Blaine Brownell

"What's that sound?” asked a potter, upon hearing the melodic whir of a ceramic 3D printer on display at the Northern Clay Center (NCC), in Minneapolis. “That,” his colleague replied, “is the sound of our obsolescence."

This was the exchange overheard last week by University of California, Berkeley architecture professor and additive-manufacturing pioneer Ronald Rael during his week-long residency at the NCC, where he was demonstrating the machine, which extrudes clay objects from modified code. (The printer was invented by Danny Delefici, at DeltaBots.)

A Tipping Point: Ronald Rael's Hacked 3D Printer in Action

The relationship between computer-automated production and handcraft is a fundamental provocation in "A Tipping Point: Technology in Ceramics," an exhibition and series of recent events at the NCC. Curated by Heather Nameth Bren and Michael Arnold, "A Tipping Point" includes the work of Rael and his partner Virginia San Fratello as well as that of Adam Chau, Michael Eden, Adam Nathaniel Furman, Olivier van Herpt and Sander Wassink, and Jenny Sabin. According to Bren and Arnold, the increasing accessibility of digital fabrication technologies is transforming the work of ceramic artists, designers, and architects. "Individuals of any material or educational background can now wield the power of a small factory, prototyping, rendering, and altering on a computer before an object is actually formed in clay," they write in the show notes.

Ronald Rael in conversation during the opening of “A Tipping Point,” Northern Clay Center, Minneapolis
Blaine Brownell Ronald Rael in conversation during the opening of “A Tipping Point,” Northern Clay Center, Minneapolis

During a Sept. 22 panel discussion with Rael and Sabin, who directs her eponymous design lab at Cornell University, Bren expressed the artist community’s Chicken Little–version of anxieties: "Is the sky falling in the ceramic art world? Is the handmade object going to become obsolete?”

Current 3D printing technology, Rael responded, doesn’t pose a significant threat to manual methods because it’s still relatively primitive and fails to operate correctly half of the time. That said, he added, the machine production of ceramics objects is quite common in industry today—thus, obsolescence may already be a reality. But new digital fabrication methods are shifting the focus back to handcraft. “The industrial revolution removed the hand. The technological revolution reintroduces the hand,” Rael said. “It’s not taking away; it’s adding.”

Rael and San Fratello’s installations demonstrate this potential. Their ”GCODE.Clay” series of one-off objects explore the formal variations enabled by tweaking the algorithms that drive ceramic 3D printing. Unlike the first generation of 3D-printed objects—which designers conceived as prototypes that could help reduce imperfections in final products—“GCODE.Clay” celebrates the fallibility of the software–material translation. This work is “born in error,” said Rael, who purposefully directed the printer extruder to overtake underlying layers of material in what he calls “controlled glitches.”

"GCODE.Clay" collection, Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello
Blaine Brownell "GCODE.Clay" collection, Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello
View of the geometric "glitches" inside a "GCODE.Clay" vessel, Rael San Fratello
Blaine Brownell View of the geometric "glitches" inside a "GCODE.Clay" vessel, Rael San Fratello

The excess material extrusions formed loops, arcs, and bumps that add geometric complexity to the pieces. These aberrations are not present in the original 3D model. Rather, the final morphology emerges as a serendipitous outcome of the material’s response to gravity. According to Rael and his partner in their description of the piece, “Ceramic becomes soft to the eye, dynamic, with detail that could not be achieved by hand—yet the hand of the digital designer is present in every artifact.”

Sabin argued that software is a new type of material, declaring that “one can paint with code.” Describing her studio’s efforts to develop pipelines for more user-friendly interfaces with robotics, she asserted that the digital revolution is still nascent, with ample room for development.

In “Polymorph Swath,” an expansive assemblage of more than 1,000 individual ceramic modules, Sabin created the white vitreous objects via slip-casting with 3D-printed contra-molds and two-part plaster molds. The bone-like components exhibit a graceful curvature that belies their strength, and voids permit the insertion of steel cables for connection to other modules. "A Tipping Point" features Sabin’s sample modules, their plaster molds, and a networking study drawing of the overall framework—which is part of the permanent collection at the FRAC Centre in Orléans, France.

"Polymorph Swath," by Jenny Sabin
Blaine Brownell "Polymorph Swath," by Jenny Sabin
"Polymorph Swath" network diagram, Jenny Sabin
Blaine Brownell "Polymorph Swath" network diagram, Jenny Sabin

Although the Polymorph fabrication method employs machines, the process also relies on manual effort. According to Sabin, the approach is "about loops in terms of one's engagement with the hand" and continuous feedback between computer-driven and manual methods. Having earned a B.F.A. in ceramics before studying architecture, Sabin said working with clay "is like coming home.” To her, humans will always have a hand in making.

For Sabin and Rael, the digital tipping point is empowering. The shrinking gap between concept and realization represents a significant paradigm shift in design and architecture. Sabin said, "The architect is being repositioned as maker," something that "hasn't happened since the medieval period." The disciplinary schism between architect and builder resulted in a reliance upon drawings as a set of instructions for what to build. Yet "we now have the ability to communicate directly with machines," she said, "turning issues of notation and representation upside-down."

"GCODE.Clay" façade shingles, Rael San Fratello
Blaine Brownell "GCODE.Clay" façade shingles, Rael San Fratello

Despite the exhibition's focus on ceramicists, "A Tipping Point" portends implications that are no less significant for architects. Rael and San Fratello's collection also includes a series of sinuous clay tiles in development for use on a residential project. When completed, the building will be one of the first clad primarily in 3D-printed skin. Sabin's Polybrick—like Rael San Fratello's Cool Brick—points to a future in computer-driven masonry fabrication in which hollow chambers regulate light and air while interlocking geometries reduce the need for grout.

Polybrick, Jenny Sabin
Blaine Brownell Polybrick, Jenny Sabin

Possibilities aside, 3D printing remains slow-paced, error-prone, and limited in scale. Yet the approaches exhibited in "A Tipping Point" make the most out of the tool, and the wide-ranging—if diminutive—experiments reveal unexpected and fascinating opportunities in digital fabrication. When Rael asked, "Is clay a material or a technology?" during the panel, Bren responded that "clay becomes technology when it's transformed into ceramic." In this spirit, the real tipping point of the exhibition is the portrayal of a material on its way to becoming a technology—a metamorphosis made possible by human intervention.

"A Tipping Point" runs through Nov. 6 at the Northern Clay Center, in Minneapolis.

Note: This article has been updated since first publication to identify the proprietor of the clay 3D printer as DeltaBots.