During the recent season finale of the NBC sitcom "Parks and Recreation," the show’s resident curmudgeon-slash-woodworker, Ron Swanson, while rushing to finish a handmade chair before an important deadline, smashes his intricate design. “It was too perfect,” he explains. “People will think it was made by a machine.”
It’s a sentiment that pops into mind when touring Joris Laarman’s new exhibition Bits and Crafts (through June 14) at Friedman Benda gallery in Manhattan. The show features the results of Laarman’s experiments at the crossroads of technology and design. By using the latest in 3D printing, like the MX3D metal printer, which his Joris Laarman Lab in Amsterdam helped develop, Laarman and his team are working to achieve a level of design human hands are incapable of.
“We refuse to believe things can't be done,” Laarman declares on the website for the Lab, a shop he co-founded with his wife, the filmmaker Anita Star. Laarman is interested in pushing the boundaries of digital design by making life-sized objects that look and feel more organic than machine-made. In Bits and Crafts this sentiment is illustrated by his Maker Chairs, Panton-like designs assembled from hundreds of small 3D-printed units, like a set of Legos. Except these modular units are made from materials not usually associated with 3D printing, like wood and metals. (As if to prove he’s in on the joke, one chair is made of units that look like the pieces of a puzzle.) Disassembled, these units are a mess of bent Ikea parts. Assembled, the chair is a curving, textured, tactile wonder as magical as it is mathematical.
In fact, some of the chairs are so unique, that at the show’s recent opening a couple was overheard arguing about whether they were actually 3D-printed. “But it can’t be!” one proclaimed as he stared at the Gradient Chair, a soft-looking work made out of 3D-printed thermoplastic polyurethane. If only the gentleman had looked up at one of the televisions positioned around the gallery he would have discovered the 3D printers in action.
Bits and Crafts is rounded out by two more of Laarman’s design experiments: the aforementioned MX3D and an intricate “table” it created, and Vortex, a pair of deconstructed (and somewhat whimsical) bookshelves that are the product of digital algorithms Laarman experimented with to achieve a sort of transcendental design.
If Laarman’s aim is to shed digital design's cold and sterile image, he has certainly succeeded. But the show, specifically Vortex, seems to state that Laarman is as interested in reaching a sort of design nirvana as he is in the unexpected errors that develop along the way. His Maker Chairs may be assembled from perfectly constructed units, but those units are attached by hand—often imperfectly. And while the MX3D can create an intricate spiderweb of stainless steel out of thin air, it is still fragile, and parts of the pieces have collapsed or disintegrated. Just as Ron Swanson might prize wood's inherent blemishes, Laarman seems excited by the tiny flaws present in the world’s most precisely executed furniture.