“This isn’t recycling,” insisted Andrew Kudless, a San Francisco-based designer and architect whose tech-savvy work can be seen in permanent collections at places like the Centre Pompidou in Paris and SFMOMA.
We were inside the Design Miami Tent across the street from Art Basel in December in an exhibit sponsored by the French Champagne house Perrier-Jouët. Kudless had set up an enchanted garden where visitors could relax on hand-crafted benches with a glass of wine. In the center, he displayed a dark, ridged ice bucket that he had 3D printed using grape skins: the part of the fruit discarded during the Champagne-making process. Europeans have long taken the waste and created beverages like brandy and grappa, but this was different. Kudless used the latest technology to change the grape skin’s consistency and makeup so it could be a durable, stylish item.
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“Recycling is breaking down an aluminum car into smaller pieces of metal that can be used for other purposes,” he said. “This is upcycling. We are taking waste and turning it into something completely different.”
Kudless was the first person to 3D print with grape scraps, and a small group of artists and collaborators have followed his lead. One of his partners created wine goblets with them. Others are using the same method but with coffee grinds, wood chips, even chocolate. They are making items that range from coffee mugs to small houses.
The trend is a big win for the environment, as well as wine houses. Why sell a wine glass with a logo when you can sell a glass made from your own grapes? As one artist named Virginia San Fratello, who is using the method, said, “Imagine the possibility of making beautifully-sculpted 3D printed tiles and blocks out of chardonnay grape skins that can be stacked to make the walls of a house or a winery.”
Kudless didn’t intend to invent a design method that would help alleviate the world’s trash crisis. When Perrier-Jouët tapped him to create the Design Week installation, he visited their historic winery in the Épernay region of Champagne, France. Like most artists, he created items inspired by what he witnessed: an 8-foot lighted screen that resembles vines; a bench made to look like the chalky, cold wine cellars; a table made of bioplastic that refracts light the way a glass of Champagne does. But he wanted to push his art further and make something that used the raw materials of wine. “The other things are just referencing the wine-making process,” he said. “The grapes are really the essence.”
He was familiar with a technology called “powder-based 3D printing,” invented 20 years ago by engineers at MIT who took apart a cheap HP InkJet Printer. Instead of making it print ink on a piece of paper, they programmed it to print micro droplets of water onto a bed of dry powder. Much like what happens to wet flour when it’s left out overnight, the powder hardened into a substance that could be layered and shaped into anything. The powder can be made from a variety of substances, which is why the technology has been heralded for its potential.
At first, Kudless experimented with printing on a powder made from ground-up cork. “In retrospect it didn’t work for obvious reasons,” he said. “One of the great qualities of cork is that it doesn’t absorb moisture.” He then stumbled upon a startup based in Sonoma Valley named WholeVine that was grinding grape skins and seeds into baking flour. The product, sold in Whole Foods, is a gluten-free substitute for making bread, pasta and cookies. Excited about his idea to turn it into a powder, they gave him some of the skins so he could experiment. It worked perfectly, and Kudless created seven limited-edition ice buckets for Perrier-Jouët.
The process is, of course, exceptionally meta. “You have the liquid part of the grape sitting in an ice bucket made of the solid part of the grape,” he said.
Soon after his initial experiment, Kudless partnered with a small Oakland design firm named Emerging Objects run by San Fratello and her husband, Ronald Rael. They started their firm after mastering the process of 3D printing objects on salt from the San Francisco Bay.
“It’s a local material for us, it’s inexpensive, and it is very ecological,” said San Fratello. “It only takes sun and wind to make the salt. It’s also a renewable resource.” After working with Kudless, they used the same grape powder to make wine goblets. They also mixed it with hardier materials like concrete to configure bigger objects, like small houses. They are one of the many companies around the world making coffee mugs out of coffee grinds and tea cups out of smashed-up tea bags.
While they didn’t work directly with Kudless, other artists are following similar paths. Two companies, 3Dom and 3-Fuel, teamed up to create a filament out of beer on which artists can 3D print. An Italian-based designer named Marina Ceccolini has created a printing stock out of food found in landfills: coffee grounds, peanut shells, tomato skins, even orange peels and potato starch.
When thinking about the technique’s future, Kudless said he believes it can change everything. He reiterated that printing on food scraps isn’t the same as using reclaimed wood from an old barn or turning plastic into art so it doesn’t get dumped in a landfill.
“It’s a much larger concept of not thinking of waste as waste,” he said. “It’s thinking of waste as a new resource.”