X > CTRL+P : An Interview with Unfold

Unfold. Artifacts of a New History, 2016. 8 x 16 x 2.5 in. Maple wood box with silkscreen print, nine 3-D printed porcelain artifacts. Photograph by Kristof Vrancken.Claire Warnier and Dries Verbruggen founded Unfold in 2002, after they graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven, in The Netherlands, to develop design projects that investigate new ways of creating, manufacturing, financing, and distributing in changing global contexts. The Antwerp-based duo have a strong multidisciplinary background in design, technology, and art. They exhibit their work internationally and often collaborate with a vast network of kindred spirits and specialists. This interview was conducted in 2018 via email for Studio Potter.

BC: I often refer to Unfold as the parent of clay 3-D printing. How would you describe your work in clay before direct clay printing, and how do you understand your relationship to the material now that you’ve been 3-D printing in clay for more than ten years?

U: 2019 is the tenth birthday of this “child,” so hopefully we can organize a little party! (Actually, we do have two human children as well as two rabbits, two fish, and one bird.)  We appreciate that people attribute the initial development of extrusion-based ceramic 3-D printing to us, but we are also standing on the shoulders of giants like the RepRap project. Just as you would a child, in the early days we had to nurture [the technology] a lot and develop many of those extruders and tools. We’re really happy that today it has grown up and it’s fully standing on its own legs in a healthy community.

We’ve always been very fond of the material world. Even though we were fascinated by the malleability and interactive nature of the digital, we rejected the notion of screens as the medium on which digital should be experienced. We love the consequences and collateral side effects of working with physical materials, their weight, smell, texture. Brancusi said, “You cannot make what you want to make but what the material permits you to make. You cannot make out of wood what you should make out of stone, and you cannot make out of stone what you need to make out of wood.” That is often forgotten when a young design student drags a material texture from their library onto a generic CAD model. 

We especially appreciate and play with the rich heritage that many materials have. We were doing ceramics before 3-D printing. Our relation to materials changed mostly in appreciating the depth and dedication it takes to commit to one material. As students, we found it hard to understand how someone could spend their entire life limited to one set of materials. Today we much better understand that, although we personally are still not married to one material. We’re probably too restless for that. 

On the other hand, we believe our strength also lies in not being specialists, enabling us to draw new links between initially disparate domains and not be burdened by the often-repeated mantras in specific material domains. For example, most ceramists told us initially that our prints would explode in the kiln due to trapped air (mostly those who did not understand the issues with trapped air but were being told this “rule” by their mentors). This turned out to be a non-issue, even though there are a lot of tiny crevices with trapped air in clay-printed objects. 

BC: The name of your design firm, Unfold, has its genesis in a project that involved scans of the body. In considering the ways that some of your projects—l’Artisan Électronique, for example—disrupt common notions of the relationship between body and material, how does your work continue to engage the body or question our corporeal relationship to work and material?

U: While it’s tempting to read a project like l’Artisan Électronique in a reductive way—a two-button computer game version of a pottery wheel that you don’t need to get your hands dirty to use—our intention was the opposite, to bring the digital realm more into the physical again. Making the creation of digital geometries hands-on again, as opposed to the cumbersome CAD interfaces we’re accustomed to, reopens the possibility for direct manipulation, for quirkiness with an immediateness to it, assisted by the lack of the ubiquitous “undo” command. We position 3-D printing as reconnecting the ephemeral, hard-to-hold digital realm to the body and physical reality. 

This point is further emphasized when you look at another project of ours, Of Instruments and Archetypes, often described in the press as a set of analog measuring tools, such as a caliper, measuring tape, and protractor, but in truth, their method of operation is completely digital. They are battery-operated, wireless tools meant to displace their on-screen, pixel-based siblings and reclaim them as manual tools. Using the tools, measurements of physical objects can be transferred in real time to an on-screen, digital 3-D model on which the object needs to fit. Through this project, measuring becomes something without numbers but with accurate precision; measuring becomes making. These instruments can then be used in an application where archetypical, parametric objects can be customized with exact measurements and materialized by 3-D printing. It’s rather obvious that we played with ambiguity by shaping the objects as old-school wood and brass tools. We always love to play with those blurry lines in our work. It makes people question their assumptions, I guess?

