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  • Brian Peters

Lighting up the MuseLab

Hello, my name is Brian Peters and I’m an assistant professor in the College of Architecture and Environmental Design (CAED). My students recently exhibited a series of 3D printed light shades for a week-long pop-up exhibition in the MuseLab titled Inspired By Nature: 3D Printed Bio-Luminaires. The exhibition featured thirteen 3D printed light shades with corresponding design boards, an interactive iPad application and a video showing the process from design to fabrication. The work was produced by upper-level undergraduate and graduate architecture students from the CAED for an elective titled Digital Crafting. This was the first project in the class, which lasted roughly 7 weeks, and served as an introduction to using digital design tools in combination with a digital fabrication tool; in this case 3D printing.

Digital Crafting

The main driver for the Digital Crafting course, which I have offered for past couple of years, is to introduce students to the idea of digital craft by working with a specific material, fabrication machine and technique throughout a given project. This is an important concept to understand as the architecture and the construction industry is increasingly using digital fabrication tools in combination with advanced design software. For this project, the focus was utilizing a 3D printer and the digital design software called Rhinoceros, and the challenge was to create a visually appealing pendant light design that is material efficient, geometrically complex, and able to be fabricated. Students needed to balance several design and fabrication parameters along with their design concept, to produce a success piece.

Another goal of the project was to expose students to publications, projects, architects and designers that highlight the current work and research being conducted in this expanding field of design. For example, there are several pioneers in the field of combining parametric design tools and 3D printing to produce visually stunning pendant designs, such as Janne Kyttanen, MGX by Materialise and Nervous System. It was important for the students to be aware of how these projects have been approached in the past, in order to produce unique and thoughtful designs.

Inspired by Nature

Each student studied a natural organism and system as a source of inspiration for pattern generation, form, and performance. For example, the interior ribbing of mushrooms inspired a student to produce a curved, ribbed surface. The process, which I would define as “bio-inspired” served as an introduction to the students for the process known as biomimicry, which is more rigorous and defined as “the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes.” There are many great examples of designers who have applied these concepts to architecture and design, and many great resources, including the Biomimicry Institute, if you are interested in exploring the topic more.


The students began the project by digitally modeling several models/iterations of overall forms of the pendant. They then moved to exploring different subdivision patterns, which were extracted from the natural inspiration. Various modeling techniques and approaches were investigated, and physical prototypes were produced. The digital models and the small-scale 3D prints both informed modifications to that led to a final three-dimensional transformation to the sub-division pattern. Finally, once the form and subdivision pattern were set, the models were modified to respond the light source and how the pattern could be varied or altered to diffuse or filter the light as much as possible.

For the digital modeling, the students employed a parametric design software called Grasshopper, which is a visual scripting language that allowed the students to quickly test various design options. The interactive iPad application demonstrated this ability by allowing visitors to move a series of digital sliders, which corresponded to specific design options, and then save their customized design. You can demo this interactive interface via web as well: http://beta.speckle.xyz/view/s/V105czqAg


There are two main 3D printing technologies being used to fabricate lights: stereolithography (SLA) and fused deposition modeling (FDM). For this project the students used the FDM style, where successive layers are printed on top of each other and rely on the layer below for structural stability. The light shades were printed with a biodegradable plastic material (PLA) on desktop 3D printers in the CAED.

We utilized two different manufacturers of 3D printers for prototyping versus final fabrication. Both printers can achieve a smooth and highly detailed surface, however their size limitations are very different. For early prototypes we used the Ultimaker 2, which allows you to print objects up to 8” cubed. Since the final pendants were designed to work with standard sized light bulbs and therefore needed to be larger, they were fabricated on a Gigabot, which has a print area of 24” cubed.

Final Thoughts

This project was designed to be a simple example of how new fabrication tools in combination with digital design tools can be utilized to create visually stunning designs. My hope was that through the exhibition, students outside of the course would also have the opportunity to learn about these new tools and be inspired to explore new ideas in their own work. And while we received several “orders” to buy these luminaires, unfortunately they are not for sale. That said, perhaps the positive feedback will inspire the students to pursue that option or at least continue to push the boundaries of what they thought possible with digital technology.