Knockoffs, fakes, and counterfeits are the bane of modern industrial design. They are unauthorized copies of designers’ intellectual property. They are the stolen profits of manufacturers. They are the products of piracy: a phenomenon wrecking an industry’s will to innovate and create “original” and “authentic” design. But to consumers, piracy offers affordable goods, diversity of options, and sometimes, even better design. Piracy isn’t black-and-white like a pirate flag, but a nebulous concept whose edges ebb and flow like the waves of the sea. What’s a copy to some is homage to another, what is original today is tomorrow’s evolution, what is piracy to the industry is competition to society.
How will we recognize piracy and intellectual property in industrial design with the rise of digital fabrication technologies like 3D printing? By democratizing access to the means of production, it will become easier for users to copy, remix, and self-repair objects in ways that traditionally infringe upon a designer’s intellectual property. This calls for a need to redefine what piracy means. In response to the digital revolution, some designers and manufacturers have strengthened protection over their designs via the law and technology, while others are opening up access to them, believing that design is a collaborative process that benefits from a community working on it together. Will the rise of open design see an end to piracy?
This thesis examines more closely the relationships between piracy, intellectual property, and industrial design by studying a variety of case studies and interviews with practitioners. Beyond just a legal and economic issue, piracy is a reflection of society’s assumptions about the design process, who a designer is, and what design is for. Piracy is a ghost that will always haunt the world of design.
A Thesis Submitted to the School of Visual Arts in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts in Design Criticism.
“Welcome to the future” is a sign that greets visitors to the Long Island factory of Shapeways, a 3D printing company.
It could also speak for the hype surrounding the emerging technology of 3D printing today too. Many have touted the ability to produce objects simply by “printing” digital files as nothing short of a Third Industrial Revolution. Traditional mass manufacturing gave birth to consumers by figuring out how to produce the exact same object on an industrial scale, but digital fabrication technologies like 3D printing will empower everyone to become their own designer and manufacturer of things.
Printing Things: Visions and Essentials for 3D Printing is a new book that examines how this technology“will influence our economical, social and cultural ways of life” in the coming years. This 256-page book by German publisher Gestalten is an excellent introduction to the technical workings of 3D printing, the issues surrounding it, and showcases some of the most provocative design projects that have used this technology in recent years.
The book’s editors include, Claire Warnier and Dries Verbruggen, whose experience experimenting with this technology as Antwerp-based design studio Unfold helps this book standout from just a trendy compilation of 3D printing projects.
They have written a comprehensive glossary of terms to explain how 3D printing is really a handy term for a collection of different processes and materials, and also penned eight essay on topics ranging from the technology’s history to the new aesthetics and alternative business models that it is introducing to contemporary design. These set the context for exploring the close to 200-pages of case studies that follow, and the connection between theory and practice is highlighted in each project with the tagging of keywords, such as “#empowerment”, “#wearables” and “#new craftsmanship” (all presented as hashtags as if they were tweets of a digital revolution), that reference back to the essays.
Printing Things presents a more nuanced reading of the technology beyond just a gadget that can print anything you want. For instance, a case study onKevin Spencer’s mini Vitra designer chairs brings out issues of authorship and intellectual property as the Swiss furniture company also sells the same miniature versions of classic designs such as Gerrit Reitveld’s Red Blue Chair and the Eames Lounge Chair, albeit in different materials. Despite what it looks, the chairs are probably legal because copyright does not protect functional objects. But there is also the question of the digital files that Kevin’s chairs are printed from. Who owns the renderings? The book suggests that Kevin’s files were probably created from virtual models freely distributed and used by professionals for their renderings — something which Vitra has previously never objected as they indirectly advertised their furniture. Now that these same files could easily be modified for print, how will things change?
Another aspect of 3D printing is how it allows for new forms of craftsmanship as demonstrated by the featured designs of Olivier van Herpt. The Eindhoven-based designer has created his own printer and techniques to print out ceramics with textures, patterns and details that challenge the self-conscious and amateurish designs that the technology has come to be associated with when it grew out of the domain of hackers and hobbyists.
One comes out of Printing Things with a renewed excitement for 3D printing technology. It is also a measured one. We only have to look to the history of graphic design and the arrival of desktop publishing technologies in the 1980s to recognize a similar buzz in what’s being said about 3D printing today. Desktop printers may have become ubiquitous, but professional graphic design is still going strong. The same will go for 3D printing and product design. But just as how technology changed the way we think and produce graphic design since, this new ability to print things is making us rethink how we create, distribute and use objects in our lives.
———– Written for Elizabeth Spiers and Chappell Elison’s Online Publishing class at D-Crit.
