Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello are your classic early adopters. Their office in West Oakland, California, is home to several 3D printers and the objects they have spawned – from flower-shaped nylon rings to Seat Slug, a serpentine cement bench inspired both by a species of sea slug called Flabellina goddardi and the infinite tessellations of Japanese karakusa patterns. (It was also spontaneously strength-tested at an exhibition by the vigorous stomps of a flamenco dancer.)
“We were educated at the birth of digital design,” explains Rael, 43, an associate professor in architecture at UC Berkeley, who met his wife and business partner when they were students at the Columbia University school of architecture. “Ours was the first paperless studio, and we were playing with these new tools when it was difficult, expensive, and utterly dismissed by most people.” Echoes San Fratello, 44, an associate professor of interior design at San Jose State, “It’s true; we were ridiculed. Until we graduated – and suddenly there was a need for teachers who actually knew how to talk to these machines.”
Even as they started out pursuing more traditional approaches to architecture, Rael and San Fratello were intrigued by the potential of 3D printing. In his 2008 book Earth Architecture, Rael explores how one of the world’s oldest building materials (dirt, roughly speaking) is used in the modern era and ends with a glimpse into the digital future – in which traditional materials, such as clay, collude with 3D technologies to create a radically new (and affordable) approach to building.
Rael and San Fratello’s research into hands-on applications of the new technology was jump-started by a $10,000 grant from the 2010 Biennial of the Americas, the international festival of ideas, art, and culture in Denver, for which they designed and printed hundreds of objects out of sand. Today, their fledgling company, Emerging Objects, christened in 2013, continues to parse and push the possibilities of what is printable.
Lining shelves and covering tables are lamps, bowls, tiles, vessels, screens, and building blocks rendered from such stalwarts as clay, cement, wood, nylon, and acrylic, as well as more whimsical materials such as chocolate. Many of the smaller, more decorative pieces serve as studies for larger iterations – a ceramic planter block can be stacked to create a living wall; a table lamp (Starlight Mini) is the seed for a Brobdingnagian version (Starlight Mega), part of a project for MakerBot that demonstrates the role of 3D printers in producing large-scale objects; and an igloo printed out of locally harvested salt (Saltygloo) is the basis for an almost entirely printed house. (The pair are looking for someone who would like to build it.)
“We figured if we can produce a bench, we are well on the way to larger, more meaningful structures,” says Rael. “We can’t replace everything, but we can print a lot – such as walls, screens, and entire rooms that can potentially drop into existing building systems.”
So far, few companies other than biomedical and aerospace firms use 3D printing in this way. “It’s still mostly prototyping,” says Rael, explaining why Emerging Objects is sought out for collaborations by companies such as the Siam Cement Group, which wanted to demonstrate the structural and aesthetic attributes of their material. Rael and San Fratello responded with Big Bloom, a 9-foot-high, 12-by-12-foot freestanding pavilion composed of 840 3D-printed blocks whose façade incorporates a botanical motif derived from traditional Thai flower patterns. As Rael and San Fratello explain, the undulating, Aalto-like form recalls both an elephant’s foot and the decorated mud houses of the Tiebélé people in West Africa.
Multiple cultural associations are a hallmark of their work. Invited to participate in the 2015 Fusebox Festival’s Edible Materials Lab in Austin, Texas, the pair printed visual puns: sugar spoons made of sugar, salt cellars made of salt, coffee cups made of coffee, a teapot and cups made of tea, and so forth. Not merely whimsical, the tabletop still life also alludes to the materials of colonialism that have proven so disruptive to global and local commerce. “Our work often pushes into the political, even if gently,” says San Fratello.
Aesthetically, their collection of vessels and other decorative objects also highlights how our perceptions are informed by process and provenance. If an organic-looking piece such as Burl – a tactile vessel with swirling undulations printed out of recycled wood – had been carved by hand, might we consider it differently? Would it become inherently more precious? Burl was one of two pieces designed for a 2012 show at MIT, “Objects by Architects,” but it didn’t feel of a piece with the other, sleeker entrants. The curator opted for the couple’s Haeckel Bowl, whose shape and pattern is based on the 19th-century biologist Ernst Haeckel’s illustrations of natural forms.
This blurring of borders between centuries, cultures, and disciplines is part of what makes Emerging Objects’ approach so intriguing. At once familiar and startlingly new, it’s a vision of the future that doesn’t eschew the beauty and mystery of the past.
A frequent contributor to American Craft, Deborah Bishop is a writer and editor in San Francisco.