BC: In your article “The Digital Craftsman and His Tools,” based on the talk you gave at the All Makers Now? conference in Falmouth, England, in 2014, you mention Jan Middendorp and his argument that end users should not leave the making of tools that they use to someone else. How important is making your tools to your work?

U: We’re often more focused on what happens in the peripheries around a subject and how that feeds and influences what happens in the center. Our work is sometimes labeled as “design about design,” and the importance of tools is definitely a recurring theme in those narratives on designing and making. Jan Middendorp’s text details the work of the Dutch typographers LettError, a very early influence on our work. LettError was one of the first [type designers] to introduce true digital native thinking in typeface design, a discipline with an age-old tradition and a set of unwritten codes—not unlike ceramics. That [field] was one of the first in the mid-eighties to benefit (economically, amongst other ways) from digitization in what is now known as the desktop publishing revolution.

Unfortunately, the creation of digital tools requires a different, more specialized programming skill set than that of traditional hand tools. Many end users have relegated their tools—the creation of creative software—to a handful of companies in Silicon Valley. That is problematic because it creates a generic language that doesn’t allow for something akin to unique toolmarks, which result from creating one’s own tools. But even when we do create our digital tools, once they are shared and used by others, there is the potential for a similarly narrow language as a result, which is also problematic. So while this might sound counterintuitive to open-sourcing tools at the user level, we feel that what makes more sense now is collaboration at every level, bringing in the expertise of others. To some extent, the community itself has grown into a tool that we’ve used in projects like the Transaction Project and Stratigraphic Manufactury. Clay 3-D printing using extrusion is a fairly basic technique, so anyone would have been able to replicate it. The building blocks are easy to acquire because of open-source projects, such as RepRap or Arduino. 

BC: You champion the idea that new ways of working should warrant new aesthetic standards. Some people argue that pottery made on the wheel is dominated by the language of the tool, and that might be a limitation to understanding form, or even pottery. How do you identify new aesthetic standards in your work? The relationship between tools and outcome? Your own aesthetics developed over the last fifteen years?

U: That idea of new aesthetic standards comes from Herbert Read’s 1934 book Art and Industry, in which he states, “The real problem is not to adapt machine production to the aesthetic standards of handicraft but to think out new aesthetic standards for new methods of production.” This [idea] was a response to the Industrial Age and a tendency to imitate handicraft using mechanized production. His statement is still very relevant today, when we think about digital tools.

We believe that it is natural to have an initial fascination for the language of the tool itself; its basic parameters and quirks are fresh and intriguing at first. We’ve always pushed for the visibility of the traces of the making process, and those toolmarks have been an important theme connected to the earlier-mentioned focus on toolmaking. For example, the resolution of the virtual pottery wheel (l’Artisan Électronique) was deliberately a simple polygon, to such a degree that it did not hide the objects’ digital lineage. The same goes for the striated print lines, the occasional clay outbursts, and the geometric imperfections resulting from the freehand digital modeling. We may have a designer approach to clay that stems from being more familiar with mold making and slip casting, and a more subtle approach to the confrontation between mold-reproduced objects and the individual object. 

Today, as more and more people from different parts of the maker spectrum have embraced clay 3-D printing, we have noticed these often-recurring patterns that familiarize the toolmarks we loved in the beginning. We’re at a point where some of these techniques that are unique to ceramic 3-D printing, like the loop pattern, have been explored in very interesting ways in the past but now get reproduced almost to a bore.

I still feel we have a distinctive style, in particular, the small, intricate objects that we’re known for, but in the last year we’ve also been pushing hard in other directions. On the one hand, going much rougher and simpler, exaggerating the coil building origins of the process and allowing the clay and glazing to have more of their own voice. On the other hand, by spending a lot of time breaking out of the “stack of 2-D planar curves,” which is essentially 3-D printing, and developing tool chains that allow for true unconstrained 3-D curves. 

