The re-materialization of Type–A phenomenon brought on by Taekyeom Lee
By Purva Chawla
In 1984, the launch of the Macintosh was a momentous event. The world was exposed to a brilliant new technology, and the cherry on the cake was the fact that this technology spoke for itself. Literally. The Macintosh introduced itself to a large audience, using text-to-speech technology to utter it's first 'Hello.'
Those simple words and letters, read out loud by the Mac, became incredibly powerful at that moment.
Though it may seem that the two technologies and their makers have nothing in common, I sense that same power, lent to words and letters, as I look at the revolutionary work of graphic designer and educator Taekeyeom Lee today.
Taekyeom's work takes Type– a string of letters we are familiar with–far beyond its current habitat on paper pages, computer screens, and billboards. Leading the way in what has come to be known as the 'Rematerialization of Type,' Taekyeom converts typography into a physical, tangible experience.
Here is a first glimpse at Taekyeom's work...
So how does Taekyeom achieve this?
The first, most elemental thing you should know, is that Taekyeom's work with Type is the result of an intersection of multiple disciplines: Graphic and Type design intersect with the unexpected realms of Ceramics and Digital fabrication.
The Assistant Professor of Graphic design at the Appalachian State University in North Carolina stretches and morphs familiar three-dimensional printing techniques and tools, to 3D print Type with materials as unlikely as ceramic clay, plastics, and even precious metal. After modeling designed forms on the computer, Taekyeom uses a self-generated desktop 3D printer, and clay extruder to make physical typographic forms.
Building a toolkit
Arriving at these signature techniques and advancing his research, however, has not been without its challenges for Taekyeom. For one, the tools to 3D print liquid clay just did not exist when Taekyeom began his explorations with typography. Nor did a desktop 3D printer that would serve the needs of his experiments, or produce the size of works he wanted to make.
The result was that Taekyeom built it all himself–the tools he would need to create tangible type, and in some cases, the tools that would, in turn, make other tools he needed. To begin with, Taekyeom used a DIY kit to create a desktop ceramic printer based on a Delta Type 3D printer. Alongside this, he built an extruder that would accommodate clay as the medium of printing.
Since the Delta Type printer was based on a RepRap open-source printer, it could be used to print parts for a larger version of itself– which is exactly what Taekyeom did. Using the first printer he had assembled, Taekyeom generated the parts to build a larger printer, that can now create pieces 300 mm wide and 300 mm high. Seen below is one of the newest ceramic-printing techniques developed by Taekyeom, in the course of his ongoing research.
A larger toolkit and set of materials; Occupying public space
The buck doesn't stop here, though.
In the future, Taekyeom foresees creating an even larger 3D printer–using his existing toolkit to print and custom-make the components–one that will enable the printing of larger designs, perhaps even using concrete as their material.
These larger pieces, possibly in robust concrete, could then inhabit public spaces–as Taekyeom visualises– allowing people to touch letters and forms and have a tactile experience of type. This foreseen use of concrete could also remove the need to fire his designs in a kiln, as current works by Taekyeom require.
The roots of a new phenomenon
Taekyeom's desire to respond to the increasing dematerialization of Type in present day graphic design emerged during his Master of Fine Art degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Armed with a little experience from a ceramics class at the university, he embarked on his thesis project "The Rematerialization of Type." Experimenting first with the idea of 'Found Typography'–Type created from the composition of existing, found objects, Taekyeom then moved on to cast handmade letterforms with materials and techniques that are unique to type design.
For his thesis project, Taekyeom investigated alternative typographic design through the use of handmade ceramic forms to create a system of letterforms. He developed an organizational process coined “manual-pixeling” and defined it as the method of creating a letterform through manually arranging modules within a designed system.
Taekyeom's work today
Since those early experiments with hand-cast ceramic modules, Taekyeom's prowess with a variety of materials and digital fabrication technologies has magnified immensely. His recent experiments include a continuing collaboration with Marissa Saneholtz, a former colleague, with whom he has 3D printed precious metal clay–creating glistening 3D printed copper letters and objects. Beyond 3D-Type, Taekyeom has also printed a variety of ceramic objects, experimenting to create what would have been challenging to make by hand.
The response to Taekyeom's work has been both overwhelming and fascinating. Social media has allowed thousands of people to interface with his methods and glimpse his ways of making. Touted as the 'convergence of art and technology,' many people have been excited about his work.
There are a few others, though, who have been apprehensive, commenting that “It cannot be true art.” To this, Taekyeom responds by sharing the vision he really has for this signature process and toolkit–"It will be an extension of our hands, like other tools used for craft. This new tool, simply more sophisticated than others before, allows us to make something we have not been able to make with our own hands" Taekyeom says, "Like the early antagonistic responses to color photography, new technology will always face a range of responses from people."
Meanwhile, Taekyeom's explorations with Clay–an extremely versatile medium–continue. He finds himself drawn to this medium for its pliability, but also for its significance in human history–after all the first tablets, inscribed with symbols and text, were made of earth and clay.
While Taekyeom possesses no extensive training in ceramics, several of his works have been recognized and featured by respected ceramics and arts forums. This is a well-deserved appreciation for the designer, who considers himself a 'maker' at heart,'–a lover of tangible products, even though he is trained in graphic design.
Looking at the constantly evolving forms of Taekeyom Lee's three-dimensional typography, and the printing toolset he is continually building on further and advancing, it is easy to imagine a future where three-dimensional and tangible typography will enter our public spaces in a big way, and change our perception and experience of Type entirely.
Readers, please click on the link below to follow more of Taekyeom Lee's work on his website.