Recycling Failure, Reusing Success: An Interview with UAU Project
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An Interview with UAU Project, 3D printed home products by UAU Project, photo: courtesy of the artists, center, uau_project_horizontal1.jpg
Characterised by their defining blend of colour and texture, the products created by UAU Project present themselves with a humble confidence. But the story of this Polish design studio is far more complex than their minimalist designs convey. Throughout a journey of uncertainty, setbacks and unmistakable persistence, the Polish design studio has held steadfast to eco-friendly design principles and unrelenting experimentation.
UAU Project was founded in 2011 by Justyna Fałdzińska and Miłosz Dąbrowski. For a while now, the Warsaw-based studio has been focused on leveraging the power of consumer-oriented 3D printing to design unique products that are also capable of being produced at home by anyone with their own printer.
Minh-Quan Nguyen: What was the first time you ever saw a 3D printer?
Miłosz Dąbrowski: It was when we were still students at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts – our faculty had bought one, and they were asking students to use it so that it wouldn’t just sit there and collect dust. And I remember that it was a really expensive, gypsum type 3D printer – meaning that it worked by solidifying powder. And it would be such a pain to use, because you had to be really careful pulling an object out of the powder, and then you had to put a sealing solution on it so that it would harden, but doing this also made it worse in quality. So you’d need to sit there for a few days and sand it to make it perfect.
Justyna Fałdzińska: This also impacted our design principles, because we decided that we didn’t want our customers to sit there with sandpaper to post-process anything, we want them to just print out objects that are ready to use.
MD: When we got our first FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) printer, we knew we could accomplish just that.
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MQ: Your studio was founded in 2011 – how did it all start?
MD: Well before then, we were still doing graphic design stuff.
JF: We were mainly thinking about what we really wanted to do.
MD: We made the Bunny Stool, and afterwards we knew that we really didn’t want to make it anymore. [laughs]
JF: We didn’t want to deal with a production process where we’d have to make “a million pieces” and also be forced to sell them all. You had to have a lot of money to do that, and even finding a producer to make it was hard.
So then we started working at the Copernicus Science Centre in Warsaw, making stuff for kids there – we made the logo and some toys their exhibitions. We were doing all sorts of different stuff, gaining experience, but most of all, we were figuring out all the things that we didn’t want to do. [laughs]
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MD: Then there was the economic crisis, when Lehman Brothers went down, this big economic crash – and there weren’t many prospects left.
JF: So we decided that, either we find our niche, or work in an advertising agency.
MD: We didn’t want to work in an agency.
JF: It would have been easy, we would have just went there and designed graphics – that was a popular choice here. But we decided to find a niche that would work for us. We were working with some other company, freelancing for a while, and then we decided we could do something with 3D printing.
MD: Makerbot printers weren’t available in Poland, so we ordered ours from the US. We waited for it for an entire month.
JF: It might have even been 9 weeks.
MD: Maybe, yeah. And then we got it, plugged it in, we printed a chain… printed another thing in the example library… a shark, and it was like... ‘oh shit…’
JF: We were devastated, we thought it was the biggest mistake of our lives – that we had wasted all our money on this junk and that we’d have to work even more to make back all of the money we’d lost. [laughs]
MD: And back then, it was really difficult to get good quality filament here – I remember some that we bought from a Polish manufacturer, it wasn’t consistent in diameter and kept clogging our printer.
JF: We’d be trying to unclog it with a guitar string, toothpicks, we made so many tools to try to unclog the printer as fast as possible, so that we wouldn’t have to take it apart.
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MQ: So, when you finally got it to work – what did you start doing with it?
MD: We made the Cork Pals collection. Oh yeah, and my friend and I had an IOT (Internet of Things) startup, basically we were working on a smart lock that you could open with a phone app. It didn’t really work out in the end.
JF: Yeah, but in everything that Miłosz worked on, he used 3D printing to make all of the prototypes, so 3D printing was always there – we just hadn’t seen the full potential of it yet. But we had been experimenting with it ever since we got the printer.
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MQ: When did you come to realize your own unique ‘style’ of 3D design?
MD: Well, we had been researching different ways to add texture to our objects for a long time, in order to creatively reduce the amount of plastic in them.
JF: But it was in 2015 that we started using algorithms to generate these textures, and we first showed it off with GROWW.
MD: In 2015, one of the online platforms where we sell digital files of our products, Gumroad, held a challenge where you had to both design a product and create a marketing campaign in one week, and GROWW was our submission. It was the first time we showed off a piece that combined colour and textures in a way we liked. Although we didn’t win, we definitely learned a lot.
MQ: You’re now implementing algorithms into a lot of the designs you’re creating now. What exactly does an algorithm look like when talking about 3D printing and design?
