Q&A: Erik Tietz on Taming & Transforming Materials

The founding partner of Tietz-Baccon discusses how advances in materials and fabrication are changing design in more ways than just form.

Tietz-Baccon executed this feature wall (by SHoP Architects) at the Bayclay’s Center. The wall, which is made of Corian, changes depth and pattern as you move past it.

Above courtesy Ty Cole / OTTO; all other images courtesy Tietz-Baccon

Design is as much about the material as the technology that gives form to it. For contemporary designers, many of whom were reared not on sketching and drafting, but on 3-D modeling and scripting, it’s crucial to remember that fact. That said, we should welcome innovative approaches to design introduced by these technological leaps. Advances in tooling and manufacturing can transform materials and exploit their properties to the fullest. The two, as always, go hand in hand.

The Shape the Future Competition celebrates this integration of materials and technology by asking designers to envision new, exciting applications for DuPont™ Corian®‎. Entrants should not be afraid to push Corian—long associated with kitchen counters—to its very limits. In that vein, I thought I’d talk to someone who has extensive experience doing just that. One half of design office and digital manufacturers Tietz-Baccon, Erik Tietz loves to experiment with materials, including, but not limited to Corian. Since opening in 2007, the firm (which was featured in our December 2012 cover feature) has built up an impressive portfolio of interiors, furniture, and object designs—most recently in several projects for SHoP Architects.

Susan S. Szenasy: Last year, you launched Machinemade, an online design manufacturing platform for designers looking to turn their designs into reality. What was the impetus for the platform’s creation, and how has it become a real manufacturing resource for designers?

Erik Tietz: The online Machinemade platform started out as a solution to the problems we faced daily as a design and fabrication studio. It was our way to automate file management and production coordination so that we could keep our focus on the making itself—the fun stuff. However, it quickly became clear this would be a much more disruptive tool, opening up and expanding a network of manufacturing capabilities for design professionals.

For most of the manufacturers we work with, it doesn’t make sense to take on the design projects essential to our business—that’s just not the way they’re set up. So we needed to get really good at making it as painless as possible for everyone involved. By delivering consistent and resolved information, the online platform helps to standardize and scale things. It’s not just making an introduction, it’s actively participating in the project, providing design assist, and refining it through to the end. The result is that we make it far easier for design professionals to realize bespoke projects, whether it’s full prototype, one-off, production runs, or just cutting parts.

Tietz-Baccon’s design for the 2013 Metropolis Game Changer Award was laser-carved out of Corian.

SSS: This finding and manipulatingeven “taming”new materials seems crucial to your work.  Can you give us some examples of materials you are beginning to use?

ET: That’s certainly a key part of it. What’s important for us is not necessarily the newness of a material, but a rethinking of how that material is machined, processed, or applied in novel ways on the design side. When a brand new material comes our way, these possibilities are greatest, since there is no assumption in the design community about how it should be utilized. Customers actually come to us with fascinating innovations from time to time, which really excites us.

There’s nothing new about 95% of the machines we utilize— they have been around in one form or another for generations. And we’re, of course, still going to use steel and aluminum and plywood. But at that interface between material, digital design tools, and CNC machines, we’re finding completely new uses for all of it.

A study showing patterning and imaging on Corian solid surface

SSS: You have used Corian extensively in your work. What are the material’s chief advantages for you, and how have you grown more confident in using it?

ET: Again, not a new material, but its popularity with our architecture and retail clients has been continually growing. Our best guess is that solid surface materials like Corian are ideal for the more digitally-intense designs that we see here. It loves to be machined, formed, and otherwise manipulated; it can be made to appear monolithic since it can be seamed imperceptibly; and best of all, there is very little post-processing. If there is anything with complex geometries, intricate patterning, or exposure to high-traffic environments, we often urge our clients to consider solid surface materials.

Corian certainly has its own challenges to work with, and there is a learning curve to become proficient in processing it and understanding its properties, but in the end, it’s incredibly forgiving. You can fix your mistakes. Now, we’re super confident using it in projects as diverse as laser-etched inlaid furniture pieces and large ornate feature walls in public spaces.

Work in progress: Tietz-Baccon fabricated this custom Corian 3-D wall surface for SHoP Architects’ New York City office restroom.

SSS: Your interior projects employ a diverse palette of materials. How good a job, do you think, has interior design been in adopting new material and manufacturing innovations? How does it absorb these technologies in unique ways?

ET: Typically, the interior designers and architects that we have worked with are extremely conscious of adopting new uses for materials and processes. Of course if they weren’t, they probably wouldn’t have come to us in the first place. It comes down to accessibility. Our goal with the Machinemade platform is to provide this access to even more design professionals so they can engage in this type of crucial experimentation. It’s clear this will result in more material and process innovation as the manufacturing side opens up to the individual designer—be it some wacked-out retail space or refined custom furniture for residential housing.

SSS: The use of the computer and rapid prototyping has completely changed design over the last two decades. What would you say to a new generation of interior design students and practitioners, who have been raised on a steady digital diet?

ET: From a manufacturing point of view, this opens up an entire chapter of innovating smarter ways of making. For the designer, it affords them the opportunity to readily generate bespoke solutions for projects of all scales and budgets. As these tools are becoming less and less about what can be achieved formally (“Look! Twelve-thousand slightly different parts!”), they are able to be used in a more fundamental and disruptive manner. It’s about rethinking materials, redefining how we make and build by circumventing established barriers and hierarchies. You know, in some sort of post-industrial landscape kind of way.

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