By 2006, Joris Laarman had finished graduate school at the Design Academy Eindhoven and was stewing on what would be his next big project. He had recently seen a documentary about an eccentric German professor, Claus Mattheck, who had created a novel design software program. First Mattheck would load a 3D rendering of a machine part into the program, which then stress-tested the part in virtual space. This wasn’t new. But Mattheck’s program would then automatically redesign the interior of the part, adding and subtracting material as needed to yield a piece optimized for weight and performance. That internal structure–a delicate lattice of spindly support columns–looked every bit like what had inspired it: the inside of a bone. Mattheck’s algorithms were borrowed from nature. Laarman imagined making a chair using that same program, only the chair wouldn’t hide its delicate, organic structure on the inside. It would show it off, as both a functional and decorative element. Thus was born the Bone Chair, which has become perhaps the most iconic work of the digital-design era.
“The chair itself might appear to have a formal language like art nouveau,” points out Andrea Lipps, curator of Joris Laarman Lab’s first major survey, opening this week at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. “But art nouveau used nature as inspiration where as the Bone Chair actually used nature’s principles. And even in 2006, it spoke to AI and allowing the computer to become the form giver.” Eleven years since the Bone Chair was created, Laarman has gone on to create a sprawling body of work that has stretched the limits of 3D fabrication–everything from a table whose support structure was borrowed from the veins of a leaf, to a footbridge soon be printed directly in steel.
The works are gorgeous to behold in person. But at this point, you have to wonder whether digital design has anything left to prove. Given all the wild structures that Laarman has created, we already know that 3D printing can produce anything you like. It’s that very lack of limitation has become the aesthetic hallmark of digital design. Laarman disagrees. “There’s been lots of talk about 3D printing but it’s hard to find things that are actually made that way. They’re still made the industrial way,” he told me. “Making things digitally is still in its infancy.” That’s why Laarman spun off part of his studio as MX3D, which seeks to market a large-scale 3D printer that Laarman helped invent. It’s the only machine of its kind that can print in molten steel. Using commonly available robotic welding arms and software that the company has developed itself, it can now print pieces about as large as a garage door.
He concedes that these applications won’t be everywhere–they might be limited to specialty applications such as ship rotors or giant off-shore oil rigs, where weight optimization in a single part can save millions of dollars. But, he says, “After the hype there’s still an enormous world to win.” Put another way, Laarman thinks that this survey of 14 years of work isn’t a wake, but a quinceañera. As Lipps says, “The biggest constraint on 3D printing is the scale of the printer, and MX3D is blowing that apart.” One of the products of that printer is on display in the show: The Gradient screen, which was a proof of concept for a piece of the footbridge that will be printed next.
There’s way too much 3D-printed work out there that’s the equivalent of a guitar solo–an orgiastic display of virtuosity that no one asked for. What makes Laarman’s works expressive but not ridiculous is his reliance on self-imposed constraints. That rigor was influenced by Laarman’s time at the Design Academy Eindhoven, and his tutelage under the great Gijs Bakker, cofounder of Droog Design. The mid-2000s were marked by a peak in Dutch dominance of the design scene, when Marcel Wanders was on magazine covers and every design fair was filled with work from the latest Dutch grad students. Much of that work hasn’t aged well. (Marcel Wanders, anyone?) What gets lost was how Bakker and others emphasized conceptual rigor above all else.
Laarman found his voice with the Heatwave radiator he designed for his thesis project. The radiator has a wildly ornate rococo form, made of curling tendrils like the decorative work in an over-the-top castle from the 1700s. But the Heatwave’s form actually serves to increase the radiator’s surface area—thus making it transmit heat even quicker. Every since then, Laarman says, “I make things look very expressive and organic, but there is always a logic behind why it looks like it does. It could be some functional reason or some technical reason, but there’s always a reason.”
When I pointed out that the bumper crop of designers experimenting with 3D printing seems to have faded away, leaving only him standing, he laughed. I asked Laarman whether, when people saw his work, they thought first about the expressiveness or the technology–whether the means of the design really had become secondary to his vision as a designer. He pointed out that his work will probably look far different in a few decades. “These pieces are a visual illustration of a time period,” Laarman said. “If I look at a chair designed in the 1930s by Gerrit Rietveld, I can see that he’s trying to create something industrial but it’s still handmade, and that’s the most fascinating part of it. To see someone’s dream is much nicer than the perfect industrial object.”