When a Humble Goal Cracked the Paradigm Wide Open
The Digital Atelier opened in 1998 as a subsidiary of the nonprofit Johnson Atelier Technical Institute of Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey, under the direction of Jon Lash, a longtime employee of the Johnson Atelier.
Its initial mission was to make the technology that was becoming more prevalent in the commercial sector at the time available to artists, namely sculptors. As those early efforts began to bear fruit and the Digital Atelier’s influence grew, the focus turned to developing software and hardware that specifically addressed the atelier’s diversifying needs.
Despite the rapid technological advances in the early going, the reception to the Digital Atelier was lukewarm. Traditionalists didn’t trust the technology. Others felt it robbed the artistic process of its heart and soul. The results, however, became undeniable. And with that gradual acceptance came the admission that the new way wasn’t all that different, after all, from the way things had been done for the last thousand years. The atelier simply found a way around all the trial and error and the hard labor.
Lash and Dona Warner bought the Digital Atelier in 2011 from the Atlantic Foundation, which operated the Johnson Atelier, and relaunched it as a commercial operation. Today, it fills out 8,000 square feet of office and studio space in Hamilton, though its impression is evident well beyond those walls. The Digital Atelier is credited with spurring the vast and growing network of like-minded studios that emerged and spread across the world over the last two decades. To say nothing of the artists, conservators, set designers, or the architects who have changed their thinking and their fundamental practices because of the atelier’s new paradigm.
Around the mid-nineties, I began to explore a hunch that the technology that was creeping into the commercial landscape was also applicable to the arts and design. Mind you, I knew nothing about computers back then. But I did know sculpture.
After reading up, I was convinced that tech was going to be the new way, so I started using our projects to get our foot in the doors of unsuspecting vendors. Again and again, we tested their limits. And every time, they met the challenge.
Gradually, our focus shifted from adapting the technology to refining it to our particular needs. And as the limitations fell away, so, too, did the parameters of what was possible. Today, our collaborations are erecting monumental public art installations and set designs and realizing intricate architectural constructions around the world.
All the while, the Digital Atelier has stood at the forefront of laser-scanning and CNC-milling technologies because we remain at heart who we’ve always been: innovators. The essence of our aim is unchanged as well: to be a trusted ally to artists and designers. With those mindsets, we embrace the unknown and move the field forward.
President / CEO
3D Laser Scanning
3D laser scanning, or reverse engineering, as we often refer to it, captures a physical object’s precise size and shape and uses that data to create a digital three-dimensional rendering. It’s best suited for the measurement and inspection of contoured surfaces and intricate geometries that require large amounts of data for an accurate description. We employ several laser scanners, including a seven-axis articulating arm with a high-definition laser scanning head. Should a piece be so complex that a rendering of the interior will be needed as well, we’ll find a partner within our network who can provide a CT scan.
5-Axis CNC Machining
A computer numerical control (CNC) moves a cutting tool along five different axes simultaneously. Essentially, all of that rough-cutting that’s required to transform a basic block into a silhouette, that now takes minutes, where it once absorbed hours on end. The early days of this technology were dictated by three-axis mills. Once we realized five-axis, the difference in capabilities was night and day. Within our studios, we house several five-axis milling centers that are capable of machining objects as large as 10 feet by 10 feet by 5 feet.
The naysayers once doubted technology’s accuracy. It seems kind of funny now, to put greater faith in human practices. But, those were the ways that scaling was done for hundreds of years. There was never going to be a wholesale conversion overnight. These days, the debate’s well behind us. Romantic as a rate-of-enlargement equation may be, the software and hardware that we utilize make it foolproof, boiling down even the most nuanced dimensions to simple geometry. Simple in the entry and the retrieval, at least.
Our computer lab’s outfitted with 15 separate software suites, which enables us to translate almost any two- or three-dimensional concept we’re presented with and then engineer it and, ultimately, prepare it for CNC machining, 3D printing, or photorealistic imaging. Here’s another instance of doing in minutes what once required days. Time savings aside, handmade models never allowed for the depth of analysis that CAD models do, meaning development is more informed and less inhibited.
Total Project Management
For the last 20 years, we’ve been driving the integration of technology in fine art and architectural design. Much of the software that features prominently in those fields today stems from our own experimentation. We are problem solvers. Whether it’s figuring out how to make a nearly complete concept a reality, as was the case with Martin Puryear’s Big Bling, or launching an unrefined one from a sketch, our vast experience—over 50 years in fine art casting, architectural design, and fabrication—allows us a rare dexterity to oversee all phases.
The Theater of Disappearance by Adrian Villar Rojas
Installed in April 2017 at the Met’s roof garden, the exhibition is comprised of 16 sculptures of people mingled among replicas of close to 100 objects from the museum’s collection. We helped scan those pieces, process the data, and build the sculptures after the artist created the compositions at his home studio in Argentina.
A Subtlety by Kara Walker
A 70-foot long sphynx-like woman erected in the relics of a former Domino Sugar refining plant in Brooklyn in the spring of 2014 marked the first large-scale public project by Kara Walker. We came up with the idea of building it out of foam blocks, 440 of them in all. The exterior blocks were coated in 80,000 pounds of sugar.
Big Bling by Martin Puryear
Puryear’s largest temporary outdoor sculpture to date, Big Bling, stands an impressive 40 feet tall. The “body” is constructed of bent wood wrapped in chain-link fencing—we handled the fencing and outsourced the beams—with a gigantic gold-leaf shackle anchored to the “head.” (Also our doing.)
A Remake of James Dean’s 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder
On the heels of the discovery of the Spyder’s chassis, after the crash of 1959, which had been missing since 1960, we were asked to remake it in exactly the same fashion it was originally made. After scanning and processing the original, the body was hand formed around the milled cherry bucks.
“I have been working with Digital Atelier for exclusively nine years now, together we have completed fifteen projects, consisting of 27 life-size and heroic works.
They deliver to me a figure that requires minimal amount of work and is made with the bronze foundry mold making in mind.
There is nothing like knowing exactly what you are going to get and being able to count on someone. It has been a pleasure working with them.!”
“I’ve used the Digital Atelier for more than 20 different jobs and have always been very pleased with their work. They’re a great bunch to work with.”
“When it comes to high quality milling of digital files and to artistic collaboration, the Digital Atelier is the best.”
Marta Villavicencio Roberts
Talented at disseminating modeling techniques to artists, Marta works one-on-one with clients and other staff overseeing the assembly and completion of most projects. Marta began working with Digital Atelier from day one and has worked with Jon for over 30 years.