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April 18, 2014

Museum of Arts and Design exhibit explores digital fabrication

One of the most fascinating shows in New York this season shows how artists, designers and architects are using digital fabrication to create undreamed of expressions in materials ranging from plastic and paper to bronze. In a recent email exchange and follow-up telephone interview, Museum of Arts and Design curator Ron Labaco expanded on the ideas he set out to explore in the exhibit “Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital.”

One of the most fascinating shows in New York this season shows how artists, designers and architects are using digital fabrication to create undreamed of expressions in materials ranging from plastic and paper to bronze.

“Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital,” on view at the Museum of Arts and Design through June 1, is a wondrous gathering of objects, including a diamond and sapphire necklace based on fractals, a couch that embodies the designer’s brainwave pattern, and a monumental outdoor sculpture by Kansas City native Michael Rees, whose sculptures created with a computer-assisted design program and rapid prototyping were featured in a one-person show at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in the late 1990s.

Kansas City has been tracking this trend. The exhibit also features Roxy Paine’s Scumaks, shown at Grand Arts in 2001 and at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in 2011.

In a recent email exchange and follow-up telephone interview, Museum of Arts and Design curator Ron Labaco expanded on the ideas he set out to explore in the “Out of Hand” exhibit.

What do you mean by digital fabrication?

It’s computer-assisted manufacturing. There are three main methods: 3-D printing, CNC (computer-numerically-controlled) machining, and digital knitting and weaving.

In 3-D printing, an object is made by a machine that builds up layers of material, much like coil-building a clay pot. They can 3-D print in plastics, paper, sandstone, stainless steel and other materials. They can also 3-D print a form in wax and then cast it in bronze, silver and gold.

In CNC machining, material is removed from a solid block or sheet. It’s akin to traditional stone carving or wood lathing, except robotic arms with tools such as drills, saws or lasers remove the material in a very precise manner.

Digital knitting and weaving is self-explanatory. What all the objects created in these different ways share is that they originated as a digital model in the computer, much like a hologram.

How long has this trend been going on?

The exhibition examines digital fabrication from 2005 to the present. Before that, 3-D printing was still largely known as “rapid prototyping,” but then a distinct shift occurred in the application of the technology to art, design and architecture.

Who are some of the pioneers?

French designer Patrick Jouin created the first 3-D printed full-scale piece of furniture for use in 2005. Other pioneers include Finnish designer Janne Kyttanen and Dutch designer Marcel Wanders.

One of the early adherents of CNC laser-cutting is Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, who created his full-scale “Gothic” series of industrial machinery such as dump trucks and tractor trailers in Corten Steel embellished with lace-like, CNC laser-cut gothic architecture and design elements. There’s one in the show.

What moved you to do a show on this topic?

In 2010 I was asked to help organize an exhibition on Patrick Jouin for MAD that incorporated his 3-D printed collection of furniture. It became very clear, as the show progressed, that the technology daunted many of our visitors. We decided to do a more inclusive exhibition on the subject of computer-assisted fabrication.

How is digital fabrication being used in furniture design and production?

We have a chair by the U.K.-based Australian designer Marc Newson made of layers of nickel trained over a nylon 3-D-printed frame based on how spheres are randomly packed into a volume. The form of the chair resembles a cube of soap bubbles.

Ron Arad is one of the pioneers of digital fabrication. His “Oh Void 1” chair was created from sheets of acrylic laminated together to form a solid block, which was then CNC milled and hand-polished to achieve the distinctive pierced, ovoid form.

I love the felt couch that looks like a landscape. How was it designed?

That is also one of my favorites. The “Brainwave Sofa” by the Belgian design team Unfold and Dutch designer Lucas Maassen is the three-dimensional realization in CNC laser-cut foam of Maassen’s brainwave pattern while thinking of the term “comfort.”

The “Brainwave Sofa” is also a tongue-in-cheek reference to a future in which the designer only needs to think about an object that is then magically transformed into reality. If you think about it, the Barbara Eden character in “I Dream of Jeannie” could have been a designer from the future.

