How 3D printing came of design age

Two hundred and four bodies writhe and tumble around a luminescent axis in Luc Merx’s chandelier “Fall of the Damned”, inspired by Peter Paul Rubens’ painting of 1620. Nude, twisted and paralysed by fear, the falling figures render the light visually discomfiting. Its dizzying composition of overhangs and under-cuttings depends on their interconnecting limbs to hold it all together. Yet the most arresting thing of all about the structure is the fact that it was formed from a single sheet of polyamide nylon.

When Merx’s chandelier was unveiled in 2006, it epitomised the potential of 3D printed design. In 2009, Dutch designer Bram Geenen launched his “Gaudi Stool”, 3D printed in glass fibre-infused nylon and modelled on hanging chains. In 2013 came “Animal Lace”, a series of animal-head lamps modelled digitally to create the impression of lacework, printed in polyamide nylon by French designers Linlin and Pierre-Yves Jacques. Last year, the Design Computation Lab of the Bartlett School of Architecture in London constructed its “Voxel Chair” from a continuous 2.36km line of molten blue plastic.

Despite the flurry of experimentation over the past decade, 3D printing is not a new technology. The computer-aided design software it relies on can be traced back to the late 1950s, and the first printer to 1980, when Hideo Kodama of the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute in Japan applied for a patent for his “rapid prototyping system”. Kodama defined his process as one in which “a solid model is fabricated by exposing liquid photo-hardening polymer to ultraviolet rays, and stacking the . . . solidified layers.” His patent was ultimately rejected but Kodama’s ideas resonated with later engineers. Over the course of the 1980s, Charles Hull, Carl Deckard and Scott Crump developed the three main technologies of 3D printing: stereolithography (SLA), selective laser sintering (SLS), and fused deposition modelling (FDM), respectively. SLA, SLS and FDM printers are still in use today.

‘Fall of the Damned’ chandelier by Luc Merx

For ambitious designers, the main advantage of 3D printing has been the ability to execute complex designs at the same cost as simple ones. Subsequent tweaks to a design are a liberatingly low-risk matter of coding. It is also a single-step manufacturing process free of tools and moulds. Once the design has been digitally modelled, the object is printed all at once.

And even though its most common medium is plastic, 3D printing is surprisingly eco-friendly. Objects are printed using a precisely calculated amount of material, generating little waste. At the end of last year, Dutch designers Maartje Dros and Eric Klarenbeek, working with the Luma Foundation in Arles, went one step further by developing a bioplastic for 3D printing. Their polymer is based on algae, which is such a powerful weapon against CO2 that the production process could be carbon negative. It’s the latest development from Klarenbeek and Dros, who have previously made biopolymers from potato starch, mycelium and cocoa bean shells. Awareness of the environmental damagefrom oil-based plastic waste is at an all-time high and, if carelessly disposed of, bioplastics can also cause damage, albeit for a shorter time. But bioplastics can be melted down and recycled into other products, and Klarenbeek and Dros believe these materials could replace synthetic plastics entirely. The process itself sets a challenge for interior designers and artists. In 1936, art critic Herbert Read noted “the real problem is not to adapt machine production to the aesthetics of handicraft, but to think out new aesthetic standards for new methods of production”. At the time he was defending industrial design, yet he anticipated designers’ response to 3D-printing technology 70 years later.

Since 2000, London-based 3D printing service Materialise has worked with more than 300 design studios and artists, including Luc Merx, to explore new forms made possible by 3D. Merx wanted his “Fall of the Damned” chandelier to capture the technology’s capacity for thought-provoking design. “The chandelier uses the virtuosity of the technique without being an illustration of it [or] . . . a simple show case model,” he says. “The observer should be overwhelmed by the chandelier. First impressed, then wondering how this could possibly be done.”

Clockwise from top left: ‘Venturi’ stool by Assa Ashuach, £3,000,; ‘Luminaire Drop’ by Linlin and Pierre-Yves Jacques, €299,; ‘Stem 45°’ chair by Assa Ashuach, £2,000 to £4,500 depending on finish,; Digital Natives’ bottle by Matthew Plummer-Fernandez; ‘Shards’ vase by Michael Eden; Beehive starter by Esme Hebditch, made by 3D People; ‘Digital Natives’ watering can by Matthew Plummer-Fernandez

British product designer Ross Lovegrove, known for his fluid, experimental work, has also worked with Materialise and shares Merx’s motives. Lovegrove looks “to visualise amazing things with almost unlimited form” through 3D printing, using technology to reach new creative and aesthetic heights. He wishes his observers “to see that I am looking at this from a new intellectual position”.

In 2017, artist studio L+S was commissioned to create a piece for Ullerntunet, a dementia treatment centre and nursing home in Oslo. L+S began by 3D scanning a four-metre-tall tree that stood outside the building’s entrance. The resulting digital model was printed in parts on one of Materialise’s “Mammoth Stereolithography” printers and hand assembled. Once assembled, plaster moulds were made of the 3D printed structure and filled with molten bronze, which was left to cool. Finally, the plaster shell was broken open to uncover the finished bronze tree. Placed directly in front of its natural prototype, “Bronze Tree” imitates nature while simultaneously differing from the ageing tree behind it. Sven Hermans, lead development manager at Materialise, says the piece “plays with the idea of memory”.

Where 3D printing does not compete with traditional methods is in its cost (often more) and, depending on the materials used, physical strength (less). Mark McKenna, design director at furniture maker Steelcase, says “a conventional mass-production business model is not suited to the capabilities of 3D printing”. It’s unlikely that 3D printed products will fill the show rooms of bigger retailers any time soon.

‘Elephant’ wall light from ‘Animal Lace’ series by Linlin and Pierre-Yves Jacques, €3,500,
‘1st Floor Mug’ by Adam Nathaniel Furman, £25,

That said, entrepreneurs are trying to commercialise the technology. 3D people is a start-up run by Sasha Bruml and Felix Manley in central London. The operation is simple: customers submit a digital model via email, 3D people prints it. Help with digital modelling can also be arranged. Since launching in 2015, the company has printed models and parts for hundreds of art students, as well as brands including Unilever and Hyundai. For Bruml, the appeal of 3D printing lies in its “potential for mass customisation”.

Also in London is iMakr, a 3D printing store opened in 2014. It now has a sister store in Manhattan and plans to open 20 franchise stores across the world this year. Like 3D people, iMakr offers digital modelling and 3D printing on-demand, with the addition of 3D scanning. Looking like any other shop on the high street, iMakr encourages people to come in and indulge their curiosity.

Nikoleta Michaldomitraki, London store manager, sees 3D printing as “a tool that can lead us to better products”. Like Bruml, she welcomes the “freedom of creation and materialisation” it offers.

Tableware made from the biopolymer ‘Algae Glass’ by Studio Klarenbeek & Dros, made at the Luma Foundation, Arles © Antoine Raab/Courtesy Luma Foundation
Making bioplastic from algae © Antoine Raab/Courtesy Luma Foundation

Objects made with 3D printing might never usurp our paintings, solid furniture or favourite fabrics. Yet the process is inspiring designers to create work that can sit alongside the finest traditionally produced pieces, in a phase of design where the technology itself has a conspicuous presence in the final image.

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