Novedge: Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do
Liz von Hasseln: Kyle and I both have backgrounds in molecular biology, but about 5 years ago we decided to transition to architecture, and we graduated from SCI_arc this past fall with Masters of Architecture. SCI_arc makes it a point to embrace emerging technologies as design tools, and that institutional stance meant that we were exposed to a lot of really cool technology during our time there, and we were encouraged to use it in novel ways. Throughout graduate school both Kyle and I were fascinated by free form fabrication in general, and unorthodox 3D printing configurations and materials in particular. Our graduate thesis, although it had nothing to do with sugar, centered on the development of a novel fabrication system. Our shared curiosity for the range and utility of 3D printing definitely contributed to our interest in applying the technology to the genre of food.
Novedge: What's the story behind The Sugar Lab?
Liz von Hasseln: The Sugar Lab started about two years ago, when we were graduate students in architecture. We were living in a tiny apartment in Echo Park with a correspondingly tiny outdoor kitchen. We didn't have an oven, and when we realized that meant we couldn't bake our friend Chelsea a cake for her birthday, we decided to try to 3D print one, instead. After a period of trial and error (during which her actual birthday came and went!) we managed to print a simple cupcake topper that spelled out Chelsea in cursive sugar. Chelsea loved it! We thought other people might like 3D printed sugar, too, so when we graduated last fall, we spent the time to really optimize our process, and we started The Sugar Lab–officially–in our new studio here in Silver Lake.
Novedge: Where do you find inspiration? How does your background in architecture inform your designs?
Liz von Hasseln: We love geometric/mathematical forms that are sculptural and dimensional and maximize what 3D printing brings to sugar. Our background in architecture serves us well during the modeling process, which has a lot to do with structural and material considerations as well as making design moves. That background also helps us develop design instincts for merging structure and facade within a single 3D printed sugar sculpture.
Novedge: What software and 3D printer do you use?
Liz von Hasseln: After some brainstorming and messy hand sketching, we work to translate our ideas into 3D digital models, using mainly Maya. As for the actual process of 3D printing with sugar, if you've ever made frosting and left the mixing bowl in the sink overnight, you know that moistened sugar gets quite hard. That's the underlying concept of 3D printing with sugar. We use a mixture of water and alcohol, applied very precisely in a layer-wise manner, to selectively wet and harden the sugar substrate. The process is fundamentally similar to other 3D printing applications, we've just optimized the process for resolution and strength with sugar, rather than with a standard 3D printing material.
Novedge: What is a recent design that you worked on?
Liz von Hasseln: The most exciting project we've tackled yet is probably one that we're working on currently–we're very excited to be collaborating with some seriously talented cake artists at Charm City Cakes in Hollywood to design a four-tiered wedding cake with a 3D printed sugar cake-stand, and 3D printed sugar-tiers supporting cake tiers. It will be a traditional cake silhouette in which sugar plays anything but a traditional role. That's an exciting part of 3D printing sugar for us–transforming sugar into a structural, sculptural medium that can start to define the form of the food instead of the other way around, and even to support it structurally.
Novedge: What are some of the rewards and challenges of founding and being part of a start-up company?
Liz von Hasseln: We see this as a great design space, and we love the challenge of negotiating structural, material and aesthetic considerations to produce sculptural form in sugar. Beyond the design stage, it's so fun for us to share the idea of 3D printing sugar with people, because they're typically really excited about it. It's such an interesting intersection between technology, food, and art. Everyone recognizes that dessert is for fun, a chance to experiment and embellish. When you see a 3D printed sugar sculpture that's unlike any food you've seen before, its immediately clear that a whole new set of possibilities has opened up, and that's exciting.