December 1, 2012
These Digital Fabricators Bill Themselves as “Makers”
Based in Long Island City, these architect-trained digital fabricators bill themselves as “designers who make things.”
The hiss of an air compressor provides a soundtrack for the Long Island City, New York, design studio that’s one-quarter office, three-quarters workshop. “It runs our pneumatic tools,” explains the architect Erik Tietz, who works in a plywood-lined office dominated by desks with computers and shelves loaded with material samples and 3M respirators. There are no toolboxes filled with handsaws, no cans of paint, or pads of graph paper. Instead, jobs are executed on computer-controlled machines: industrial laser cutters, water jets, and CNC routers.
“Every project is a mix of analog and digital technology,” says the 33-year-old Tietz, in a blue T-shirt, jeans, and black Nikes. Behind him hangs a European-style filigree shop sign with TIETZ-BACCON centered in Helvetica. Though the crisp-edged sign is gorgeously tactile, the filigree was code-generated on a computer and milled in-house on a CNC router.
On a rainy fall morning, Tietz confers with business partner Andrew Baccon (35, trim, wearing a plaid button-down and blue Pumas) in the back of the shop near the router. Tietz and Baccon used a similar machine at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Now they own one of these $100,000-plus tools and are on the forefront of a generation of high-end fabricators who use sophisticated technology to translate designers’ ideas into bespoke solutions.
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It’s the trial and error of working with complicated machines that has informed the firm’s high-tech humanism. “Our job is to get the design realized,” Baccon says, voicing a bottom line that is not nearly as easy to achieve as it may seem. Although their own current projects include a furniture line and a restaurant interior for a new East River high-rise overlooking the U.N. headquarters, the vast majority of their jobs are for others. These include interior architecture, fashion/retail spaces, furniture, art production, gallery and exhibition design, scale models, and research projects.
For the University of Wyoming the team made a two-story wall-mounted 3-D relief map of the state milled from medium-density fiberboard (MDF). At Madison Square Garden, they CNC-milled an events timeline in a type of paper resin called richlite, which looks and feelslike stone, and for the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, they fabricated the patterned VIP entrance. Their furniture one-offs include components of a table for RockPaperRobot made of rare earth magnets embedded in 64 veneered PVC cubes, and a John Muller-designed “tufted” walnut stool that makes the wood look like quilted fabric. Artists hire them to machine-craft complex forms or installations; sculptor Paul Ramírez Jonas commissioned them to mill delicate parts for “The Commons,” a seven-foot-tall horse comprised of 1,171 one-quarter-inch pieces of cork. “They assembled it—thank God. It’s amazing how thin a horse’s ankle is,” Baccon laughs.
For Diane von Furstenberg’s showrooms, they translated her signature textile prints into tactile panels—wall reliefs and screens embossed with her bold patterns. At von Furstenberg’s Saks Fifth Avenue showroom, Corian twig screens internally lit with LED strips and custom lighting, engage the senses with the feel of the human hand. No human hand carved a single DVF screen. Still, Tietz-Baccon stands by the purity of its materials and craftsmanship. “Even if we put a form into a computer there is a craft associated with that,” Baccon says. “Some can program the computer to cut a piece of wood eighteen times and only one is going to yield the best result. As craftsmen we can work with traditional tools and transfer that knowledge into machine code to move this business model forward with efficiencies and economies.”
“If it’s a purely analog job we’ll pass it onto others because it’s not our primary interest to do standard mill work,” Baccon says. “We physically make things, but that’s more Williamsburg.” He clicks jpeg images until he finds a project for a bona fide maker (they often collaborate with local artists). “This is super makery: a glass mold for a glass blower.”
Such fine detailing and architectural expertise isn’t cheap. “They’re expensive, but you get what you pay for,” says Jane Stageberg of Bade Stageberg Cox (BSC), a Brooklyn-based architecture studio. Last year, BSC worked with them to fabricate a Pentagram-designed Corian ceiling tile system for the National Academy Museum and School, a prominent art institute in a town house on the Upper East Side of New York City. Each of 2,000 or so academicians’ names were engraved as tile reliefs and installed in the main gallery. “A number of fabricators proposed solutions. What Tietz-Baccon brought to the table was not only how to mill the panel but how to think about the project on a larger scale. They understood how the pieces fit together and how they interfaced with the surrounding construction—the building tolerances. It’s a complex project. The joints had to be seamless,” says Stageberg.
Tietz and Baccon met at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design; a year after graduating in 2007, they rented a 2,500-square-foot industrial garage. Early commissions came mostly from former classmates who had taken jobs with some of the best architects in the world. Now they have their own employees. “At a lot of firms I’m a CAD-monkey,” says Parker Thompson, an intern who attends the University of Texas at Austin. “But here it’s 50-50. I like the process of making things.” To emphasize the point, he grabs a foosball man that he crafted out of Corian for the design-research practice VisionArc’s contribution to the Australian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale—one of 200 commissions executed here in the past five years.
Tietz’s family owns a farm in Wisconsin (though he grew up in Minnesota), where both his father and grandfather make wood furniture as a hobby. As a boy, he bypassed Legos to build the real thing. “In Minnesota we have lots of space, so I’d go out and build stuff at full scale. I always had access to tools.” After studying architecture at University of Pennsylvania, he worked for Norman Foster in London. At Harvard his thesis advisors were Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, whom he worked for briefly as an intern (the Swiss architects recently hired Tietz-Baccon to fabricate mahogany ornamental panels and window screen mock-ups for the Park Avenue Armory renovation).
Whereas Tietz’s “almost Swiss” architectural detailing is sublime, Baccon could program and script a lightning bolt if he had to. Baccon grew up in York, Pennsylvania, and majored in operations research and industrial engineering at Cornell University. After a two-year stint as an investment banking analyst for Lehman Brothers, he enrolled at Harvard University. Now, his engineering, design, and finance skills entwine like a braid. “I wish I had a CPA and a law degree. Then we’d be set,” he jokes.
This year the team will launch Machinemade, a Web-based service that will simplify the design process by allowing clients to transform their own concepts into prototypes and full production runs (“everything in architecture is a prototype,” Baccon says) without the hassle of manufacturers who often balk at one-offs or small orders. Instead, Tietz-Baccon will calculate tolerances, recommend materials and machines (clients input preferences online), factor in deadlines, and do the legwork. “You can start from scratch with a drawing or jpeg and we’ll take it through to production,” Tietz says. “We can do the CAD drawings for extra. Each machine has its rate, complexity. We’ll allow people to make things in a nonstandard way. Our clients can upload the files, we’ll review them, offer design assistance, and fire back a quote. We’re going to offer memberships and student discounts, too.”
After an initial soft run, Machinemade will launch to the public by the end of the year, which should thrill anyone who ever dreamed of owning a CNC router. (Or those who’d rather hire expert mechanics with semi-clean hands to do the design.) “Our primary interest is digital fabrication,” Baccon says, “but everything involves human labor at some point. We’re designers who make things. We speak the language of design.”