“Let me know if you have difficulty hearing me - I’m printing something here! It’ll finish as we talk - so I might have to pop away,” Virginia San Fratello tells me excitedly as soon as she enters our Google Hangout, before picking up her laptop and flipping the camera around: “Actually - I can show you right now!”
The Colorado ranch Virginia has been based at during the global pandemic is over 14,000km from my lockdown location in Melbourne, but her pure enthusiasm is infectious.
An educator, designer, builder, architect and 3D-printer; Virginia is a founding partner of the Oakland-based make-take Emerging Objects. Named a trailblazer in the 3D printing industry by Archinect, Emerging Objects has been globally noted by Wired magazine. Virginia’s design work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian Design Museum and others.
To put it simply: Virginia San Fratello doesn’t just turn lemons into lemonade. She (with her partner Ronald Rael) turns grape skins, sawdust and mud into houses. The most recent of which is the Cabin of 3D Printed Curiosities in Oakland, California, which uses corn-based bioplastic for interior panels, actual coffee for coffee cups, chardonnay grape skins from local wine region Sonoma and sawdust from Sierra Navada.
“It brings together a lot of the material research, different software we’ve developed and 3D printing we’ve used into one total work of art.”
Virginia’s been conducting material research, developing software and experimenting with 3D printing as co-owner of Emerging Objects for the last decade - though her relationship with making is much longer-term.
“I’ve always been interested in design and architecture. I did an undergrad in textile and product design before going to Columbia University in the mid-late 90s. At that time, one of its biggest claims to fame was being the only architecture school that had paperless studios - so everything was digital. For me, 3D printing and digital design has been a long time coming.”
Balancing her time between Emerging Objects and teaching as the chair of design at San Jose State University, Virginia draws huge inspiration from the past and nature.
“I love to travel, I’m so inspired by the world and its history. Some years ago I went to Yemen and had the opportunity to tour Shibam, a city that has some of the most incredible and tall earthen buildings in the world - it is often called the ‘Manhattan of the Desert’.
Many of the buildings are seven hundred to one thousand years old and they are all made out of mud – that trip inspired us to think about the resilience of earthen architecture and how we might consider sophisticated buildings of the future being 3D printed out of mud.
I’m also very inspired by “the forms and logic you can find in nature.” For example, a barrel cactus is shaped in a way that creates irrigation channels to collect water at the base of the plant. I think by examining the architecture of nature we can often learn how to shape our own buildings and designs.
With a love of working in all different scales and ‘just as happy to design and print a coffee cup or spoon as a building’ - Virginia’s work is widely recognised. But it hasn’t always come easily.
“Emerging Objects started as only Ronald and myself, a small team of two, and while we do periodically scale up for larger projects, we are always still a relatively small team. We both also teach at public institutions so some of our internal challenges have to do with finding significant chunks of time but also finding financial support for the research. Because we don’t have the luxury of huge funding sources – we have to be resourceful and economical which has led us to print with materials such as salt, because it is local and inexpensive – or sawdust, because it is a waste material, which makes it essentially free. I believe this constraint has led us to discover different, more interesting, and more valuable outcomes.
“I think obstacles can be transformative in determining a direction or trajectory.”
Virginia’s lemon-to-lemonade exploration into the intersection of craft traditions and contemporary technologies is a refreshing take the world needs right now. Undoubtedly, we’ll see more of it.
“Oh, I have to get the print, it’s finished! One moment!”