MD: Essentially, we use a plugin called Grasshopper for Rhino, the modeling software, essentially we start out with a set of basic mathematical equations, converting from a point to a curve, from a curve to a shape, from a shape to a bigger shape.
This helps us generate all of our forms – we try to make them generative, controllable, based on rules that we’ve set, then we like to pull all of the switches and see what comes out. Of course, we draw out our forms first, and then create the algorithm necessary to make it happen, but if something unexpected happens along the way, and we really like it, we’ll keep it and incorporate it into our design.
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MQ: Was it after figuring out how you liked to design your objects, that you really started to commit to 3D printing?
JF: Well, we still didn’t know if 3D printing would be the only thing that we would do. In 2016, there was a sort of ‘crash’, and people began to lose interest in the technology. In Poland, 3D printing wasn’t very appreciated to begin with, there wasn’t much awareness about it.
MD: People knew that 3D printing existed, but it was still a bit ‘nerdy’, so only certain people had any real knowledge about it. When regular people came in and saw our 3D prints at fairs, their only response would be, ‘Oh...it’s plastic’.
JF: They didn’t know the difference between ‘our plastic’, and something made in China. This became a big barrier for us.
MD: They thought it was all cheap – at one fair in Poland that we went to with GROWW, there were no buyers. People were only looking and saying, ‘Okay, it’s nice, but it’s plastic’. They said it was cheap material, and that they preferred ceramics or wood.
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MQ: What did you do to try to change peoples’ perception of your designs?
MD: [laughing] We went outside of Poland.
JF: We went to Paris in 2017, with the support of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, and it was completely different. There they were like, ‘Wow, this is so great.. .the colours, the textures…’. And so we felt encouraged to continue doing what we were doing. We even got to meet this one famous studio that we had actually learned about in college, and they invited us back to France for another fair two months later.
MD: At that second fair, we got to talk with a Parisian gallery owner. He saw our potential in a way we hadn’t considered, suggesting that we could be making gallery pieces, larger furniture objects, and so on.
JF: We had never thought about it that way. So we started developing projects more like that. In the meantime, we began to curate exhibitions for Gdynia Design Days. We’ve been doing it for the past four years, and for the first two years it was very small. Then we decided that we could do more stuff like that to further popularize 3D printing here in Poland. We were becoming more and more convinced that this was the best direction for us.
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MD: The year after, we went to New York, which gave us even more validation. There was great press coverage, we met the president of the design fair in London, a lady from New York Magazine, a guy from MoMA – you don’t meet these kind of people everyday! They were all excited, saying, ‘Wow, this is great’. And that was really important for us, and we were encouraged to experiment more.
MQ: But you didn’t stop there, you then went on to Frankfurt, right?
MD: Yes, we were invited by the Vice President of Ambiente International Consumer Goods Fair. We weren’t expecting the invitation – it’s the second biggest trade show in the world! So that was huge for us. It was a strange trip, because we were put in the Talent’ section. We were designers showing off our own stuff, and not some big company. Afterwards, we started getting contacted by some pretty important galleries and stores, which was really nice.
JF: It was really hard at the beginning – nobody really understood what we were trying to do, and it felt like we were just pushing this stuff for ourselves. But once people started buying products from us, we bought more printers. Now, we don’t have to limit ourselves, and if there’s something that we don’t want to do anymore, we can just stop. Then we don’t end up with a warehouse full of junk.
MD: And don’t have to deal with selling all of our unwanted pieces at half price.
JF: This is something we’ve always liked, because it’s good for the environment. It’s the same reason why we don’t use supports in our 3D models – we want to only use the amount of material that we need.
MQ: You’ve always had a commitment to being environmentally-friendly. How have you been keeping this up and what are your plans for the future?
MD: We are growing production wise, we have more designs, and in a perfect world we’d create zero waste. At the moment, we are almost zero waste – but that’s mainly because sometimes there are failed prints. However, we keep all of our failed prints – because when we keep them and play with them, stuff happens. They give us inspiration and give us forms to experiment with.
MD: We also collect them to turn them back into filament to printing out new objects in the future – so maybe we have around 1% waste, but that 1% waste will be recycled. That’s the next step: we want to designate a part of our studio to create a space for recycling. It would involve getting a shredder and a filament extruder – that’s something we’ve been thinking about for a long time. I’d also like to think that maybe in the near future we’ll put some solar panels on top of our building to make our production carbon-neutral. That would be great.
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MQ: What are your thoughts on the way that 3D printing technology is developing?
MD: I’m waiting to see what will happen in the area of Computer Aided Design. Right now, companies like Autodesk are constantly expanding their product offerings. I just want to see what they come up with that we could possibly use in the future. I’m always following what’s happening in this world.
