An article about 3D printing designers Freedom of Creation, originally published in 2010 in Scion Magazine.
Interview by Eliot Van Buskirk
Freedom of Creation founder Janne Kyttänen grew up in Finland dreaming of a world where anyone could design objects and have them created with three-dimensional object printers. That was the stuff of science fiction at the time, but today, 3D printing machines are real and increasingly available.
The same way regular office printers replicate words on paper, these machines create objects of any shape using a somewhat similar method, except they output plastic instead of ink. This technology lets Kyttänen and the Amsterdam-based Freedom of Creation manufacture everything from lamps to customized headphones while he sits on his couch or at the beach, using his laptop. When he’s done, he electronically sends his designs to a 3D printer to put his designs out into the real world, where they’re attracting growing interest from some rather prominent shoppers. Apple recently bought some of Kyttänen’s iPhone case designs, the Museum of Modern Art sells his work in its stores and he’s been treated like a star everywhere from Dubai tradeshows to furniture exhibitions in Milan.
Kyttänen envisions his products being distributed “in the same way images and music travel through the internet today,” which is a fairly ambitious mission statement. We asked him to elaborate in an interview.
You have been involved with the 3D printing scene since your early work at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, well before even technology insiders started talking about it. What was it that first fascinated you about this technology, and how do you feel now that the rest of the world is catching up?
I had my first computer when I was eight years old. My older brother is a fantastic 3D graphics professional—animations, commercials, stills, etc.—so I was introduced accidentally to 3D very early on by looking over his shoulders and seeing what he was doing. I also had a great mentor very early on, which enabled me to create using 3D software as a replacement for my pen. The pen was no longer a limiting factor, which it still is for most.
When I first saw 3D printers in the mid ‘90s, it was really like a swoosh going through my brain. Everything around me turned into wireframe. This might sound cheesy, but it was pretty much like in the movie The Matrix. In that moment, I knew exactly what I could make in 3D on the computer, and now I had also the tools to make anything I ever wanted. I stopped drawing with a pencil at that very moment.
I was a bit frustrated that I didn’t have these tools available when I was a kid, because I would have made the craziest toys for all the kids in the sandpit. When I began, I didn’t want to create products, I wanted to design an entire new industry for this planet. Our work at Freedom of Creation is inspiring the design world and many designers to do just that. I am glad there are now others following in my footsteps and we fully support everybody getting into this field
What main advantages does 3D printing give you as a designer and seller of physical objects?
From a commercial perspective, I started working from my sofa with zero money. I had a computer, 3D software, the internet and some bright ideas. When I started emailing my files around to the 3D printing production companies, they started battling it out just to be able to print my designs for free.
With this way of working, the world is totally open. I can literally run a company from the beach with a laptop, and control an entire outsourced supply chain of goods with very minimal investments. Sure, it takes a while to get it all going, but I am now on the tenth year of my company and things are moving very fast. People and large companies who eight or nine years ago did not fully understand the idea have since dusted off presentations we made many years ago and requested our services.
Are there any disadvantages?
Sure, there are disadvantages—limited materials, limited size, etc.—but friends of mine who are in their eighties started by packing their products in their cars and driving around Europe trying to find producers and distributors. During their entire careers they were probably able to make 10 to 20 successful products. I create new products every day.
What do you think it is about your approach to designing objects for 3D printing that has made it resonate so well?
You have to aim high, and to stay at the top, you simply have to create astonishing designs. I am glad the museums and big companies like Apple like my work, so that enables us to stay ahead of the game.
Many of your designs—for example the Riot and Filament lamps—have themes behind them. Do you think it’s important to start with a particular theme or emotion in mind when trying to invent an object?
I am very driven by global issues such as politics, economy and religion, and since everything is moving faster and faster on daily basis, I attempt to create products for a specific day, event or week. For example the Riot light was the first energy-saving light that I designed, so I decided to make its theme a “demonstration.” As a result, plenty of companies came to us and wanted to create custom lights for different events with different messages. This is a perfect example of how the technology enables us to evoke the creation of products.
What kind of software do you use to make your products?
I use polygon-based software (similar to what game designers use) such as 3DS Max (aka Studio Max), Maya and Cinema 4D. Those give me the most freedom of creation.
Some of your early work has to do with augmented reality, the layering of virtual elements on top of the world around us. Can people use augmented reality technology to design objects?
This is a very fundamental concept. I want people to upload AR products into their living rooms, see how they look, maybe customize them a bit and then use 3D printers to produce them locally. It’s on our agenda to remake that connection to AR I first made ten years ago, since now the technology seems to be more commercially proven.
What are the hottest spots for 3D printing? What sort of objects offer the most potential, and how will their designs change? Will most of the furniture, electronics and other stuff we use all the time have more ambitious designs as a result of the 3D printing movement in, say, ten years from now?
Things will get much more complex and difficult to imitate. I see potential in pretty much all markets around me, from fashion to interiors to spare parts for washing machines. We are trying to pick up on as many markets as we possibly can. Some industries take more time to mature though. At my first presentation at Louis Vuitton eight years ago, when I told them that we could design dresses with built in zippers, pockets, pullets and buttons all in one go, coming out of one machine, they asked me how much our 3D fabric cost per meter. That made me realize I was at least ten years too early. Now, they are coming back to us to design buttons for them. Most industries will require an entire generational shift in order for 3D printing to penetrate the old corporate structures.
In addition to democratizing design, 3D printing itself is becoming democratized—HP sells a 3D printer for under $20,000, for instance. If design really becomes data, as you envision, will it be harder for companies that specialize in design and production to compete with stuff people design themselves? Or will the opposite happen? Will good designers grow in stature even more, because everyone will be able to print their designs?
Good designers will always lead the way. Do-it-yourself type people will always be there, but they still need guidance if they want to make something great. I see the biggest potential in our business in selling 3D files rather than selling physical products, and we have a ten-year archive of files already ready to go. We want to start selling the 3D files of my designs and see what people do with them.
However, we don’t know what effect this might have on the future of product creation, and our brand. If a design of mine is in the permanent collection of the MOMA, for example, and there is a file on the internet that lets anybody download, produce and customize my design however they please, what will happen to permanent museum collections in the future? I’m dying to find out.
How else will 3D printing change our world? How is it changing things already?
It will make the world a smaller place, and production will get more local, sparing our planet from excessive production, shipment, storage, logistics and so on. Mass production was great, the living standards got much better, but due to the greedy nature of human beings, this whole infrastructure is also killing us. Our whole infrastructure is 200 years old, and very outdated. There simply needs to be a change for this.