Spotlight - 07/17/23

A Q&A with 3D Printing Expert Sean Kim

11 min

By Meghan Day

“We’re always exploring tools to generate phenomena, and then we work backwards from the expression of those phenomena to figure out, How will we use it?”

A Q&A with 3D Printing Expert Sean Kim

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Sean Kim, the founder of the Brooklyn-based design studio Wooj. Sean creates affordable design objects for the home and is known for compelling forms that are both geometric and organic. All of his products are designed, manufactured, and assembled in Brooklyn, and his business is built on the belief that great products can be made ethically and affordably. We asked him about starting a design business, designing for 3D printing, his favorite printing filaments, and the unique qualities of his work. 

Sean Kim, founder of Wooj design studio. Photo courtesy of Sean Kim.

Q: What was the inspiration behind Wooj?

A: The name Wooj is a play on my middle name, which is my Korean name. It’s pronounced “woo-jin” so it’s modified, the company name is pronounced “woozh.” It started at Pratt. I was working on a project for Peter Ragonetti’s crowdfunding class. That was when I incorporated the company initially, but it was for something totally different. It was for this CNC’ed knife rack. That Kickstarter campaign yielded the funds that I eventually used to buy the first three printers that we had in our printer fleet, which we still have.

The spiritual start of it was during the pandemic. I was still at Pratt and I was looking for a little project to work on. I had just bought a Noguchi lamp, but when it arrived it was broken. Basically the paper lampshade was torn so it wouldn’t stay on the stand. I’d just gotten this 3D printer and I needed a project, so I decided to make a shade for the Noguchi base. Their customer service sent me a new one but I didn’t want to let the hardware go to waste. I played around in Grasshopper and Rhino, just for fun, and ended up with basically the shape you see on the Wavy Lamp today, except that it was fitted to a Noguchi lamp base.

I thought, why don’t I try to make a base myself? I did some iterations and ended up with a form that is pretty close to what it is today. Then I posted it on Instagram and some people that I knew bought it. I figured I’d try to run some ads, and lo and behold a couple of people I didn’t know bought it. It was the beginning of the pandemic, so everyone was realizing: I need home goods. Everyone had a bit of money in their pocket because they weren’t traveling. Suddenly they wanted to make their home look really good. I got picked up by some influencers randomly and then it really blew up, it had a hot moment on Instagram. That is when it started. And at that point, it was still me with just one printer in my apartment.

Q: Could you talk about the experience of starting your own design business?

A: To some degree I lucked out because I was able to do it in an incremental way. The company existed while I was in school and I was doing it on the side while I was working for another company. At that point, it was sort of doable for me to be multitasking. Trying to make improvements and work on a couple of new designs and also just trying to get all the lamps that were being purchased out. It was kind of fortunate that I had this ability to scale up slowly. Then it scaled up progressively in terms of the requirements that the business demanded from me to a point where finally the business was making enough money to pay me. Coincidentally, I was no longer employed and I had just finished Pratt. So it was really good timing. I would say that it was progressive in the way that, sometimes I would feel in over my head but only slightly. But that is a process that continually happens, you’re always in just a little over your head and you progress in your ability to accommodate that difficulty. I think if I were to try to imagine building the business as it is today from where I was two years ago, I couldn’t do it. It’s just not possible. 

I’ve been fortunate to be able to evolve the business as I was able to increase my own abilities to accommodate the requirements of the business, because the business that we have today is significantly more complicated than the business that I started. We have many partners we work with, a bunch of different retailers. We have contracts with other designers who are working on collaborations, we’re working with other people who manufacture our stuff…so it’s definitely much more than I could have managed initially.

Q: Could you talk about designing for 3D printing and how that influences your design process?

A: It’s interesting. I think a lot of people — and sometimes I wish I was like this because I think it would yield different types of things that I don’t really make — have an idea of exactly what they want to see before they begin the process of prototyping and making. In my process, I’m always thinking about how it will be made and in particular how it will be scaled to our production processes. Of course, the primary method that we use to manufacture is 3D printing. So I’m always thinking about how to design things such that they require minimal post-processing or have minimal supports, basically trying to optimize things for printing. A lot of that has to do with the angles of certain parts or the orientation that you put them in. I would say that to some degree it hinders creativity a little bit. I want to make this crazy thing but I’m always thinking, How will we print it? How will we make it? But on the other hand, it yields things that are really tuned to be made in our studio.

It definitely influences my process and it definitely influences the shapes of things. There have been things that I made that were a little bit more complicated, and they were tougher to print. Ultimately some of those things didn’t make it into production because of the overhead that it would require to print them. But I think that happened a lot more in the beginning, when I was less familiar with what was achievable with printing.

Now I have a much better understanding of what is and isn’t possible or what will or will not be challenging, and that definitely does affect how I design. I would say not always for the better, because sometimes you want to think about a thing without imposing constraints on yourself. Without saying, I know that we’re going to print it so it has to be in this shape or it has to be in this orientation. It’s a bit of give and take with that as I continue in my process. There are other techniques that I will use, I don’t only 3D print. I’m trying to think outside those constraints more than I did before.

Q: What are some of the unique aspects of your work?

