Audrey Large was never too keen on making things by hand. As a master’s candidate at the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands in 2017, she and the other students were pushed into metal or wood workshops, but her preferred method was to create designs on a computer. The catch was how to turn these digital drawings into physical objects; 3-D printing bridged the gap. Instead of meticulously tufting a rug or molding a porcelain jar as she’d tried to do in the past, Large found she could simply hit “print” for her virtual object to become reality. But the technology didn’t impress her much at first. “I felt it was kind of ugly,” she says of the outcomes. “Never as seducing as the shapes I had in my computer.”
Even so, the promise of circumventing the artisanal aspect of the creation process was too great, so she kept at it. Trial and error became an important part of her work: Large would intentionally run designs through the printer that were structurally unsound to test the device’s limits. When she got stuck, she consulted YouTube and online forums. The final bowls and vases she developed look like they’ve been ripped straight from the colorful digital realms of Tron or Ready Player One. “There’s no painting, there’s no coating on the object,” she says. “I like that it’s coming out of the computer, out of the machine. I take it out and I don’t touch it so that it’s closest to the file.”
In recent years, 3-D printing, perhaps dismissed as just a method for creating prototypes or a way for college kids to make plastic tchotchkes for their friends, has been adopted by a slew of serious designers. They’ve used the machines to produce chairs, tables, vases and even whole wall panels, cementing their spot in a niche-but-growing manufacturing space that shipped 2.1 million printers in 2020. It’s a quantum leap forward from when 3-D printers were invented in the mid-’80s, yet the technology is still raw. Despite that, the industry was celebrated last year during the early days of the pandemic, when a group of architects from all over the world used their printers to churn out thousands of face shields for front-line healthcare workers.
The most interesting work, though, is happening at the opposite end of the spectrum from such mass production, by designers who value the machine as a tool that’s capable of forging incredibly complex designs, some that would be otherwise impossible to realize. The apex of this movement is in Europe, particularly Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands, where a rich history of furniture design relied heavily on the handmade. A 3-D printer offers a fresh take on these practices, or, for some, a way to rebel against them.
Spanish firm Nagami makes a point of only creating furniture that takes full advantage of 3-D printing’s unique capabilities. Like Large, cofounder Manuel Jiménez García began experimenting with digital fabrication while studying for his master’s degree at the Architectural Association in London, before moving on to large-scale 3-D printing. But this was 2009, and there was much less research on the subject. “We were trying to get the concept of 3-D printing that you’re probably used to, which is encapsulated into a desktop-sized box, and take it out of that box and build larger pieces,” he says. Eventually, he bought a bigger machine: an eight-foot-tall robotic arm from fabricator ABB that’s often used in automotive manufacturing. The new tech allowed Nagami to make complex furniture on a grander scale, including the Voxel chair, a seat with an intricate structure that, at first glance, resembles the chaos of tangled computer wires. It was a proof of concept, demonstrating that a design sketched on a computer and manufactured by robots can be even more remarkable than one patiently drawn by human hand.
It’s a much faster process too. Voxel can be 3-D-printed in a few days using just one continuous line of plastic filament that’s about 1.5 miles long. “It’s literally depositing material particle by particle,” says Jiménez. “That’s something that by hand you couldn’t do, or else you would need to be the most special person on planet Earth.” Nagami’s ambitions have attracted big-name collaborators like Zaha Hadid Architects. The late architect’s namesake firm drew upon Jiménez’s expertise and hardware to create the Rise chair. The piece features a seamless blue-to-light-green color gradient, which, like the inner workings of Voxel, is easy to input into a computer but very difficult to execute manually.
That’s not to say that printing designers want to do away with made-by-hand craftsmanship entirely. Many, like Mathias Bengtsson, consider the tech to be just the first step in a long, fastidious process. “I don’t want to do 3-D printing for the sake of it,” says the Dane, who’s best known for the Spun chaise lounge, which resembles a giant Slinky and is in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. “I want to take it far away from the 3-D printing, and I need to know there’s always hands on it before and after the process, stuff being cast or hand-polished or sanded by craftsmen, artisans. Maybe it’s a reflection that I’m of the generation that was born just before the computers came out, so I’m trained to do everything by hand.”
He’s not kidding. Bengtsson couldn’t afford a 3-D printer when he was a student in the late ’90s. Instead, he made a tracing tool to outline shapes on pieces of cardboard, cut them out and stacked them in homage to the S-shaped Panton chair, an iconic modernist design. His DIY construction emulated 3-D printers’ method of adding one layer of filament—usually plastic—on top of the other. Nowadays Bengtsson’s process is a bit more sophisticated. His Cellular chair is 3-D-printed as one big piece of porous epoxy resin; one version is then cast in bronze. Like many of his designs, Cellular, which resembles a metallic hunk of volcanic rock, is one that’s possible only by marrying new technology with old philosophies and techniques: The printer creates the complex pattern, and the artisan gives it a carefully applied finish. Bengtsson’s Growth series takes a similar approach. The twisty, vine-like silhouettes of each chair and table are based on an artificial-intelligence computer program that simulates a seed taking root and growing into a mature plant. The stem’s digitized pattern is then 3-D-printed and cast in different metals, giving the finished product a distinctly organic look; one could easily be forgiven for mistaking the shiny seat for a sculpture. “When there’s a dialogue with the machine, the machine also leaves a little bit of a fingerprint,” he says. “I’m not looking for perfection.”
