Project M North a permanent fixture in Belfast in the coming year, most likely in one of the studios at Waterfall Arts where three Project M alumni would work locally for a period of one year.