A: I like to think of Wooj as a cool shapes company. We’re a company that basically makes cool shapes and then we try to find applications for the cool shapes. It’s a business but it’s also my design practice and, as I learn new things, the practice expands. I’m always trying to evaluate and learn techniques and tools to develop new ideas, and those techniques basically inform my product. For instance, our latest product uses a 3D printer to create a woven mesh. In order to create that mesh, we had to write a bunch of custom code and software to translate things that we were working on in Rhino into the code that generated the lattices. That project was largely about the technique and trying to understand what was possible with it, which then finally informed the product. We have a new light coming out that uses that same technique but in a very different typology of light, a wall light instead of a desk lamp. Another lamp that demonstrates this is the pleat lamp. In order to generate that form, we used this software that the fashion industry uses to do draping, and that was how we generated what appeared to be a very organic form. We’re always exploring tools to generate phenomena, and then we work backwards from the expression of those phenomena to figure out, How will we use it? How will we put electronics into it? What is the function that will be derived from this form?

We’re definitely a form over function design company. I like to start with experimentation and figuring new things out because it’s ultimately the thing that keeps me interested in the process. That’s the really fun part for me. 

Q: You now have ceramic products in your catalog as well as lighting. Could you talk about what drives your material choices? Are there other materials you hope to incorporate in the future?

A: The Wavy Cup is a project that I worked on at Pratt, it was a slipcasting project. I wanted to experiment with more complex molds and that one ended up being a five-part mold. It’s got radial symmetry so it’s not super difficult but it was the first time I had made a mold, so it was pretty complicated to me. It seemed logical to try to make it a product in our repertoire, as it was designed already and we knew how to make the molds, but we were not in a position to make our own ceramic pieces.

We work in a building filled with ceramicists, more than half of our building’s occupants are ceramicists.  A lot of knowledge there. We realized it would make sense to work with these companies, to figure out how to collaborate with them. The first round that we sold as a company, we worked with a ceramics company that was upstate. She produced the first run of the cups in porcelain. She stopped doing fabrication and we ended up working with Catalina from Base ceramics. We printed all the mold positives, so it’s definitely still tied to our repertoire of the ability to print things and make geometries that might have simple rule sets but end up feeling more complex.

Ceramics are definitely a material that we will continue to use though we ourselves will likely not produce the products. We don’t really have the expertise or capacity, and it’s our overall strategy to be able to produce things and sell things that we’re excited about, that are our own designs but that don’t necessarily have to be fabricated in-house. There are only five of us doing very different things. We’re working to find other partners to make things, to design stuff for, and make stuff with that we’re excited about. Ceramic is interesting because there are all of these textural things that you can get in ceramic that you can’t get from a printed plastic.

Q: Could you talk about the material you use for 3D printing?

A: We have a couple of materials that we work with. We work primarily with PLA, and we work with a company called Reflow that does recycled PLA. For a while PLA was touted as this very responsible alternative to regular thermoplastics like petroleum-derived thermoplastics, and that very well may be true, but I think that for a time those things were overstated. Even if you are making a biopolymer, out of plant stock, those are being fertilized by petroleum-based fertilizers, and being tilled by vehicles using petroleum, and being transported with vehicles that use petroleum. And so the net outcome in terms of your carbon footprint for that same amount of bioplastic may be the same, or even worse in some cases. In theory it’s compostable but you need industrial composting, which isn’t typically available, etc. All that to say that we’re happy to be working with Reflow because they are using PLA but they’re using a high quality source of recycled PLA. They’re taking a bunch of different materials from the medical industry and the food packaging industry and then recycling that. It’s a recycled PLA that has effectively the same mechanical properties of fresh PLA. 

The other material that we use is a PETG. It’s a modified PET that is recycled. We work with a company in Ohio and they recycle the PET to make the PETG. We use some fresh PLA as well, it just depends. We’re sort of tied to using different manufacturers based on the color choices. Ideally we would have the ability to take the raw feedstock and put in a colorant ourselves, but we’re not quite there yet. It takes a long time to source your own custom colors. So it’s a work in progress, but happily a lot of the material is already in its second life and still has the potential to be reclaimed. 

We mostly use PLA because it’s a super useful material for printing. It is now basically the standard for printing. It used to be ABS that people would print with, which was extremely noxious and difficult to print, but PLA is very forgiving.

We’re happy the settings and tuning that we’ve honed over time. For example, the first version of the Wavy Lamp: it used to take almost a full day to print the shade and half a day to print the base. Now it takes three hours to print the base and four hours to print the shade. That’s just learning over time and optimizing things, really understanding settings and materials. Those optimizations are the factors that allow us to exist as a company, otherwise we couldn’t manage to sell as many products as we needed to stay viable.

Q: What are you working on that is interesting to you at the moment?

A: I mentioned before that we’re working on a new wall light using that woven technique. We’re going to be launching that at the end of June, so we’re working out some final details. It involves a lot of mechanical design that we didn’t really do before. We are also working on a collaboration with a ceramicist except it’s the other way around: we are working on their products to make a lighting product for her. She wanted to make her products more accessible. We’re working on more projects with collaborations who maybe don’t have the capacity to produce their own designs in a way that’s cost efficient. We’re generally aggressive in terms of product launches in the summer. It’s a slow retail season, so it’s our opportunity to both develop new products, because we’re not as busy, and to try to boost our sales by having new products. 

Check out the rest of our Insight series to learn more about the design industry. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development!


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