3D Printed Furniture: DI Creates Benches for IDS Center Atrium

As fabrication technologies have advanced, so have the abilities of designers to create new forms at less prohibitive costs. In renovating the atrium of the IDS Center in Minneapolis, Dimensional Innovations, with a team of other designers, have created a series of public furniture pieces using the latest 3D printing technologies. To learn how they did it, read on!

Completed nearly 50 years ago, the Crystal Court inside the IDS Center remains one of the most popular downtown spaces in Minneapolis. This light-filled, steel-and-glass covered atrium connects the Center’s 57-story office tower (still the city’s tallest) with the Marquette Hotel and the Minneapolis skywalk system. Almost immediately after it opened in 1973, the Crystal Court became an iconic space. It even made an appearance in the opening sequences of the Mary Tyler Moore show during the TV program’s fourth season (showing MTM going up an escalator and dining in a restaurant overlooking the Crystal Court.)

Architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee of the New York firm Johnson/Burgee designed the IDS Center (Investors Diversified Services) and its atrium which serves as an inviting—and active—haven during Minneapolis’ harsh winters. The Crystal Court has been described as an “eight-story urban park” and continues to host a variety of public events, including concerts, performances, blood drives, sports broadcasts and other gatherings.

Over the years, the IDS atrium has undergone a series of renovations, most notably in 1998 when a waterfall was installed(!) But the most recent renovations to the Crystal Court restore many of the original modern sensibilities, while simultaneously updating the space for a 21st-century audience. The waterfall is gone, replaced with a more serene infinity pool. Gone, too, is the grove of olive trees and traditional white benches, replaced with ficus trees and a series of organically contoured benches.

The experiential design firm Dimensional Innovations (DI) worked closely with Los Angeles-based industrial designer Jonathan Olivares and the Minneapolis office of Perkins&Will (project architects) to design, create and install the new curvilinear benches, which are inspired by the natural forms of river rocks.

“The furniture plays a really integral role; they bring a kind of nature vibe (to the space) and (their forms) have a basis in river rock typology,” says Paul Martin, Director of Advanced Manufacturing Solutions at Dimensional Innovations. “The rounded edges are something that Jonathan had input on. A colleague of his in Europe developed a computer program to generate the (3D) forms that were then used to develop the design.”

But how to fabricate these streamlined benches from digital designs—at a large scale—when each form is so different? That’s where Dimensional Innovations’ immense 3D printer comes into play. Originally designed for the aerospace industry, the Thermwood LSAM (Large Scale Additive Manufacturing) “printed” each furniture piece from a three-dimensional digital model.

“It’s a real luxury, and it’s an incredibly expensive machine,” confides Paul. “You really couldn’t justify owning it just to do this type of work, but Dimensional Innovations made the investment for (future projects).” 

Dimensional Innovations does a significant amount of work within professional sports, so they originally acquired the LSAM to fulfill the need for large-scale projects in stadiums and arenas. But the team at DI has found ways to take this massive 3D printer and utilize it for numerous projects of varying degrees of scale, including the new atrium furniture for the IDS Center

Typically, the 3D printing process creates objects by laying down layers of plastic, one atop the next, and then mills the outside “ridges” to make a smooth, exterior surface. However, for the Crystal Court benches, the DI designers decided to keep the ridged surfaces, giving the furniture a sense of having been carved by river currents.

“This (project) has been interesting, because normally when we think about using the 3D printer, we’re going to print something and machine it, and then we get this perfect surface,” says Brandon Wood, Innovation Lab Manager at Dimensional Innovations. “But for this project, we wanted to expose this 3D printed line. And so, we’ve had to design around what these printed layers will look like.”

Adding to the nature-inspired theme, Dimensional Innovations used more environmentally friendly biopolymers instead of petroleum-based plastics to fabricate the benches, specifically polylactic acid (or PLA) which can be made from a variety of different plants. Also, the waste materials from the PLA manufacturing process can be recycled.

“We’re making a push for highly recycled content. We captured the waste material (from the plastic’s manufacturing process), and we are in a pilot (recycling) program now with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee,” says Paul. “Along with our material supplier, we’re going to send all of our waste from the project to that lab, where they can break it down, reconstitute it, “repelletize” it—which is the form that we would print from—and ultimately prove this out for a recycling program.”

The Crystal Court’s grand reopening took place this past July 22 and featured remarks from Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. By all accounts, the public response to the renovated space—and the new river rock inspired benches—has been overwhelmingly positive.

And what originally seemed like an almost impossible—and prohibitively expensive—design and fabrication process became a success, largely due to Dimensional Innovations’ 3D printing capabilities.