by Zohra KhanJan 23, 2021
3D printing is often discussed as the next big leap ahead in design. Yet there is a fundamental discrepancy in our understanding of what it means to print design instead of constructing it. The tactility and anthropometric repercussions of incorporating this switch in methodology is yet to be fully understood. Construction often dissipates the complexity of the digital design, making them secondary to structural integrity. Working within the ambiguity of the potential of 3D printing technology is Julia Koerner.
Some of Koerner’s most recognisable explorations can be seen in the works she has created for haute couture labels like Iris Van Herpen, Chanel, and most notably with costume designer Ruth E Carter. Koerner collaborated with Carter to create the intricate costume details of Queen Ramonda's ensemble in the 2018 film Black Panther. The film went on to win the 2019 Academy Award for Best Costume Design. Trained at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and the Architectural Association in London, Koerner’s work exists at the convergence of architecture, product and fashion design. She continues to engage with academia as an educator at UCLA. Her earlier collaboration with Ross Lovegrove’s studio in London used 3D printing to create rapid prototypes to help analyse and study the details that could be incorporated into the design. However, since then Koerner’s work looks at 3D printing as not just a means to an end or a construction tool, but also as a tool to visualise design differently.
Complexity in Design
A tangible manifestation of 3D printing one often encounters is large-scale installations, and surface manipulation. With digital design one can create incredibly complex systems and motifs, these complexities are often smoothened out when they leave the digit realm and need to be constructed. The advantage of 3D printing is that every intricate complexity drawn digitally can be printed as a physical object. Koerner, along with her collaborators Marie Boltenstern and Kais Al-Rawi, has been experimenting with creating surfaces using 3D printed modules. An early iteration of their work, titled Cellular Complexity, was formulated while studying at the Architectural Association (EMTECH 2012). The group’s experiment on cellular complexity started with taking computer tomography (CT) scans of organic elements like corals and sea urchins and breaking down their naturally occurring geometric patterns to extrapolate man-made geometries which had the same sense of porosity as these natural artefacts.
One of the biggest discussions when thinking about 3D printed design is the scalability of these designs. The ideas researched in Cellular Complexity are further explored in the Tex Fab Skin and 2x8 Evolve exhibition installations, which are larger fabrications that rely on the same principle and inspiration of cellular complexity. These iterations combine parametric design as a way of exploring surface manipulations and 3D printing as a building practice. The modules of Tex Fab Skin had to be fastened together in a labour-intensive installation process. However, with 2x8 Evolve the digital design itself was modified to integrate an interlocking system that drastically reduced the installation time.
On the transformation between each adaptation, Koerner explained, “I think designers who work with 3D printing technology grow with the technology. The technology has existed for more than 30 years now, and there have been a lot of advancements in the last 10 years, especially in the small scale, and in the fields of medicine and astronautics”. Koerner emphasised on the value of interdisciplinary research in the field of 3D printing, as material research and machinery continue to evolve. Koerner reiterated, “A lot of material research has been done with regards to bio-compatible tissue and withstanding the extreme conditions for space travel. With 3D printing in architecture and buildings, the advancement is more about the size of machines”.
The Columns to Crowns project by Koerner and Al-Rawi stands as a reminder of the importance of in-depth research. Between 2014 and 2018, they conducted an extensive research on the columns, capitals and crowns at the ancient ruin of Petra, Jordan. The study documented not only the form, scale and details of the capitals but also the patterns of erosion etched into the structures. Koerner elaborated, “With the combination of the tomographic scans and 3D printing it is possible to replicate crystallisation and geometric patterns”. This detailed study led to an art installation in Los Angeles, titled 3D STELAE. However, due to the pandemic there was no way to actually produce this outdoor installation. Making the best of the situation, Koerner and Al-Rawi devised a plan to print the entire installation as segments using the smaller printers they had at their studio. A solution that encapsulates the cumulative lesson of their past iterations.
Koerner's entire conceptual working method is grounded in the fact that she is trying to make digital design more tangible. This is acutely visible in her ready-to-wear collection, an aspect she added to her repertoire in 2015 with the launch of her ‘Sporophyte’ collection. Studying the relation of body and space is a core lesson taught in all design schools. Experimenting with design on the human body is an interesting study of modality taken on in preparation of larger scale projects that could be created as the technologies developed to do so. Koerner’s latest ‘ARID’ collection experiments with ‘making a dress without sewing it’.
She elaborated on the techniques she developed explaining, “The elements of the dress are directly printed onto the fabric. I also developed a technique to 3D print buttons directly onto the fabric as well. The entire dress fits together as opposed to being sewn together”. It's an idea that Koerner translated from architectural practice into fashion. While the 3D printed items in this case are ensembles, it is important to remember that the dress encapsulates the body immediately as an outfit and additional as a space that the body can occupy. While not entirely constructible at the moment, the experiments of this collection could potentially lay the foundation to create an adaptable space that can be plugged in and out.
Koerner encapsulated her perspective on the malleability of 3D-printing and its ability to address a range of scales in its detailing, from larger installations to jewellery pieces or even items of fashion, saying: “It is a field where there are still a lot of opportunities to innovate”.
(Click here to know more about the Austrian designer.)