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Sustainable 3D-Printed Furniture By NOWlab

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3D printing is a process that translates a digital file into a three dimensional object. Usually, a printer lays down layers and layers of an object until the whole form is created. Nowadays, the technology can be applied to create small medical implants used in chest surgery or life-size furniture for your home.

Berlin-based interdisciplinary design studio NOWlab delves into the latter and uses 3D printing to create furniture that strive to be sustainable and aesthetically pleasing. Founded by Jörg Petri and Daniel Büning in 2014, NOWlab combines architectural thinking with digital technologies in works that range from product design to urban plans. Earlier this year, the pair worked with 3D printing company BigRep to produce an innovative table/stool inspired by the rippled forms of Alaska’s Mendenhall glacier.

The stool was produced on a 1 meter³ volume 3D printer, one of the biggest on the market.

We spoke to the creative duo at their studio—which was filled with 3D-printed objects—about what it means to incorporate digital technologies in their designs, why nature is such a big influence and what makes NOWlab different from other design studios…

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Can you tell us about NOWlab and how it came to be?

Jörg Petri: I was working for UNStudio in Amsterdam as associate architect at the time and I invited Daniel to our studio lecture. We had met a couple of times through friends before and he showed me his work and I was really inspired. For me his work was all about sustainability, saving materials and being very efficient. Eventually, I moved back to Berlin to do my PhD and we were both working at the Technical University in Braunschweig where we somehow became closer and realized our ideas overlapped. 

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Daniel Büning: I’m also an architect and studied at a very traditional and modernistic school in Münster. After my bachelor’s degree, I applied for a Fullbright scholarship to go to the Pratt Institute in New York, where I basically did the opposite of what I was doing in Germany –  so all the digital stuff. From that point on, I began focusing on additive manufacturing, laser cutting and so on.“In 2011, everyone was laughing at me… And now, everyone is going into it.” For me, it was a tough decision to come back to Europe. By coincidence my master thesis advisor became the professor for digital and experimental design at the Berlin University of the Arts and he told me to come and be his PhD student. Before that I was a bit frustrated, because in Germany there weren’t many schools nor people working in this field. But I knew I wanted to do research and focus on large-scale 3D printing. In 2011, everyone was laughing at me. They were like, “Daniel, 3D printing in archiecture? Are you kidding?” And now, everyone is going into it. People are sending me emails from Berkley and ETH [Zürich] and there’s huge potential.

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Research plays a big part in your design process – who or what are some of the biggest influences on your work?

Daniel Büning: We are not so much influenced by designers as we are by artists and neighboring scientific fields like biology, biomimetics, physics and mechanics. This is some thing [shows 3D-printed pieces] I did before starting NOWlab, it’s a titanium-aluminum block which is basically three-dimensionally graded on the computer. It’s very light, but strong – you can even step on it. It’s sort a model of what we can do in the future with this kind of technology.

"One of the things we want to achieve is to get away from the typical 3D printing projects people are doing now, like small figurines and so on. "
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Glacier Nowlab
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For a 3D-printed piece like the ‘Glacier’ – which is completely recyclable and biodegradable – what was the design process from ideation to production?

Jörg Petri: We saw a glacier cave in Alaska where snow was forming on layers, compacting, becoming ice, melting, becoming water and then continuing the process again. Here, you have much more functions within one piece, because of the technique that was used. We like it as a metaphor and image a lot, because it’s also how the 3D printer works and a reference to the material we used for the piece. So the ‘Glacier’ is a stool you can really sit on, a table and can also function as a sculptural object. The performance of the piece, because of the technique that was used is increased due to the inner structure of the object.

Daniel Büning: The cool thing is when you put the stool into the light, you really see the structure and depending on the light, it looks a bit like the legs disappear – kind of like ice. Not only that, the chair uses the least amount of material it needs to be stable.

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How does the 3D printing portion work into the design process?

Daniel Büning: Typically, we work on the designs and then check them for the printability. There’s a team of 3D designers at BigRep who we chat with about how it works, whether it’s printable and so on. At the moment, it takes 40 hours to print the ‘Glacier’. Much of that has to do with the resolution and how precise you want to be with your design, not with the machine. It depends on how thick you make the layer height – the thinner it is, the longer it takes. 

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Modern Empty Office
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In addition to 3D printing, NOWlab also test outs new production techniques. In the ‘Andes’ table, you combined digital processes with raw materials to create a mountain range form underneath the piece – how did you approach its design? 

Daniel Büning: We are always inspired by natural systems and, in this case, we were really looking into mountain formations. This was also one of the inspirations for the ‘Glacier’ stool.

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Jörg Petri: For the table, an erosion process was used where material was being taken out. The company we worked with gave us a block of wood so we could build a 1 meter x 2 meter table. We then started carving the wood with a unique milling process. Our cultural background is equally important to the technology we use and think they can be combined to come up with sustainable products that are usable, efficient and also a design piece.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Photos by Ana Santl, Interview and text by Charmaine Li