An architecture education can lay the groundwork for many careers but it is not too often that it leads to baking. That’s the path taken by Silver Lake-based Liz and Kyle von Hasseln, graduates of SCI-Arc, the experimental school in the arts district in downtown Los Angeles.
While students, the von Hasselns joined a robotics and 3D printing studio, hoping to apply the technology to industrial and product design (and their resulting thesis won the 2012 Gehry prize). Then they decided to try and create a cake topping in white, crystalline sugar.
This led to the founding of The Sugar Lab, which designs and 3D prints edible, “bespoke confections” in sugar, sweet and sour candy, and milk chocolate. Reflecting their background in contemporary architecture, their confections are abstract geometric designs.
Sugar Lab was acquired last year by printing company 3D systems and the von Hasselns now have a new role there as Creative Directors of food products, and are in a process of “scaling up.”
DnA would have loved their work anytime but it’s especially apt for Valentines Day. Add to that, Sugar Lab’s founders, Kyle and Liz, are actually high school sweethearts!
In celebration of V-day Sugar Lab has created these colored chocolate roses; you can also order their 3D printed candies at Cubify.com, currently delivered to L.A. County only.
Learn more about the couple and 3D Systems’ The Sugar Lab in the following Q and A.
Frances Anderton: How did Sugar Lab start?
Kyle von Hasseln: We met in high school in Maine, then in 2009 we started the graduate program at school at SCI-Arc, and that’s when we got into rapid prototyping. Our thesis advisors, Peter Testa and Devyn Weiser, founded the Robot Lab at SCI-Arc and that’s a place for experimental architecture and fabrication within SCI-Arc.
FA. Did you plan on becoming architects?
KVH: Actually, when we went to SCI-Arc we liked the program because though it is foremost an architecture school, it has more than other schools the capacity to think about other design areas, like industrial and product design, even robotics. SCI-Arc graduates have gone on to work in robotics at Samsung and at Bot & Dolly (recently purchased by Google.).
We were thinking about using 3D printing and robotics in progressive ways. What Liz and I did was buy a 3D printer that would be amenable to hacking.
Ours was made to print in plaster and we attempted to modify it to print in wood and cement because at that time we thought we would start a company to print furniture and lighting. We explored that in our thesis Phantom Geometry.
Simultaneously a separate objective came up which was printing with sugar, because crystal sugar looks translucent and it was inexpensive. And it occurred to us if we modified the machine to make it food-safe we could make food that people could eat.
The first instance was my brother’s fiancée’s birthday. We worked on the recipe with a lot more care to make sure it was stable and that we could print fine geometry and it would look beautiful. We printed her name in cursive with tiara that could go on a cupcake.
It was fun for us because it was the intersection of technology and art and architecture, and was also it was a feasible business.
FA: You had to modify the 3D printer; what did that involve?
KVH: I can’t say specifically but it involved making it food safe.
Typically the 3D printers where you feed in a “thread” of plastic type of printing involves a technology that is often called FDM; ours is called color jet printing; how it works is by spreading a very fine layer of sugar then wetting that sugar with the deskjet printer; but we jet out water not ink. Then it hardens and we spread another very fine layer and can get a million colors right away.
FA: Did you need a specific kind of sugar?
KVH: It really is just sugar that you could find in a grocery store. But we had to dial in all those characteristics about getting the sugar correct, whether it’s going to look smoother or rougher, just as with frosting.
A lot of our concerns are the classical concerns of a baker such as taste and crispiness, the micro-texture, how it melts on the tongue, but because its 3D printed we can do geometries that can be really complex. Our background in architecture enabled us to create designs that looked elegant despite the structural weakness of sugar.
We can do lattice work that can support a cupcake, for example, and so you start to see new design problems emerge. It’s fun for us as architects but I think it can be fun for pastry chefs as well.
FA: What do you mean by new design problems?
KVH: There are cultural implications of fallout of new technologies. For example, if you can print out a lattice that supports a cake, then maybe you can slice the cake in advance and serve the cake differently.
FA. Did you look back into history for inspiration, to the aristocrats of centuries past who use to impress each other with amazing sugar sculptures?
KVH: Part of the reason Liz and I chose sugar first – out of different food types – was that this was an acceptable foodstuff to sculpt. We tried to align ourselves with the cultural expectation of dessert as a designed item. It goes back hundreds of years.
They have probably been ten years of periodic experiments with food and printing. Some missed the mark by thinking you make a taco or pizza and to think a machine can do it right away is not credible. People were willing to see the technology applied to dessert.
FA: So is all your work custom and one-off?
KVH: We do one-offs and we also do larger events where people might ask for thousands of pieces of small candies.
FA: If you and a regular pastry chef each prepared an elaborate cake, who would finish first?
KVH: In some sense it doesn’t matter and what you focus on is that each chef has a strength and in collaboration the chef can make an incredible tasting design and we can make an accompanying topper that fits really well into that design.
But if you want to think about the benefit of 3D printing very strictly, it can make custom things very quickly and it can make complex things very quickly, like a necklace with links. I could make a thousand of those links where each one is different because the software can treat each one differently.
We don’t see this as eclipsing what bakeries do and we always collaborate with bakers. What motivated us was the newness of designing really careful geometry in food. We do it literally on a computer; that’s a completely new space. Liz and I don’t want to be the arbiters of what 3D printed food will be. We are asking the culinary community to imagine it with us.
FA: Now you’ve been acquired by 3D Systems. What does that mean for Sugar Lab?
KVH: Chuck Hall, the founder, invented 3D printing 30 years ago this year and 3D systems has pioneered all of the 3D printers in the world. We were really interested in 3D printing and now we work for our hero.
We fall under the Cottage Food Act, that just passed last year, and that kind of inspired a whole cohort of designers and chefs to start small businesses because it allows you to work with nonperishable foods out of homes. We had just finished college and had student loans and this was an affordable business for us. When Liz first published our work online our friends showed it to the CEO Avi Reichental and he reached out to us and said, how can we help? When we got that message we were really excited and felt instantly we had a kindred spirit because he too had been thinking about 3D printing food and 3D Systems has the technology to support that.
Avi was the first person who we could talk to who didn’t get bored and stop listening to us when we talked for hours about our ideas. They’ve been incredible.
Now that we are with 3D Systems we are scaling up and we will have a storefront in Los Angeles. We have become creative directors and are now a 3DS consumer brand, using 3DSystems technology (ChefJet) to make confections which are available at cubify.com.
FA: Have you found your location?
KVH: We are in the real estate market right now.
FA: So what are you making for Valentines Day?
KVH: We have 3D printed chocolate roses. But the cool thing is that 3D Systems has a cloud printing service, at cubify.com. You can go there and order 3D printed goods in ten different materials at least, and it includes 3D printed sugar; if you go under food; you can order 3D printed candy that we ship in LA.