I’m typing this essay on a laptop in need of repair. The battery lasts for no more than two hours. The speakers go silent after hours of use. But aside from these defects, the laptop still works as when I first bought it eight years ago.
All of us have something broken in our lives. Tucked away in a drawer. Collecting dust in the storeroom. Or like in the case of my laptop, faulty but still functioning. For various reasons—from the practical to the environmental and sentimental—we have hung on to these damaged goods instead of simply throwing them out.
The industrial machine is a black box between designers and users. It is an imaginary border dividing craft and design. The works of Olivier van Herpt, however, pry apart the machine, expanding this unit for standardised production into a platform for creative exploration.
Tinkering with digital fabrication technologies, the industrial design graduate of the Design Academy Eindhoven constructs methods and means of production that meld together seemingly divergent worlds. A 3D printer that drips, instead of expels, its output, just as how stalagmites naturally form in caves. An open source extruder that anyone can freely use to 3D print objects with the more sustainable material of beeswax. These output by the Dutch designer sit at the intersection of the digital and analogue, as well as design and tools.
By pushing the limits of existing 3D printing technologies, van Herpt has arrived at machines that produce larger forms and work with materials beyond conventional plastics. Out of paraffin and even clay, he has printed collections of objects that soften the precise and indifferent definition of industrial design. Vases seemingly handwoven by the hands of individual artisans, ceramics crafted with random imperfections, and pottery shaped by the environment they were made in—these manufactured objects demonstrate how van Herpt reinserts humanity into the man-made machine.
Just as the advent of digital fabrication has democratised manufacturing for the masses, the works of van Herpt seek to reconnect design with the human touch. Drilling deep into the design process, he flattens the production chain standing between designer and user with his innovative machines that are really tools which empower making.
By opening up the industrial machine, the designs of van Herpt invites all of us to collaborate in creating a world no one of us imagined possible.
——————————— An introductory essay written for Olivier van Herpt’s website.
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.