Bengtsson isn’t the only one combining 3-D printing with AI systems. Synthesis, a design firm in New York, created a program that can generate tens of thousands of different wall-panel patterns, from rigidly geometric versions to ones that look like sound waves. Clients can choose their favorite iterations from a video of the wide-ranging selection. “Each exploration is lifetimes of a designer’s time. That’s not an exaggeration,” says John Meyer, Synthesis’s founder. “I mean, we spent years on the first patterns of these panels. Every vacation I went on, every street I walked down, I did pattern study and exploration. It took me years to come up with 10 to 15 really nice patterns that people tend to like.” Almost all of Synthesis’s wall panels are 3-D-printed in plastic. The firm’s expertise with the technology extends to furnishings, including the cantilevered Karv table and the spherical Santorini fire pit, which can also be made in concrete. All can be customized and cast in various colors.
These sorts of tweaks are easy with 3-D printing, but one aspect that remains difficult—and to some degree unexplored—is the use of different materials. Many still associate the medium with plastic, but a handful of artisans are slowly chipping away at that mold. “I was a bit disappointed because I came from an art school, from design school,” says Dutch designer Olivier van Herpt of his first impressions of 3-D printing. “The physical value of what came out, you were just waiting hours and hours and still ending up with a plastic piece.” Instead, he wanted to print with clay. It took van Herpt about eight years to build his own custom printer that could produce ceramic vessels. His invention can even be paused in the middle of printing, allowing him to shape aspects of the clay by hand before it’s complete. An interesting confluence of man and machine, sure, but why not just throw some vessels on a pottery wheel as ceramists have done for millennia?
As with Jiménez, for van Herpt it has to do with 3-D printing’s specialized capabilities. The technology is very precise, so it can perfectly render extremely detailed patterns, such as the tiny ridges of his new limited-edition white porcelain vase. He also used the printer to put a fresh spin on delftware, the traditional Dutch school of ceramics with a striking blue-and-white color palette. Van Herpt added cobalt oxide to white clay and then loaded it into the printer; the resulting vases have a gradient that’s achievable only via the combination of bespoke machinery and hands-on craftsmanship.
A more common (and perhaps less time-consuming) medium of experimentation is wood, which has recently been championed by Yves Béhar, a versatile designer whose extensive résumé includes the ever-popular Sayl office chair and PayPal’s no-frills logo. His Vine series of a bowl, a basket, a tray and a vase is manufactured with a composite made of cast-off lumber. Béhar completed the digital sketches and started producing the pieces in about four weeks, a testament to the breakneck speed at which digital manufacturing can operate. But one of the biggest perks of Vine is environmental. “Every particle that I’ve used or that falls off the printer can be built with again,” he says. “So there’s literally no waste.”
In fact, 3-D printing has long been heralded as a cleaner, greener means of production. It’s sometimes referred to as “additive manufacturing” because it adds material in order to create a final product, so you pretty much use what you need. In theory, it’s a less wasteful alternative to traditional, more subtractive methods, which instead take one big piece of wood, say, and cut away the excess. But 3-D printing isn’t quite as pure as has been made out. Polylactic acid (PLA) is the industry’s bioplastic of choice and is considered an eco-friendlier alternative because it’s usually made of corn starch rather than petroleum. But “eco-friendlier” is a relative term. “There are some real concerns about PLA,” says Sherry Handel, executive director of the Additive Manufacturer Green Trade Association. “It’s great in a lot of ways, because it’s plant-based and because it biodegrades. But it has to be decomposed under high temperatures—not in a landfill, but in an industrial compost situation.” There’s also an issue of supply chain. PLA will contaminate other plastics during the recycling process, so it can’t just be thrown into the trash with water bottles and yogurt cups. Instead, it has to be sent separately to specialized waste-management facilities, which are in much shorter supply. In summary, better than a single-use plastic, but not great.
Issues with waste are compounded by the fact that 3-D-printed furniture can be perfected only by ongoing experimentation. Failed builds are a necessary part of the development process, as they allow designers to test the limits of what the machine can achieve. “It was years of it not coming out the way we were hoping,” says Meyer. “As I like to say, it’s trial and error, mostly error. That’s what got us here.” Synthesis uses PLA and is careful to separate the castoffs from run-of-the-mill plastics so they can be recycled properly, as do others, but not everyone is so conscientious. Another solution is to break down plastic waste on-site and incorporate it into new designs, a process that’s extremely time-consuming. “People have to buy an additional machine, and then you have to do the quality control because you’ve got to know if you’re going to be able to use the materials,” says Handel. “It’s another extra step. A lot of companies just want to focus on what they’re doing. You want someone else to deal with that part.” In 2019, Filamentive, a PLA manufacturer based in the UK, estimated that 10 percent of 3-D prints made in the UK end up in the rubbish heap. Considering the number of machines and their output, about 615,000 pounds of plastic were wasted. The company said the figure for 2021 could be as high as 3.3 million pounds. And that’s in just one small corner of the world.
These issues stand a good chance of being solved as artisans continue to experiment with the burgeoning technology. And 3-D printing also has the potential to help achieve another environmental goal: reducing the carbon footprint associated with long-haul shipping. Proponents hope that, as more printing labs pop up around the world, designers will simply email files to faraway facilities to be manufactured. That way, oversized chairs and sofas could be created locally, not shipped on freighters overseas or driven for miles cross-country.
Such ambitions, like many problems and limitations in the 3-D-printing space, depend entirely on research and innovation. It’s an imperfect system, at least for now, but for its devotees, there’s little alternative—3-D printing is the future. “Design has to be mind-blowing,” says Jiménez. “Otherwise it’s not worth it.”