When his son was about 6 years old, Mark Meier made a ceramic bust of him that did not go over well.
“He was very unhappy with the color of the surface I chose. He started crying so I redid it and changed the color,” said Meier, lecturer II in architecture in the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
Creating pieces of art — and the trial and error that comes with it — drives and inspires Meier, who builds furniture, sculpts ceramics and explores his expansive curiosity through digital means.
Meier estimates he’s built about 60 pieces of furniture in the past 20 years and hundreds of ceramic pieces in the past five years. His design practice revolves around digital fabrication, scripted geometric modeling, furniture fabrication and digital sculpting.
The combination of creating and computer programming speaks to Meier.
“I enjoy the process of generating 3D form in the computer.” he said. “In the 1980s, the architecture school had some innovative, very early computer software for doing that. I was able to take classes in programming 3D geometry. U-M was a great place to study that.
“It’s fantastic to now take it further with the ability for those models to control where the machine cuts. We can directly extract curves and surfaces for the machines to follow. It’s particularly helpful when you can program that. I’m really interested in computational geometry and being able to generate form through code, and being able to drive the machines is super exciting to me.”
He might never have learned of U-M’s capabilities in that realm if he wasn’t listening to National Public Radio one day a little over a decade ago. He heard an interview with Karl Daubmann, the first director of the Digital Fabrication Lab, or FABLab, at Taubman College and was hooked.
He enrolled at Taubman as a non-degree, non-credit student in 2010 and then completed a second master’s degree program in digital technology the following year before being asked to join the faculty.
“I’m really glad I found out about the FABLab, because it was the perfect place to combine my interests in 3D form, programming and making,” he said. “Being able to spend the last decade learning about that and teaching it and sharing what I know with students has been a real pleasure.”
Meier said he can trace his art background to growing up in Bloomfield Hills and taking classes at Cranbrook Academy of Art and the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center.
“That was a great environment for learning about all different kinds of art,” he said. “I can remember casting aluminum as a kid. We had some great facilities and teachers there. I’ve always been interested in art, but there were times in my career when the making was virtual rather than physical.”
He taught computer animation at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design for several years in the early 1990s before working in architecture and then computer animation software development. Then he learned about the FABLab where his passions could be combined.
Meier said one of his favorite pieces he’s built was a table he designed for his digital technology degree final project. The table features a curve called a torus knot and is actually 30 different parts that dovetail together to form a continuous loop.
“The school had just acquired a five-axis router. I took a class in using it, and I thought it could cut parts that curve through space in a way that I couldn’t produce through conventional woodworking,” he said.
“I figured out a way to cut the complex joinery and wrote the code to generate the form and the parts. Then I programmed the router to cut them.”
He sold the first of those tables he made but built another, smaller version that sits in his living room. Meier said he has built different kinds of beds, tables and chairs out of various types of wood — walnut and white oak are his favorites — and countless lamps, light fixtures and ceramic cups, vases and candlestick holders.
“I love wood. That’s what I’m really into. But I’ve come to appreciate ceramics, because I can come up with an idea and realize it so quickly, which is appealing,” he said.
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One of the more time-consuming but rewarding pieces Meier created was a bust of his son, Kirk, made of poplar from a 3D scan of his face that Meier took when Kirk was 11. He estimates he spent about 40 hours total between programming the machine to cut the wood, revising the tool paths when it failed and cleaning up the piece.
He said the latter — which involved sanding and smoothing the bust by hand — took about 20 hours.
This time, his son did not shed tears when he saw the final product.
“I think it came out really well,” he said. “I have it displayed in our house and I’m very happy with it. And I know he was pleased with the likeness.”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
One of my first tasks when I came back to Michigan in 2011 was helping the architecture school dean with an exhibition called Photoformance shown at the University Museum of Art. I really enjoyed using my programming skills to enable them to model, fabricate and assemble that installation.
What can’t you live without?
Art. And designing and fabricating using computer driven tools and custom software.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
The Wave Field on North Campus designed by Maya Lin.
What inspires you?
Seeing the work of artists whose pieces have a very loose feel but have that “it” factor that makes them seem exactly right.
What are you currently reading?
“Too Big for a Single Mind” by Tobias Hurter.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
Gary Yost, the visionary founder of the Yost Group, developers of the computer animation software 3ds max. I was working at a design firm at the time, and he recruited me away to join his software development team. Taking that leap showed me the rewards of taking risks, and that has allowed me to pursue my interests throughout my career including my ceramics research, teaching myself woodworking, and lecturing at U-M.