JF: 3D printing is back, a lot of companies are investing in it. It’s come from being this really nerdy thing to something making soles for Adidas shoes – it’s becoming ‘cool’.
MD: Another interesting thing to see is where intellectual property protection for 3D printed designs goes. I’m waiting for the moment when I make something I’m really proud of, and I’m not really confident that it’s safe for us to sell on the internet. After all, it’s a downloadable file for a small amount of money. It’s happened a few times, actually, I’d find one of our designs on some other marketplace and be like, what the heck?
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JF: Once, some of our followers told us that they found our designs in some shop in Brazil, which was actually selling our stuff without our permission.
MD: When we contacted the shop, they took the products down, and told us that they were contacted by some Russian designer who sold them the designs.
JF: So this is an issue that’s actually impacting us.
MD: I’ve heard that some companies are working on something to make 3D files signed, so that they’ll self-destruct after they’re printed out. But in any case, we’re still in a place where most people still want to buy pre-made, physical objects.
MQ: If I remember correctly, your original vision of the future was of a 3D printer in every household, and all sorts of everyday products that could just be printed at home. Has this vision changed at all?
MD: Well yes, that was the idea that everybody had, let’s say 3 years ago, that the 3D printer would become as common as the paper printer. But nobody has yet made a 3D printer that is truly easy to print with. Of course there are simpler and more complicated printers, but every time something goes wrong with a printer, your average person wouldn’t be able to fix it. There aren’t many solutions for this out there on the market right now, so I am instead waiting for the day that everyone will have access to a printer, whether that be in a print shop, or library, or wherever.
MQ: So a distributed manufacturing model is more of what you’re interested in now?
MD: Yes, exactly – the best alternative is to have our products produced as locally as possible, even if that doesn’t mean that the end customer is the one printing them. We are contacting potential partners all around the world, trying to contact people that could become our manufacturers.
JF: This would mean that we don’t have to transport our objects.
MD: Printing objects locally would be a lot cheaper than putting them on a plane – the cost of downloading a file is nothing – there is no shipping. And short-distance ground shipping to the customer is better than shipping with a plane.
JF: We now know that one plane trip creates so much more pollution than driving regularly.
MD: But distributed manufacturing would be perfect – we are waiting for it to happen. Of course, we are researching ways on how to implement it ourselves. One of the challenges of doing that is having to standardise printing specs.
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MQ: Miłosz, you seem to have a knack for all things technical – from messing around with algorithms to building experimental 3D printers for printing new materials, a lot of these things aren’t what someone would normally expect a ‘designer’ to be doing. Did you ever consider going to engineering school?
MD: [laughing] Never. Though at one point I wanted to go into Wood Technology – but looking back now, I think I would have been really bored with it.
MQ: Is there any part of your education that comes in handy, or inspired you to do what you do now?
JF: No, not really.
MD: No, because even during our studies, we had to learn all of these Computer Aided Design programmes ourselves, because we had a really basic education.
JF: I think it was rather our lack of knowledge, that drove us to learn everything that we now know. There are all these people on the internet that share advice, and Miłosz would always be searching for it.
MQ: Having run your own studio for almost a decade now, how do you feel about the state of innovation and entrepreneurship in Poland?
MD: There are a lot of innovators, a lot of entrepreneurs here – of course a majority of them are focussed on doing IT stuff, IOT stuff, and working on other tech products. We’ve always been a bit outside of the tech scene, since we’re not a tech company.
JF: Well, there’s also Tylko – they do furniture.
MD: Yeah, Tylko is great.
JF: I think the innovation scene is very healthy here, and growing fast.
MD: We have really great engineers. There are a lot of smart people living here – of course it comes to a point where many of them leave and get jobs in other countries, but there are a lot of great products being made here as well. There are even a lot of Polish companies manufacturing 3D printers now, more than you can count on your fingers – for sure.
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MQ: Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
JF: I would say no, because perhaps if we had done something differently, we wouldn’t be here right now. And being here is where it’s really exciting.
MD: Yeah, I think everything happened in the order it had to happen, and every part of our journey worked out perfectly to get us here – even the IOT stuff that failed.
JF: Especially the mistakes, because we had to learn from them.
MD: I could say that I would’ve liked to start all of this earlier, but then it wouldn’t have been the right time for everything to happen.
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MQ: Let’s say a group of kids, fresh out of university, want to do what you’ve done and start their own studio, or build their own startup. What advice would you have for them?
JF: Find the right niche, and work really, really hard. It never pays off immediately – you have to wait for it. And stick with it.
MD: Yeah, when you don’t stick to it and get distracted by something else, it will never end up happening. You can postpone almost anything, but never the stuff you care about. Learn from your mistakes, because mistakes are important. When you’re not experimenting, never failing, you won’t be learning.
Interview conducted in English by Minh-Quan Nguyen, Jul 2019