“We will be selling data; we won’t be selling products,” predicts Francis Bitonti, a future-propelled designer whose work has been pushing the fashion/products industry forward since his computation-based design studio opened in 2007.
He started his career in animation, film, and video, but wanted his creations to be more material and manifest in the physical world. So he pursued a graduate degree in architecture at a time when reliance on computer-aided techniques was accelerating. Armed with a programming background, Bitonti found that his experience digitally simulating form in film and video was ideally suited for these changes taking place in architecture and product design. He even continued using his preferred animation software, Autodesk Maya—which he uses from concept (as a sketch tool) to production—for his transition into the product world.
Bitonti was able to materialize ideas he’d been algorithmically generating for years. His goal was to translate what he saw rendered on a screen into reality—literally, if possible. In fact, for the first few years, he often worked with car paint as a finish.
“The reason I used car paint so much early on is because it looked most like a rendering,” Bitonti says. “It has that kind of artificiality. I was trying so hard to get the aesthetic of digital, and what I was seeing on the screen. That was what was seductive to me. That was what I was falling in love with.”
But it was the Squiggle Rack, a submission to a competition held by Cooper Hewitt and the New York City Department of Transportation, that prompted him to found a business based on his computational design and production techniques. His project wasn’t selected as the winning entry, but the process provided an education in 3D printing and computer-driven manufacturing, which at the time was in the early days of broadening its scope to new applications. The experience also entrenched his design style, which pushes computer-design tools to make a great object, then reverse engineer the manufacturing steps to make what he sees on the computer manifest in real life.
In the case of the Squiggle Rack—an innovative take on a bike rack—Bitonti first thought he would need to rely on sculptors to make the intricate modular form. He found this reversion to craftsman/craft techniques for production frustrating—and not the leap into the future of things he’d envisioned.
“They were carving it by hand, and they had their own interpretation,” Bitonti says. “And it wasn’t really an object of mass production. The aesthetic was of a craft. I didn’t want to move forward with that because it seemed antithetical to the concept of design, especially in our contemporary world. It didn’t make any sense to be using all of these tools, then going back to craft.”
Bitonti had heard about 3D printing and discovered that a company called RedEye was 3D printing parts for cars. He thought that if they had sheets big enough for printing car parts, then they could probably print his bike rack. They could, and did, and Francis Bitonti Studio launched soon after.
Since then, he has manufactured his designs exclusively with computer-controlled methods—CNC, laser, and 3D printing. As of late, Bitonti has focused on 3D printing primarily because of rapid developments in materials science. When he started, the emphasis was on developing better machines and how to print. The only material available was ABS plastic, which could accept only five or so finishes. In the past two years, however, the increased variety of materials available has opened up new opportunities for designers who rely on computational techniques for both development and production.
Bitonti is enthusiastic about the acceleration of technology for his field. “In the beginning, we were a small group learning a lot from each other, but sometimes the work was difficult to differentiate,” he says. “As the tools have improved—more powerful computers with better design software and more variety in materials—more individual aesthetics have developed, and the work is more interesting.”
Bitonti’s portfolio is varied and includes fashion, furniture, and home accessories. He’s also taken on several high-profile projects since founding his studio, including Dita’s Gown, the product of a collaboration with Michael Schmidt and Shapeways. The gown, designed specifically for burlesque dancer/model/fashion designer/entrepreneur Dita Von Teese, took more than 400 hours to print and features almost 3,000 articulating joints that enable it to move and wear like a conventionally constructed garment. But Bitonti doesn’t choose these projects for any strategic or financial reason. “I’ve only pursued work that I want,” he says. “I’ve never chosen for any strategic purpose.” And, as for any favorites in his portfolio, he doesn’t differentiate. “It’s all one project for me; it’s one body of work that continues to evolve.”
That evolution includes expectations for a radical shift in how products are designed and manufactured. He anticipates a transformation similar to that of the music industry by which consumers stopped frequenting record stores for music once digital options became viable. Bitonti predicts that we will “extract everything physical into a very fluid, shareable medium, and the rules will have to change.” He noted that companies typically associated with the physical world—UPS, Staples, and so on—are already investing in his view of the future with their own investments in 3D-printing technology.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal echoes his sentiment and describes the impact of digital technology on manufacturing in the U.S. It highlights other mainstream companies associated with old-school manufacturing methods, such as GE and Nike, that are making big bets on a computer-controlled manufacturing future. “It’s a revolution,” he says. “Just like industrialization. We went from a craft model to mass production. Now, we are merging those two worlds into something new. And the means of production are becoming democratic and ubiquitous.”
As a small-business owner, however, he still faces some old-world, “analog” problems faced by all young and growing companies. He describes near-term scalability as the biggest challenge he faces. Like most young and small businesses, investment requirements in people and equipment often come ahead of securing a project, and might not be needed when the project winds down. A piece of software that’s necessary this week might not be the following week. But he’s optimistic that his business will scale as the tools improve.
“I am invested in the fact that the work we are doing is redesigning how the world is going to work,” Bitonti says. “We are a prototype for how things will be bought, sold, designed, and distributed.”