Appalachian graphic design professor takes 3D printing approach to clay, ceramics

What if there was a machine that could bring your artistic vision to life in clay? Can technology bridge a gap that could allow non-artists to pursue artistic endeavors?

Appalachian State University’s Taekyeom Lee believes so.

Make no mistake, Lee himself is a designer using artist’s material and artistic sensibility, having studied graphic design as an undergraduate student at Keimyung University in Korea and as a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana. Lee is an assistant professor of graphic design in Appalachian’s Department of Art.

What makes Lee’s work so unique, yet potentially so accessible to so many, is that he has built his own 3D printer to create ceramic letters that can be used as modular type and typographic sculpture. Lee began his work with the 3D type as a graduate school project.

a to A: Texture of 3D printed typographic sculpture.

“My research began with a question, ‘Where does typography belong in the post-digital age?’” he said. “Many graphic design professionals and type designers have worked in two-dimensional space exclusively to create type for several decades. This practice has somewhat influenced the ‘glass box’ that limits type creation in the high contrast between type and background. However, with 3D type, opposed to type printed into paper, letters do not lie on the static space of page. These letters thus acquire new characteristics such as texture, structure, volume and even interactivity with new digital technologies.”

Much of Lee’s work focuses on 3D type, made from tangible objects and materials that could be turned into letterform.

“I have liked using many kinds of found objects because a designer is able to create letter-like objects with keen eyes and patience,” he said. “I consider those objects to be a building module, like a Lego block. When I was in grad school, my MFA thesis project was creating three-dimensional ceramic type. At that time, I used a plaster mold to cast the ceramic modules piece by piece. It was really time-consuming and labor-intensive work. But I really loved that kind of work. When I graduated, I no longer had access to full ceramics studios, and I needed facilities and supplies to cast the molds.”

A computer, a printer and a small mixing table

Lee picked up his interest in ceramics after he had eye surgery while in graduate school. After the recovery, he wanted something that didn’t involve looking at computer monitors and he took a ceramics class. While he was working with clay, he figured he could make his own building blocks with the same ceramics techniques he used in class.

After he graduated with the thesis project, with space and resources at a premium, Lee said he decided to try a different approach. He thought about the possibility of combining typography, ceramics and 3D printing as an alternative way of using high-tech features.

“Desktop 3D printing drew my attention especially because it does not need the space and equipment for a clay studio,” he said. “I heard about a few people in the world who were printing clay with their self-built 3D printers,” he said. “I did some research, and I thought, ‘Yeah, I should try those kinds of things, too.’ I don’t really need those old kind of facilities and tools; I just needed a computer and a printer and a small mixing table where I could print out 3D modules. Also, I can make more intricate and a greater variety of modular designs with the new tool.”

View larger image
3D scan of the artist’s face (triangular mesh). The face was scanned using MS Kinect and 3D scanning software.
View larger image
A new way to make a self-portrait sculpture using the print and drop technique – shown here before and after firing.

Lee calls this technique “collaboration with gravity” or print and drop technique. “As I am kind of a perfectionist, I have reclaimed most misprints. But I learned that the collapsed misprints also show interesting results. Also, my artist friends love the collapsed or dropped prints. So, I do not reclaim some interesting misprints and sometimes I print something and drop it to make something totally new.”

At the time, there were no companies that made affordable 3D printers that printed. So Lee purchased a small, build-it-yourself 3D printer that he put together – and then built himself a larger-sized 3D printer with parts fabricated from the first printer.

“Simply put, I made my own tools to make something I was not able to make with my own hands,” he said. “It was not easy because of numerous technical and mechanical problems. I made a prototype with an idea, tested the prototype, documented the result and make another prototype like other designers who highly value the power of the design process. Although I am not grounded in ceramics or engineering, every failure and success taught me how to do better.”

The results have been a variety of ceramics – porcelain, stoneware, white clay. He’s even printed sugar icing with his students.

He also uses material called precious metal clay – a fine copper-like metal material that’s soft and malleable like clay. Metal clay is made out of very fine particles of metals such as copper, bronze and silver. Since it can be shaped like soft clay, it can be printed with his machine. The other particles get burned out during the firing process, leaving only the copper behind.

When his work was introduced, Lee has seen a few commenters who haven’t gotten on board with the 3D-printing-as-art idea.

“I see a few comments that say things like, ‘It can’t be art because it has no soul,’” he said with a chuckle. “But I can also see how people respond to new technologies. It’s kind of a new tool for our hands. In my case, I’m making things that normally couldn’t be made with our own hands – only a machine can make. I’m not going to make the kinds of things that you make in traditional pottery because human hands could do a better job.”

Opening up artistic avenues

As 3D printers become more refined and accessible to makers and the general public, Lee believes that these new technologies have provided new tools for pushing boundaries of the medium both in terms of concept and materiality. Also, they will inspire people who might not think themselves as artists to explore the possibility that they now can be.

While Lee is excited that 3D technology opens up artistic avenues for non-artistic people, he does emphasize that it’s not a simple process of just tapping a few keys and waiting for the object to be created. For example, he teaches a class called Digital Methods that covers 2D and 3D design and 3D printing. Most students in the class are not art majors, but are majoring in anthropology, business and computer science, among others.

“They are learning from the basics and will build 3D printers in class,” he said. “These experiences will let them know that what they can possibly do with this new technology and how to tweak it for their own art and design projects.”

“If people have a good idea, this tool will allow them to jump in,” he said. “The machine is just a tool. It’s not able to do anything without you. It will eventually help some people outside the field create something, but again, it’s not a magical tool. You need to play with it, figure out what you can do. It’s a more democratic way of making art – for everybody with a good deal of patience, creativity and who are willing to deal with troubleshooting.”

3D printed and rake-fired ceramic jar. Rake is firing technique with low-firing temperature and lead glaze.