Innovation through design

PATRICIA LUNGHI • 21.02.2018

«The search for new materials and the arrival of new manufacturing processes have always been closely linked to the history of design.»

A 3D printer, a digital cutting machine, computers – this is the hardware necessary for the experiments by Christophe Guberan. Everything started with what he calls the «active materials», the materials with which he has experimented for example by printing paper with water and a single printer. Paper takes shape, comes to life, giving it the name of an «active» material. Hydro-Fold, this is the title of his Bachelor project at Ecal (Cantonal School of Art of Lausanne), which was very well-received. Since then the designer from the Canton of Vaud has developed manufacturing processes and innovative materials by exploiting the potential of new technologies such as 3D printing. Centred on research, his work is based on collaboration with the prestigious MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), a renowned institution in Boston specialising in science and technology. He continued to develop research projects for industry and various brands in parallel with the latter.

This is a meeting with Christophe Guberan in his studio bathed in light in the heart of the large, peaceful parkland in Lausanne, a few days before his departure for Boston.


Patricia Lunghi: How did you come to work with MIT?

Christoph Guberan: When I had the opportunity to present my Hydro-Fold project in Milan in 2012, several articles appeared. A professor at MIT saw my work and contacted me. He invited me to work with him in his laboratory as an independent designer. Now I teach one semester at Ecal and one semester at MIT, which enables me to do some research at the highest level and in the best context imaginable.


PL: Explain the Hydro-Fold project and active materials to us.

CG: I love rethinking existing materials and how we use these materials, even the simplest ones. For example, we know that paper is sensitive to moisture and that it reacts with water. But how can one control this phenomenon? I tried to place water on various types of paper and discovered that if I wanted to obtain a fold which forms its shape completely independently, I had to place a certain amount of water in a precise place on the sheet. I therefore tried to print it by putting water in the cartridges. I found that the sheet shrinks while drying and that it bulges, creating structures and shapes. It’s the same for wood and textiles. These are the materials which fascinate me because they transform themselves from being flat into something three-dimensional.

Today one can programme machines and computers but we want to programme materials so that they shape themselves independently. We know that wood bends naturally with water, but the idea is to be able to control the direction of the wood fibres thanks to new machines.


PL: You do a lot of research into materials, but are you also interested in objects?

CG: Yes, I adore objects! I just question the way in which we produce and consume them. These aspects to me are closely linked to production. In my design office there is a department devoted to rethinking this subject and the industrial process and using new technologies. In parallel it’s important for me to keep experiencing objects, which I don’t want to lose.


PL: What are the techniques you are interested in?

CG: The Eames developed their own techniques to work plywood and this is fascinating. Even if the tools change, I think that a good design must be linked with production, the material and aesthetics. For me 3D technology is the new field, which is chiefly occupied by engineers and makes the aesthetics rather cold. But what aesthetics can we take from this technology? Furthermore, for me it’s absolutely vital that there is interaction between the machine and the materials, so that I don’t stay on my PC all the time creating 3D visuals.


PL: You talk a lot about new manufacturing processes, how do you therefore see the future of production?

CG: Nowadays – or in the near future – the production of objects will undergo radical change. For how much longer will we still be importing plastic injected objects from China? In the future the price of machines will change and the fact that there will be continuous flux with 3D printing is important. Enormous quantities are manufactured in our system of traditional industrial production. One of the parameters of automation and 3D printing – it’s called «digital manufacturing» – is the option of manufacturing locally, as already happens in the medical field. Adidas is currently studying the option of creating regional production farms. Local consumption is a frequent subject of discussion for food and the idea of proximity should also be considered for manufacturing objects.


PL: Can you explain the concept of «new tools for new generations»?

CG: You need to understand how to integrate new technologies into your work and how to use the tool of communication. In my opinion it’s important that people can access information. New media are another way of disseminating information: I have an idea, I have machines to implement it, I make a film so that the process can be seen and I disseminate it on the internet. This is how I posted the video demonstrating printing with water on a sheet of paper, which transforms itself into a 3D structure when it dries. The sequence was repeated on a large number of blogs and sites, it was viewed on a huge scale and also by some brands, which contacted me for research projects. This is how a professor at MIT spotted me. I’m not worried about being copied because all my technological projects are linked to MIT and protected by intellectual property rights.


PL: What projects are you working on at the moment?

CG: The Active textile project is proposing an alternative to manufacturing shoes in the traditional way using a 3D printer, by mixing 3D printing with textiles. This project has led to various collaborations, in particular with the designer Camille Kunz for a project with a famous Japanese fashion designer. I am working on a prototype of a shoe, which is also manufactured flat and several other projects are underway, in particular with sports equipment brands. In this field there is enormous development potential but I can’t say any more or mention the brands. Even if I am not a fashion designer, I love working on projects, clothing or jewellery which interact with the body.

Christophe Guberan

Christophe Guberan is a 32-year-old product designer based in Switzerland. His work is the result of material tests and observations. This interest began during his studies of architectural drawing and was further cultivated as an industrial designer at the Ecole cantonale d’ art de Lausanne ECAL.

Photography: Cristophe Guberan, Pedro Neto (Portrait)