Exhibition Review: Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital
Who would have thought the day would come when your printer could produce a real live gun.
Three-dimensional printers are becoming a staple of many homes, allowing people to print anything from jewelry they can wear to edible ravioli. And as this technology becomes more affordable — some models are already going for under $1,300 — it is only a matter of time before a 3-D printer joins the computer and microwave as just another home appliance.
Now the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City is taking a look at how 3-D printing and other digital fabrication technologies are changing the way artists and designers make. The exhibition, “Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital,” features over 120 works by contemporary artists, architects and designers that were either designed or fabricated using computer-assisted production.
Given the hype that has accompanied such technologies, the collection of objects from 2005 to the present makes the “postdigital” era seem far from groundbreaking, and even familiar. Works such as a white nebulous-looking lamp by Bathsheba Grossman and a red ribbon-shaped rocking chair by Ron Arad will not look out of place at a design retail store. Both were created almost a decade ago and have been available for sale for several years now. It is a reminder that digitally fabricated objects have been in our midst for some time now, and the technology is not so new after all.
Most of the objects assembled across almost three floors of the museum show how the technology has freed artists and designers from the constraints of traditional production techniques. This is playfully suggested in Richard Dupont’s sculpture of himself, whose mirage-like form would take forever to sculpt by hand. The work aptly fronts the exhibition’s publicity materials as an icon of how digital fabrication is re-shaping human life. Another work by Michael Hanseyer demonstrates how intricate digital fabrication can get with a column made from a stack of 2,700 sheets of laser-cut one-millimeter board. However, the work like several others sees the creator give up creative control to the novelty of what digital fabrication offers instead. Rather than create new forms and ways of making, many of the exhibition’s works simply show off how they can outdo current methods of making.
A similar wide-eyed fascination with the effects of digital production can also be said of the works in the show that curator Ron Labaco regards to have been inspired by nature and geometrical forms. Marc Newson created a necklace resembling a galaxy of stars that if one did not know its digital origins would simply be seen as an elaborate piece of jewelry design. Similarly, German designers Wertel Oberfell and Matthias Bär simply visualize the mathematical concept of fractals in the form of a broccoli-like chair with a honeycomb top, a design pattern that will look regardless if you create bigger or smaller versions of it. In both these works, and many others in the exhibition, an aesthetic formula for digital fabrication emerges: a complex mosaic of basic geometric units. Considering the different starting points of the works, the lack of diverse forms reflects both the limitations of current digital fabrication technology and how practitioners are using it.
To be sure, some objects produced by 3-D printers may seem ordinary because we’ve already grown used to them. As the wall text explains, “the amazing digital achievements of the last few decades are now taken for granted.” To judge the works only by their aesthetics is to overlook the time and material savings of making in this way. Compared to using the hand or traditional production, digital fabrication techniques are precise and easily controlled via a computer. But this process is not evident as each work is only tagged with the digital production method they are made in. Visitors unfamiliar with them or the history of production will have no sense of how these techniques democratize the process of making.
A small set of more experimental works, however, offers a more tantalizing glimpse of the potential of the digital process. In objects by Anish Kapoor and Jan Habraken, one begins to see how new technologies offer more than just new aesthetics. Kapoor’s set of sculptures resembling real coral rocks blurs the distinction between the creation of nature and something digitally-made, and one is left to wonder what cannot be designed by man anymore? Habraken uses digital fabrication as a kind of biological womb to “breed” the ideal chair out of existing ones. Digital technology allowed him to single out unique elements of chair designs, which he then easily mixed, matched and modified to create something entirely new. This is similar to the desktop publishing revolution over two decades ago when computers allowed people to design and print whatever graphics they wanted.
This freedom to make things will be the lasting impact of digital fabrication and was evident in the exhibition’s works that people spent the most time with. While some got their hands “dirty” sculpting on a virtual pottery wheel by Unfold and Tim Knapen, others made noises or whistled into François Brument’s installation that digitally generated vases whose shape and size varied depending on the kinds of audio input. These works demonstrated how technology was changing the act of making, but the visitors’ creations — pots and vases that simply differed in shapes and sizes — suggest a lot more work is needed in thinking about the possibilities of making with digital fabrication.
The technology is clearly fascinating people given how the most popular feature of the exhibition is a booth sponsored by Shapeways, a 3-D printing company. Visitors can design their own objects on computers provided, and even line up to get scanned and printed for a miniature 3-D self-portrait. This is an apt ending for one of the first exhibitions on a set of technologies that is becoming increasing common in our everyday lives. What better way to introduce it to the masses than by letting them take home their first digitally fabricated product: an image of themselves?
———– Written for Robin Pogrebin’s Reporting Tools workshop at D-Crit.