COS x Oliver Van Herpt

Words and photography by COS

Dutch designer Olivier van Herpt combines cutting-edge technology with natural materials to create intricately textured ceramic vessels. Based in Eindhoven, he has developed pioneering 3D printing and digital fabrication methods honed by years of research and experimentation. In a special commission for COS, Olivier has created a series of five vases using his custom-designed 3D printer, currently on display at a selection of our stores around the world.

Talk us through your process.
For me, design is about creating new shapes and exploring new possibilities through the development of tools. By studying the limitations of what can be made and improving processes step by step, I’m essentially designing the manufacturing technology itself.

Tell us about the custom made vases that you created for COS.
I studied COS’ Spring Summer collection and was particularly intrigued by the sportswear-inspired garments: the shapes, colours and tactile nature of the fabrics. With the combination of textures and outlines, it’s almost as if the clothing and wearer merge together to create new forms. I used this idea as the starting point to develop three pairs of vases.

How do you think technology is transforming the relationship between the artist and their work?More people can now make things in digital form and share their work globally in an instant. The digitisation and democratisation of manufacturing builds upon those trends, allowing people to manufacture quickly and directly. Technology in this sense is a great enabler.

When did you start working with digital fabrication methods?
From a very young age I can remember being fascinated by machines. Strange boxes that hummed and made rattling noises. Metal contraptions with buttons, dials, levers and lights. Things that made other things. Throughout my life I’ve been captivated by those parts of the making process and this is my goal as a designer: I want to make machines that enable others to create. I started out with printing plastic, but eventually switched to clay and began to experiment with different types. I designed and made my own ceramic 3D printer but faced major issues, mostly the objects collapsing. A breakthrough came when I decided to move away from mixing clay with water and by redesigning my extruder – I started to use hard clay that allowed me to make larger items with intricate detail.

You work with a wide variety of materials such as paraffin and clay; do you have a preferred material?I want to use natural materials that come from a particular place and whose origin and manufacturing I understand. Ideally materials that have been used by humankind for thousands of years, such as clay. Clay is a noble material: soft and malleable when extracted from the ground, hard and resistant after firing. It can be modeled with extreme detail and during its usage is extremely strong but also light. I would like to inspire others to use more sustainable materials than plastic.

Is there room for experimental practise when working with 3D printing?
3D printing itself is pure experimentation. Creating the device, tweaking code, the 3D files; the mechanics of it are all experimental. The machine is designed as an open frame so it’s possible to interact with the printed object and add a human touch to automated actions. I’m also trying to introduce randomness and serendipity into the automated process to develop more poetic, conceptual and non-technical methods.

What do you think 3D printing will look in the future? Are there any technological developments that you’re excited about? Multi-material 3D printing using gradient materials is an exciting development and so are nanoscale 3D printing technologies. Generally 3D printing is being used more in aerospace, the automotive industry and in many other areas such as bioprinting and making scaffolds for organs. Generally the technology will continue to grow in areas where it has unique value, like 3D printed textiles.

What does the next year hold for you?
I’ve just moved into a larger studio space where I have more room to work on new projects. My final prototype of the ceramics 3D printer is almost ready and production starts soon. I’m very curious about what other people will make with my machines.