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 colourful 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, 3D printing, perhaps dismissed as just a method for creating prototypes or a way for college kids to make plastic trinkets 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 3D printers were invented in the mid-1980s, 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 frontline 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 realise. 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 3D 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 3D printing’s unique capabilities. Like Large, co-founder Manuel Jiménez García began experimenting with digital fabrication while studying for his master’s at the Architectural Association in London, before moving on to largescale 3D printing. But this was 2009 and there was much less research on the subject. “We were trying to get the concept of 3D 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: a 2.4m-tall robotic arm from fabricator ABB that’s often used in automotive manufacturing. The new technology 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 3D-printed in a few days using just one continuous line of plastic filament that’s about 2.4km 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 colour gradient, which, like the inner workings of Voxel, is easy to input into a computer but very difficult to execute manually.
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