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In Bits & Crafts, Joris Laarman – who first became famous for his ornate Heatwave radiator – explores the nexus between digital design and fabrication, and more traditional hand-working methods for shaping and assembling furniture. Laarman describes the focus as the symbiosis between digital fabrication and craftsmanship. “Both need each other,” he explains, “You need material knowledge and experience with form in order to make something nice using digital fabrication and quality materials like solid wood. Digital fabrication helps as a tool, but there’s still handwork.” For the exhibit, the Amsterdam-based designer has cooked up four distinct series, each approaching the topic in a different way.

The first is Maker Furniture, which takes its name from the maker movement and defies a seeming paradox of digital design and fabrication: while computers have allowed us to create complex organic shapes, 3D printers and CNC routers typically work within the limited confines of a discrete box. Laarman’s solution is to design each object according to complex parameters, but construct it from much smaller pieces that can be made in a desktop 3D printer or CNC, then assembled by hand like a jigsaw puzzle.

The Maker chairs explore this new hybrid way of working, and make it explicit in their tessellating patterns, put together from materials including maple, walnut, resin and metal. Laarman plans to provide the digital blueprints for free online. As he explains, “I’m very curious to hear from other people how we can make this chair better, to become the most efficient, beautiful, affordable, comfortable, locally producible and recyclable chair in the world. There’s no better way to do this than open source.”

The next series is the wire-frame Spirographic Series; to build it, the lab first had to invent a new tool for printing metal in three dimensions, dubbed the MX3D. Molten metal is extruded from the end of a programmable robotic arm, slowly building up a free-form shape in mid-air. The Dragon Bench takes full advantage of the MX3D’s ability to deposit material freely in space, with lines that loop and crisscross back and forth in a complex mesh that would be virtually impossible to recreate using traditional casting methods.

The third series, Vortex, lets designers and clients create personalized bookcases and consoles, embellished with shelves as fanciful as they desire. Following a parametric model, one can shape aluminum sheets with bespoke curves using a combination of CNC-milled compression moulding and water jet cutting, and then assemble them into the final product. “With this technique we can make customizable ornament,” Laarman says, “so people can choose between ornament versus functionality.”

The exhibit also introduces the Microstructures series, featuring the Gradient Chair, 3D printed from thermoplastic polyurethane and riddled with perforations, like a giant sponge. Although it’s a single piece, these perforations divide the chair into smaller “cells,” each of which has more or less material as needed. Where the cell walls are fatter and the material denser, the chair gains added strength, while thinner cells provide better flexibility. The result features areas that give and areas that don’t, but with no clear distinction between them – hence the name.

It’s an approach that could prove useful across a range of other applications. In fact, says Laarman, “At the gallery, I was talking to Mark Parker, CEO of Nike, who explained they were developing something similar for shoes, but on a smaller scale. That’s a smart application to use it in. And yes – this is just a start. I’ve seen materials that become higher when you pull them, and other very interesting developments. I consider the chair like an engineered foam on a cellular level.”

Joris Laarman Lab: Bits & Crafts runs until June 14th and New York City’s Friedman Benda Gallery.

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