Could you expand on how these new technologies are also transforming architecture?

Several designers in the show were inspired by natural processes such as the growth of bone. The show includes an armchair, a vehicle and a pair of shoes, but U.K.-based Softkill Design took the idea to an architectural level in their “Protohouse” model.

Unlike the other architectural projects that are exploring the idea of creating a load-bearing shell out of 3-D printed extruded cement, “Protohouse” proposes the production of the home in small sections made from thin strands of 3-D-printed nylon that support weight by the sheer density of the material. The sections are assembled together like a kit.

The concept also proposes 3-D-printed waterproof material to line the interior living spaces so that water naturally sheds around these rooms when it rains. I love this piece.

How is digital fabrication being used in fashion? The exhibit includes knitted garments and even shoes...

Swedish fashion designer Sandra Backlund’s hand-crocheted couture tested the limitations of the Maglificio Miles knitwear manufacturer when she brought her complex, hand-knitted samples for reproduction, but they were able to find a middle ground which expanded the company’s traditional capabilities and captured Backlund’s signature style.

Japanese fashion designer Tamae Hirokawa uses whole garment knitting machines to make her formfitting body suits. She considers the patterns as tattoos, and embellishes her designs with Swarovski crystals or metallic paint for high-profile clients such as Lady Gaga, Madonna, and their dancers. The seamless technology means less binding at the joints and the material stretches multi-directionally, attractive features for performers whose choreography demands a wide range of motion.

And yes, there are shoes. The 3D printed, skeletal “Melonia” high-heels by Sweden-based Naim Josefi are made of nylon in one-piece, so for a proper fit you just send a scan of your feet so that they can be custom-printed.

One of the most striking works in the show is that diamond and sapphire necklace by Marc Newson. The design is based on fractals?

Yes, fractals are mathematical formulae that describe complex repeating geometric forms in 3-dimensional space. Fractals also exhibit the feature of self-similarity in which the smallest element is identical to the whole. Newson’s necklace, comprised of 2000 diamonds and sapphires, is based on a still image from colorful computer-generated animations of fractals. A close examination of the setting shows that the smaller whorls of precious gemstones are similar to the overall necklace design.

I was also intrigued by Daan van den Berg’s version of an Ikea lamp infected with the Elephantiasis virus.

This playful project arose from a fantasy that van den Berg entertained of hacking into Ikea’s database and infecting the digital files with a virus so that each subsequent design becomes more and more deformed.

The lamps are called “Merrick” after Joseph Merrick, who was better known as the Elephant Man. The mutant lamp forms were derived through an algorithm that generated a different design for each new 3-D print.

Since van den Berg used a scan of an actual Ikea lamp as the original model, this project could also be considered an example of design “hacking.” A few years back there was even a trend called “Ikea hacking.”

Could you talk about Michael Rees’ contribution?

Michael Rees has two works in the exhibition including an outdoor sculpture. I was first attracted to Rees’ figural “Converge: Ghraib Bag” as an outdoor installation, to extend the museum’s footprint beyond our gallery walls. This monumental piece towers at 17 feet tall and is a significant presence on Broadway, adjacent to the museum.

The work is representative of investigations into morphed human figuration and fantastical hybrid monsters or grotesques that arose in the early 2000s. Furthermore, the form is derived from a still image of digital animations created by Rees, which feature a multi-limbed, headless figure fighting against itself. A QR tag on the base of the sculpture provides access to the animation using one’s smart phone. The multiple fragmented figures are a primal investigation into the various consciences that inhabit the same body, or inherent aspirations that shroud the human condition. By contrast, “Intervening Phenonmena,” Rees’ collaboration with Robert Gero, is an intellectual endeavor using Play theory and Systems theory. The interaction between the two artists serves as the priority.

Do you have any predictions for where this all is going?

The technologies are progressing very rapidly, so the future will be very exciting. I am particularly interested in the application of biotechnology to digital fabrication, in which nature and natural processes can be harnessed for greater creative expression, as well as address ecological concerns.

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