For over four centuries, blue and white delftware has been the Netherlands’ foremost national product, bringing along a fascinating history. Initially intended as an affordable imitation of the porcelain imported from China, Blue Delft led to significant innovation in the Dutch ceramic industry. Now Dutch designer Olivier van Herpt is revisiting delftware through the use of 3D printing technologies, experiencing many of the same challenges to obtain new results.
Delftware or Delft pottery, also known as Delft Blue, was initially made in and around Delft in the Netherlands: today it refers to tin-glazed pottery made in the Netherlands from the 16th century. Delftware in the latter sense is one of the types of tin-glazed earthenware or faience in which a white glaze is applied, usually decorated with metal oxides. It also forms part of the worldwide family of blue and white pottery, using variations of the plant-based decoration first developed in 14th-century Chinese porcelain, and in great demand in Europe. Delftware includes pottery objects of all descriptions such as plates, ornaments, and tiles. The most highly-regarded period of production is about 1640–1740.
During that time, the materials, decorations, tools, and organization of the factory had to change to meet the high demand for a local product similar to the imported oriental porcelain. One major problem was the lack in Europe of the main ingredient of porcelain, kaolin. For this reason, the Delft potteries developed the new kind of tin-glazed earthenware with exotic-looking shapes and oriental-style decorative motifs.
Many ceramic artists today are exploring the new shape and design possibilities offered by digital manufacturing – and in particular – additive technologies. In many cases, the artists themselves double up as engineers and develop their own machines – following in the footsteps of the polymath Renaissance men who combined science and art in their exploration of the world. Notable cases include Emerging Objects and the work done by Tethon 3D, WASP, Lutum and Hans Fouche. Clay (many types of clay) is an ideal material for 3D printing final products, although extrusion 3D printing still present some limitations in terms of accurate resolution. In recent years, other systems and processes, such as binder jetting and stereolithography, have noticeably improved on this, however, use cases are still limited.
Tinkering with digital fabrication technologies, Dutch designer Olivier van Herpt has constructed methods and means of production that meld together seemingly divergent worlds. A 3D printer that drips, instead of expels, its output, just as how stalagmites naturally form in caves. An open source extruder that anyone can freely use to 3D print objects with the more sustainable material of beeswax. These output by the Dutch designer sit at the intersection of the digital and analog, as well as design and tools.
By pushing the limits of existing 3D printing technologies, van Herpt has arrived at machines that produce larger forms and work with materials beyond conventional plastics. Out of paraffin and even clay, he has printed collections of objects that soften the precise and indifferent definition of industrial design. Vases seemingly handwoven by the hands of individual artisans, ceramics crafted with random imperfections, and pottery shaped by the environment they were made in—these manufactured objects demonstrate how van Herpt reinserts humanity into the man-made machine.
Just as the advent of digital fabrication has democratized manufacturing for the masses, the works of van Herpt seek to reconnect design with the human touch. Drilling deep into the design process, he flattens the production chain standing between designer and user with his innovative machines that are really tools which empower making.
Innovating through history
Working on the delftware ceramics project, Olivier van Herpt had to face challenges and introduce innovations in the process of making the Blue and White porcelain pieces.
Initially started as a commission by the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag to complete the pedestal of a tulip pyramid from the 17th century, the designer used the ceramic 3D printer he had designed and built to improve the process until he was able to create 14 3D-printed, stackable pieces in porcelain.
Olivier had developed the ceramic 3D printer able to print ceramic pieces up to 90 cm high. These objects are made out of very thin walls thanks to the capability of the machine to extrude a hard clay body that maintains its shape during printing.
The consistent flow of material is proven by the fine layers that manifest in the precision of the printing process. The unglazed surface underlines the character of the material and is shown in the structure as a result of the movement of the printer. The tiled surface indicates the digital provenance of the object applied in a precise, sinuous form.
The blue pattern is the translation of human interaction by the machine. Cobalt pigment is applied by hand on the clay body before being inserted into the extruder. The pattern is then reconstructed by the 3D printer, resulting in a radial gradient celebrating cooperation between man and machine.