Gorgeously Complex 3-D Printed Sculptures You Can Eat

The Sugar Lab makes geometric confections, fittingly, from sugar.

Much has been made about the game-changing uses and applications for 3-D printing. The technology has made headway in every field you can think of–from prosthetics and bionic organs to design and architecture to, yes, functioning firearms. There have also been plenty of printing experiments with food, an idea not everyone finds so appealing. Printers can be modified to print both cooked and raw foods, whose shape can even be customized.


It was just announced that NASA is investing in 3-D printer food prototypes that use “cartridges” of oils and protein-enriched powders to print meals for astronauts. In the coming weeks, the developers behind the system will attempt to print their first savory food–a freshly “baked” pizza. But what’s for dessert?

How about a sugary confection from the Sugar Lab. The LA-based studio prints edible sculptures and food ornaments using just pure, unadulterated monosaccharides, i.e., white sugar.

Founded by husband-and-wife team Liz and Kyle von Hasseln, the Sugar Lab developed out of a simple desire: The couple wanted to make a cake for a friend’s birthday. At the time, the pair were graduate students at SCI-Arch, where they would later invent a novel form of 3-D printing using UV light. They were living in a small apartment, complete with a tiny kitchen that, of course, had no oven. “When we realized we couldn’t bake our friend Chelsea a cake for her birthday, we decided to try to 3-D print one instead,” Liz tells Co. Design. “After a period of trial and error–during which her actual birthday came and went!–we managed to print a simple cupcake topper that spelled out ‘Chelsea’ in cursive sugar.”

Needless to say, the friend loved it. The von Hasselns were intrigued by their foray into printable treats and decided to continue the project. After graduating last fall, with a $100,000 grant (the “Gehry prize”) under their belts, they relocated to a new studio in Silver Lake, LA’s trendiest neighborhood. The larger space allowed them to prototype larger and more complex sugary sculptures.

So what’s the recipe? Von Hasseln describes the process as being comparable to any rapid-prototyping project, with one major difference. A 3-D digital model is made and iterated to account for aesthetic, structural, and material considerations. Whereas with most prints, a synthetic material like resin is used to cast the form, the von Hasselns use sugar to print their works. They alternate strands of the sweet stuff with layers of a water and alcohol solution that wets and hardens the sugar. “If you’ve ever made frosting and left the mixing bowl in the sink overnight, you know that moistened sugar gets quite hard. That’s the underlying concept of 3-D printing with sugar.”

The results are surprising. The vortical shapes and double-curved geometries fully test the sugar’s structural properties while exploiting the formal freedom made possible by the printer. The von Hasselns are currently collaborating with cake artists to produce a set of extravagant cake stands and sugar tiers that will support equally impressive sculptures. What’s exciting for them is how they can expand the project in not just form but also size and function. “3-D printed sugar can be used to sweeten or to ornament, and it can also start to define the form of the food instead of the other way around.”


About the author

Sammy is a writer, designer, and ice cream maker based in New York. He once lived in China before being an editor at Architizer.