Work

How a 3D Printer Led to a Career Pivot

How a 3D Printer Led to a Career Pivot

How a 3D
Printer Led to a Career Pivot

When we think of 3D printing, we usually think of picture frames or steak knives, maybe a car engine. We think of the practical items. But the whole idea of 3D printing is that the possibilities are almost limitless (assuming you can make a template for it). In fact, it could soon be as mainstream as microwaving, says architect Jenny Wu. She would know. Wu started a whole new career with a 3D printer.

In 2013, Wu made a trip to Miami’s Art Basel. She wore a necklace: a beautiful, sculptural necklace that looked like spiderwebs made out of resin. She didn’t plan on selling her necklace—it was just something she’d made for herself—but “every five minutes people kept stopping me, wanting to buy it off of my neck,” she says.

That’s how her jewelry line, LACE by Jenny Wu, was born. Created with 3D printers and unlikely jewelry materials like nylon and steel, Wu’s pieces look more like futuristic art than jewelry. And in fact, it’s a classification that was made official in 2017: That’s when LACMA acquired one of Wu’s necklaces and made it part of the museum’s permanent collection. Since that fateful career pivot at Art Basel, Wu has launched a line of rings, earrings, bracelets, and wedding pieces, all with her signature architectural aesthetic.

A Q&A with Jenny Wu

Q
What led you to jewelry design?
A

I’ve been an architect for eighteen years, and I started my practice around 2006. The kind of architecture we do is quite unusual, and it feeds into how I thought about jewelry. As an architect, I was interested in rethinking production, like how you make something and then how you push the boundary. I was also thinking about the relationship between technology and design and how you incorporate them.

Fast-forward to 2013. Our office had built a reputation and name for doing innovative designs, and I started doing a lot of public speaking about our work. I had this idea about a type of necklace that felt like an extension of my outfit, or a way to present myself, but it made a statement and was something unique. I knew nothing about fashion. At that time, the only production method I knew was how to design it on the computer because that’s how we design things in architecture.


Q
What was your design process like?
A

It was super complicated. I knew a bit about 3D printing because of my background as an architect, but in terms of the range of materials and the breadth of what 3D printing can do, I had barely scratched the surface. But it was the only way I could think of producing this piece of jewelry because of how intricate and architectural it was. That’s where the name LACE by Jenny Wu came from. I printed three necklaces, and I started wearing them. At that time, I was still trying to figure out what material to use. Typically, 3D printing is used for prototypes and one-offs but not for full productions because of material limitations. People haven’t really figured out how to make something that is ready for mass production.


Q
What are the challenges of 3D printing?
A

Finding the material was really difficult, and also the cost of making a piece was quite expensive. Traditionally, the 3D printer is used for much more industrial projects, like steel-printing engine parts, so we’re translating that into making something small and delicate and trying to understand how to use this technology best.

After working with several different 3D-printing companies and prototyping and figuring out what material made sense for the application, I would produce a piece myself and wear it for three to six months to see how it would behave over time—like is it going to sag? Is the elastic going to hold? The first material I used for a necklace was an elastic, nylon material, so it felt almost rubbery. I wanted it to be something you could wear for a long time and not feel as if something were poking at you or that it would break or that it was something really hard or heavy.


Q
Besides 3D printing, how else does architecture play into your design?
A

As architects, when we put a project onto a site, we think about how it fits the location. I think about our body as the site for our jewelry, but it’s just at a smaller scale. I would first start by doing some sketches, thinking: Is this piece going to be on the hand? Is it an earring? Is it a necklace? And then about how it would lie on that part of the body. For example, the Mobius ring is one of our bestsellers, and it feels like such a statement. It’s a larger ring, but the way it drapes over the knuckle and how your hand balances the weight of it makes it feel effortless.

LACE by Jenny Wu
LACE by Jenny Wu

We have to think through each piece we make. We 3D-model it, and then we prototype it with a more basic 3D print, whether it’s plastic or resin, just to test it out. We make little prototypes to see how it feels, and then we start to see how we might want to craft the edge. Each of my pieces, especially the metal pieces, has a nice edge that makes it more refined. Once we get to a point where it feels right, we start to prototype it in the actual technology. We usually prototype a piece about six months before we launch it.


Q
One of your designs, the Catena necklace, was acquired by LACMA and is now part of its permanent collection. How did this come to be?
A

It’s been amazing and crazy. Over the years, the curators at LACMA have approached us wanting to acquire something from the office, whether it’s furniture or installations we’ve done, but it hadn’t quite worked out. Then, when we launched this line, they really loved the necklace, so they decided to buy it and acquire it for their collection for its artistic and architectural value.

This was a special piece because I had been working with a 3D-printing company and trying to make one of my necklaces, which is normally made of nylon, into a fully 3D-printed steel one. This is tricky to produce because the interlocking steel is so intricate. It was a year and a half in the making to make this a necklace that you can actually wear.


Q
What is your overall design philosophy, in terms of both architecture and jewelry?
A

Design is less about specific things that you’re creating—it’s a kind of thinking. It’s a process. There is a different expertise in designing a larger building versus designing a piece of jewelry, but the spirit of how we start both projects is very similar.

A lot of the time, designers will think of a design, and then they ask someone to manufacture it. But because I’m going through the whole manufacturing process, it allows me to think, How can I push this manufacturing process to its limits? As architects, we design a building, and then we have to make sure you can actually build it and it’ll stand up. There are so many parameters, and this has made me a designer who wants to make sure that the whole piece holds up, from the design to the end product, without just hoping someone else will solve the problem.


Jenny Wu is the founder and design director of LACE by Jenny Wu and a partner at the award-winning architecture firm Oyler Wu Collaborative, which she founded in 2004 with Dwayne Oyler. She is also a member of the design faculty at the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

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