Joris Laarman does not consider himself only as a designer. He is a creator who operates at the interfaces of science, art, and future utopia. In this interview, he explains why he may soon stop designing furniture.
On Display: Your office is called Lab; laboratory. What is your practice? Do you do self-commissioned research, or get commissions from companies? Do you cooperate with industry, or with museums? How did you get your start?
Joris Laarman: When I started off, I was very young. I was 23 when I made the Heatwave radiator, which was published in every design magazine you can think of. Afterward I got a lot of requests from companies, I started my own office, and did work for Flos and Vitra. At a certain point I figured out that my passion lies more with the experimental; trying new production techniques and materials and thinking about the future of design rather than creating industrial designs made by machines that have limited freedom.
OD: You produce all of your design objects in your studio. So you’re also a manufacturer.
JL: Yes. It’s a bit unintentional. But the design of things we make is often based on a certain production method, and usually not one that’s industrially used. So we just have to produce things ourselves.
OD: Do you see yourself as an artist, designer, engineer, or entrepreneur?
JL: A bit of everything. It’s probably cliché, but I’m not strictly a designer; I’m not strictly an artist, or whatever. It’s somewhere in between. I am a creative person who works with technology.
OD: What’s the relationship between the image in your mind before you design something, and the process—which is, as you said, production-oriented or driven by technology and materials?
JL: I guess it starts with a technology inspiration that you can find on the Internet. In the case of the Bone Chair, it was a film about Claus Matthek, a German professor. Based on his research, somebody from his team developed the technology to optimize car parts that would be much lighter, but not lose any strength. This video is so powerful. It tells a story of the transition from the industrial era to the digital age. With industrial machines you can make geometric shapes; they have certain limitations. Now we have digital fabrication, which allows us to create much more organic and complex shapes. That opens a world of form and function and production and the way things are sold and marketed. Everything changes. Just by looking at this video of optimized car parts, it was like a complete story opened up to me. And it is still what I’m working on now.
OD: When you designed the Bone Chair, these 3D printers were an exceptional technique. You used them to produce the mold for the chair in ceramic. Compared to today, this method was high-tech, not DIY. Now these printers are available to more or less everyone. How does this influence design and production?
JL: The printers have already changed a lot. Look at the Maker chair puzzle. We created the Maker chair puzzle as part of the Maker chair series. It was downloaded about 10,000 times, so I think it is actually a pretty big success, even if didn’t do any marketing for it. It’s open source; you can download it for free and then print it yourself with a 3D printer.
OD: At 10,000 pieces, it’s maybe your most produced design, right?
JL: Definitely. So we’re still thinking how to deal with that. Maybe we’ll charge 99 cents in the future or something. Now we are developing the idea further. We are working on a children’s version. The kids’ chair is smaller, so 3D printing makes more sense. This kind of printing is still in its early phases; it makes a lot of mistakes and it’s slow. But you can print such a chair in two days and assemble it with your child. It’s super funny and it’s free. Even so, I actually don’t believe in 3D printers at home, and I think that 3D printing in studios is just a small part of digital fabrication.
OD: But even if 3D printing doesn’t become an at-home technology, it will change industrial production in the future, right?
JL: I do believe in the future of 3D printing, even if only a few people will manufacture their own things. The future of 3D printing is not just about production; the whole system is changing and all layers of society are shifting; very slowly, but it’s happening. It’s not a trend.
OD: So you’re not only designing objects, but also the technology to produce them?
JL: I want to have some distance between the production part and the creative part of design. And from a lot of the technology that we developed in the past, we just made these objects and sold them and that’s it. But the technology stays. It could be used for other projects. Now we’re starting to build companies around the technology that we develop. We also want to capitalize on the technologies, and not just make objects.
OD: Could you give an example?
JL: The MX3D bridge is a good example. It started with experiments in robotic manufacturing. First we made a printer that printed with thermo materials that harden so fast that you didn’t need supporting structures for the geometry. But it was too weak. The material was not strong enough. Then we started to create a metal printer. A really simple idea. You just have a welding machine and a robotic arm. It prints stainless steel, but you also could do bronze or aluminum. We experimented, then it worked. We found out that nobody is doing this on a large scale—we’re the only ones! For an exhibition last year in New York, we created a furniture piece as a first object, just to show what could be possible. After that we set up the company, called MX3D, multiple-axis 3D printing. We contacted the software company Autodesk and decided to construct a bridge in Amsterdam because the bridge would have all the functional challenging aspects in it to show what’s possible with the technique. That’s where we are now.
OD: The bridge’s aesthetics remind me a bit of the Bone Chair’s bionic structures. Is that accidental? Or are you still following these bionic principles to design the bridge as a lightweight structure?
JL: For a bridge it makes a lot of sense to use bionic priciples. But you need very powerful computers to do that. The optimization process is quite complex. The program divides the bridge into as many cubes—“voxels,” a combination of “pixel” and “volume”—as possible, and all the cubes have controllable parameters. Even though our bridge is quite small—it’s about a span of eight by three meters—you have to optimize millions of cubes and processing takes a long time. It’s a gigantic process. The computers and software have become more powerful since the Bone Chair, and for a bridge it makes sense. If you have a load from the top, the bridge should be able to bear a lot of weight. You also have to deal with side loads; impacts like boats that will accidentally hit the bridge. You can put a lot of these parameters into the software and it will calculate constraints. That’s interesting because you get unexpected results that you can work with, and optimize again.
OD: When will the bridge be realized? And who is involved?
JL: We’ve planned to construct the bridge in fall 2017. Now we’re building the space for the company. Autodesk is a sponsor, as well as a big Dutch construction company and a couple of smaller sponsors like Lenovo. The city will pay for the bridge. There are a lot of people involved.
OD: The way your office works is very complex. Aesthetics meets technology and entrepreneurship. What does a designer need to know today?
JL: There is a big difference between being a technical designer and a more conceptual free mind. In the design academy, I didn’t learn anything besides developing my own thought system. And I learned to cope with freedom. Now I am the guy who connects everything and understands how it works. So I can give the people I work with creative input. For me, that works quite well.
OD: You mentioned that you started your office when you were 23. What are you dreaming of for the next ten years?
JL: Dealing so much with the future, the one thing I learned is that you can’t really know what’s happening at all. One of my dreams is to do more conceptual non-products. I don’t know where it will go, but I can imagine it will be broader than just furniture.