We see other creators in our community moving away from the initial aesthetics of the machine and blurring those screaming toolmarks away in different fascinating directions. We’ll probably see much more of that in the next years.

BC: You worked on a serial production project in 2017 that involved making 300 faceted cup forms. How do you approach a project like that using 3-D printing, as opposed to another way of working?

U: Our main income doesn’t come from production or sales of ceramics, but we considered the production of 300 cups an interesting challenge and experiment in economies of scale: What would it take to manufacture something in series, and how would that compare to traditional methods? We learned a lot, especially in regard to the cost of production. It takes a lot of optimization to be competitive with casting at this scale, especially in the preparation of the clay and filling of syringes and in hand-optimizing the print file that contains the code for the printer to reproduce a specific object. These changes range from audio cues for the operator, to speed changes, to tool path changes.

Recently we were asked to produce 1,200 of these cups, and since we did not intend to repeat the serial production experiment, we turned to the community and worked with Vormvrij, a company best known as creator of the Lutum clay 3-D printer. So we collaborated and exchanged expertise, and they used four of their machines to batch-produce this order in record time. We’re more interested in this method of distributed flexible manufacturing than in producing everything centrally in our studio, although we do make a distinction between gallery-oriented output and common tableware objects. 

BC: In 2015 your essay “Back to the Future: How Tradition Inspires Contemporary Making,” was included in the catalog for the Vitra Design Museum exhibition The Bauhaus #itsalldesign. In the essay, you state that complexity in the way objects are manufactured leads to divisions in processes and to specialized professions. How has the democratization of DIY digital fabrication and manufacturing tools marked shifts in how things are being made? Is digital fabrication reinforcing divisions and becoming a new specialization?

U: We agree to a large extent that digital skills are at risk of becoming another specialization, and we’ve touched on this earlier in the discussion when talking about the importance of making your own digital tools and the difficulties of doing that, especially if you had no training and needed to start from scratch with 3-D modeling, design for digital fabrication, etcetera. As expressed in the essay for the Vitra Design Museum catalog, our view is mostly from a design perspective and largely extends to other fields, such as architecture. For most young designers, 3-D modeling is a base skill. In the last five years we’ve seen a rapid proliferation of affordable, high-quality 3-D printers (aided by very affordable print material). This has led to a shift. Where once students used 3-D printing only as an expensive tool for something special, such as a final model in a graduation project, now they’re using it extensively in the design process to iterate and test their ideas. With this change comes a shift from thinking of 3-D printing as a prototyping tool to considering it a manufacturing tool. The object is thus designed as a native 3-D-printed product.

A 2011 Guardian article by Justin McGuirk that we recently came across describes a second evolution. Design education has grown in popularity over the past years, while the number of jobs in the traditional design industry has decreased. So the shift to more designers self-producing rather than relying on industry and its gatekeepers is to some extent also economically driven. We’re very curious to see how this evolves.

The democratization of digital manufacturing brings industry back to the scale of an individual studio, which is a bit of a reversal of the blow that industry brought against the traditional artisan.

BC: I am often suspicious of the place desktop 3-D printing may take in people’s lives, and I consider what happened with desktop paper printing as a potential predictor. Most people have inkjet or laser printers, but they tend to be everyday quality (or more often, quite poor quality), and they certainly have not replaced high-quality printing by centralized manufacturers. What do you see happening with 3-D printing in this context?

U: We fully agree and are rather skeptical of those projections in which every household will have one. The analogy with the paper printer is a fair one, and there are many more. Sewing machines are affordable, and good patterns widely available, still, very few people make their clothes. While 3-D printing is often branded as manufacturing at the press of a button, it still requires skill, insight, and dedication.

You can see this reflected in the reorientation of many of the 3-D printer brands that saw the light of day in the slipstream of the open-source RepRap and were originally oriented toward at-home fabrication. Today they market their printers toward small and large businesses, design studios, factories, schools, etcetera. Their affordable, accessible 3-D printers are generating a silent revolution in some pockets of manufacturing, such as affordable prosthetics.

