Severing the link between design and manufacture will not lead to a revolution of makers. It will leave us in a world full of horrible kitsch
3D printing has been the future for so long now that it is in serious danger of becoming the past without ever fully having become the present.
Design magazines, websites, festivals and fairs are full to overflowing with the products of a generation of designers still seemingly amazed that they can create something with no tools, no craft, no skill, just a box of digital tricks.
From the most horrific baroque chairs to kitsch key rings, 3D printing is a medium scrabbling around the floor looking for a purpose. And it seems sometimes to have the whole design world on its knees helping it to look.
The problem is ... well no, there isn't a single problem. There are so many problems I don't know where to begin. Take, for instance, the 3D-printed house. It can now, we are assured, be done. It has been done.
Why though, is that a good thing? Is it efficient? How much energy and material go into producing huge chunks of over-detailed hardened gunk? Why is a brick not better?
We are told that 3D printing will make producers out of consumers. Really? Will they not instead all be empowered to make digital models of themselves or their pets, kitschy picture frames and iPod covers? We learn that 3D printing will allow us to manufacture spare parts for our machines at home. And who will fit them? Can anyone fix a modern computerised car the way they could a Mini or a Triumph Bonneville?
This, in case you have become nervous, is not a rant about 3D printing itself, which is something that patently has its uses. I understand that it makes exotic architectural models possible (though the buildings it allows to be modelled that couldn't have been done before should never, ever be built), that it means prototypes can be endlessly and cheaply refined and so on.
The problem rather is that designers are designing to suit the capacity of the technology and if that technology has no real limits then the designs are deracinated, they become uprooted from the traditions of craft, making or practical manufacture which have led to their languages being developed – and an entire culture is lost. The assumption in many design schools today seems to be that manufacture takes place somewhere else.
The designer is the lone genius who creates. The product then arrives in a box. When the beautiful Ravensbourne school with its 1960s Miesian Kent campus closed down it was replaced by a school in the shadow of the Millennium Dome with no workshops.
As designers lose fundamental contact with the materials, shapes, techniques and crafts which have created our object culture, we will be left with a landscape of products equivalent to the anonymous corporate architecture of the CBD in which everywhere and everything looks the same.
The irony, of course, is that 3D printing allows endless formal invention. But if that invention is only stuff, an expression of what a computer and a robot manufacturer can do – rather than what people might feel some cultural, emotional or physical connection to, the result will be a landscape of complex crap, a web of alien tendrils, stupid-shaped chairs and ironically regurgitated gothic and rococo details, of parametric fluidity and organic exoskeletal insecticism. It will be horrible.
In fact, it is already here.