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Meet the designers printing houses out of salt and clay

Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello are rethinking the way we build and make things.

January 9, 2023
Casa Covida seen in the distance between trees
Casa Covida, located in Colorado's San Luis Valley, is an experiment in combining 3D printing with indigenous materials. The pink orb is a lightweight pneumatic roof that can shelter the oculus from rain or snow and help retain heat in the adobe structure.Courtesy Photo

Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello may have met as graduate students in architecture at Columbia University, but it quickly became clear that “architecture” would prove an inadequate term to describe their eclectic body of work.  

As the pair started working together in 2002, they became increasingly aware that “sometimes the forces that enable architecture, chiefly capitalism, can corrupt the architect’s social agenda,”Rael says. “This became the impetus to rethink how and why architecture should be created.” 

But it’s the restrictions of the discipline that drive them. “We have to create disruptive situations that bring attention to our work—otherwise, no one would ever know who we are or what we do,” they say on their website.

With each passing year and each new project, they seem to add another job title to their respective résumés. They’re activists and designers, writers and materials scientists. Both are educators (Rael is chair of the Department of Art Practice at the University of California, Berkeley; San Fratello is chair of the Department of Design at San Jose State University). They design software and create companies. As San Fratello puts it, “We’re past the time where we are just putting stuff in the world.”

Virginia San Fratello in her studio
Ronald Rael

In 2010, Ron Rael and Virginia San Fratello launched a 3D-printing "make tank" called Emerging Objects, one of many ventures pushing at the boundaries of what it means to build and make things. The scaffolding system next to Rael uses 3D-printed couplings and glass rods salvaged from former solar cell manufacturer Solyndra.

To do the sort of work they were interested in doing, they realized, they had to disrupt what was firmly in place. That started in part by challenging conventional construction methods. Rael describes being intrigued by 3D printing back in 2001: “The allure of the technology was the ability to go directly from a digital model to a physical model relatively quickly and with accuracy.

But the expense and complexity of 3D-printing technology at that time made it inaccessible, so they created a solution: Potterware, a browser-based design application that eliminates the need to learn 3D-modeling software. This lowers the bar to entry “so that a middle school student can be up and 3D printing in a day,” San Fratello says. “It all speaks to that accessibility. We’re interested in making things simple and affordable rather than more complex.”

"I imagine this new 3D-printed brick assembly to be a kind of future archaeology or ruin," says San Fratello of her installation in Faenza, Italy, of bricks made from locally sourced clay. It's "already part of something historic but new at the same time."
In 2019, when children were separated from their families at the US-Mexico border, Rael San Fratello installed these pink teeter-totters, allowing residents of El Paso and Juarez to unite through play. It was, they explain, "our form of protest, our way of disrupting the status quo."
child on a pink teeter-totter installed on the US-Mexico border wall

Early on, they realized they had something unique to bring to 3D technology. “We both come from rural backgrounds, growing up outside in the landscape, literally playing in the dirt,” says San Fratello. “We were both able to bring our own lived experiences to that—our own connections to the earth and to agriculture. That lived experience combined with these amazing technologies, and that’s why our practice is different. We bring our love of earth and literally put it in the printer.”

people relaxing in a 3D printed cabin
Emerging Objects' experiments in materials, software, and hardware come together in this prototype dwelling unit. Zoning restrictions were relaxed in response to the Bay Area housing crisis, which inspired the pair to address housing problems at a micro scale.

Whether it’s a cabin, a brick, a vessel, or an art installation, a constant of their work is its rethinking of natural materials through the lens of technology. A project might be printed from mud, sawdust, salt, or Chardonnay grape skins—all materials that come from the earth. Everything is about experimentation, about asking “Why not?”

The pair would defy any attempts at categorization, however. As they say on their website, “It would be impossible for us to say we have a studio philosophy. We just try to keep making.”

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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