This [kind of prediction] is always the case, though, with the introduction of new technologies, especially when they are digital counterparts to formerly analog processes. Initially people imagine them taking the place of the analog original, but in the end the use-case diverts drastically. For example, when digital photo cameras came along, the camera manufacturers imagined that you could shoot quite a bit more than the thirty-six photographs film allowed, but that you’d just select the few good ones and send them to the print shop. The inkjet printer manufacturers imagined that you would print those handful of images at home on their fancy paper. Nobody imagined that you would shoot thousands of photographs and print none of them, but we share them online and have algorithms sift through them to compile narratives and prune out bad ones. We can debate if those algorithms are successful, not to mention that the piling up of huge numbers of photographs can create a certain amount of data anxiety, but it shows that shifts happen along different tangents than originally predicted.

BC: In The Nature and Art of Workmanship, published in 1968, David Pye wrote about workmanship in terms of certainty and risk. With some processes, particularly mechanization (and 3-D printing could be considered here), there is often certainty in the outcome. With working by hand and with hand tools, there is risk, and this risk is often identified as a benefit. Can you talk about the affordances of various tools in your processes and your work?

U: We still fail to experience that certainty you speak of, but maybe that is more due to our restless nature. We often pull the carpet out from under our feet when we are approaching that certainty.

Del Harrow once mentioned something while referring to our work in a talk, something along the lines of our ceramic 3-D printing work “riding on the edge of control,” and that resonated with us because it applies to so many of the things we do. Maybe we are indeed looking for that risk, but are we looking beyond the strict domain of the physical making? From reclaiming control as designers over the entire process of design, making, financing, and distribution (something lost during the Industrial Age), to relinquishing control when we release part of our work as open source, when we collaborate with large networks of peers and act more as orchestra conductors, or when we play with algorithmic processes that have an inherited unpredictability?

On the other hand, many makers (and humans in general) can exhibit extreme mechanized computerlike behavior in their ideas and working practice, even when working “by hand.” Where do you draw the line between a tool and mechanization? The pottery wheel was invented as a mechanization of hand building, no? A glassblower never touches the hot glass directly. There’s almost always a tool between the hand and the material, and in the case of glassblowers, one of their most-used “tools” is an assistant; they rarely work alone. And the assistant needs to be instructed in some way or another. There’s discussion beforehand and hand-and-feet gestures or exercised interactions. This can be defined as a master-apprentice type of control or a more collaborative approach. To us, that distance between an artisan and his tool is not too dissimilar from [the distance between users and their] computers or digital production tools. You can program them very tightly beforehand or leave openness and flexibility for an on-the-spot response. 

BC: Your work operates between digital and analog processes. Digital/analog, like hand/machine, and risk/certainty, are binary constructs that inherently invoke tensions. Do you agree with the idea of these constructs in your work, and if so, are they positive or negative?

U: We strive to formulate propositions and questions that build bridges between the two or illustrate that there is a gradient between digital and analog. On a humorous note, the positioning of digital and analog as polar opposites—often heard in the discourse of people rejecting digital tools—is, in fact, a very digital way of thinking. It’s reducing something very rich and complex into a binary: 1 or 0. To throw all computer work on one pile and all handwork on another pile lacks nuance. There is a huge variety of activities in both. As creatives, we all dread having to spend too much time on email and the type of general management that comes with operating a small business, which often involves computers. And everyone dreads some of the physical labor that comes with creating things—some love to wedge clay before throwing, but how many don’t?

We fail to see how spending creative time on a computer, plotting out designs, creating scripts, and being excited if the process throws in some pleasant surprises, is any different from “handmaking” if that is what drives you creatively. In that regard, one should read Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman or Malcolm McCullough’s Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand.

We also strongly feel that our work actually softens the tension between digital and analog and shows how technology is essentially a continuation of a long tradition of making and applying tools. We strongly object to the idea that creating ceramics (or objects in other materials) using 3-D printing is just a matter of pressing CTRL+P.