Designer Spotlight: Francesco De Comite

This weeks Designer Spotlight focuses on Francesco De Comite, a mathematcian who uses 3D printing to unveil the secrets of specific mathematical formulas.
Tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you? Where are you located?
I am 53 years old and an Associate Professor in Computer Science at the University of Lille in France. I teach programming and my research is in Computer Aided Geometry, more precisely the generation of anamorphoses.
What are anamorphoses?
Anamorphoses are images that appears distorted unless they are viewed from a special angle or with a special instrument. Usually this is a drawing on paper that is reflected in a curved mirror, but as I discovered you can also 3D print an object to achieve the same effect!

What’s the story behind your designs? How do you see the beauty in mathematics?
Five years ago, I begun to work on picture distortions (using Gimp), and help my colleague Jean-Paul Delahaye, who has a column in the French version of Scientific American, to illustrate his papers. I soon realized that programming images could give me more freedom in conceiving images, and I learned PovRay. Ray-tracing software, and the ability to put some programming in their code, opens a wide range of possibilities as  everything you can imagine can be brought to live, as soon as you can write a program to generate it. I am not an artist, I can’t draw something beautiful on my own. I am a programmer, I can only render the intrinsic beauty of mathematics.  I like to make my own renders of known mathematical shapes, and experiment with abstract formulas to see how I can use them to render mathematical gems. What makes the beauty of a mathematical shape, is that one suspects there is some order, some symmetry, some hidden rule behind it. You have then a choice to either try to find the rule (and maybe reproduce the shape), or just stay and wonder. You don’t need to be an astronomer to enjoy a starry night.

What brought you to 3D printing with Shapeways?

If you want to have a complete view of a rendered object, you have to draw several images of it, which is time consuming. I needed a tool to produce STL description files for my objects. Writing directly in STL is not very easy, so I began to learn Blender, and its Python scripting ability. It seems better to have the possibility of holding the object into your hand so I began to learn Blender for 3D modeling and to export to 3D printing. I also heard of George Hart and Bathseba Grossman through a paper written by Jean-Paul Delahaye. Working on George Hart’s slide-together techniques, I achieved some cardboard models using playing cards, developing tools to generate different shapes. But some shapes were really too difficult to build from cardboard so I started investigating 3D modeling and printing, which led to my first models. Quite at the same time, my research focused on 3D anamorphosis and the question: can you figure a 3D sculpture which, when seen through a mirror, reveals a completely different image? This question was brought to me by James Hopkins, a British sculptor working on anamorphoses and trompe l’oeil. I began to work on this problem, everything was working well, but to validate it, I needed to achieve a prototype, and wrote the tools needed. Validation worked beyond its original scope and I produced three sculptures, two of them have been exhibited in Coimbra and Paris. Others are waiting in my computer.

How do you promote your work?
I do not promote too much, the main promotion is as illustration of my scientific papers about anamorphoses. I do put pictures of my objects on Flickr and in my Shapeways shop and some of them were featured at Boinboing.net..
I also exhibit my works at conferences and exhibitions. Most excitingly my cardioid model will make the next cover of Marillion’s album. I expect to see whether this will influence my own promotion.
Who are your favorite designers or artists? Who in the Shapeways community has served as an inspiration to you?
George Hart is my main inspiration as he works as a scientist and as an artist. He always has new ideas, and a true intuitive math vision. He is also very kind, encouraging people to re-invent his own works, and always helps you with good advice. Bathseba Grossmann is some kind of an unreachable ideal. I understand what she designs, but have no idea of how to reproduce her work, its beautiful. Vladimir Bulatov, whom I met at a Bridges conference, is the author of very inspirating and challenging sculptures. Nervous System’s works are also very attractive as they explore fields of mathematics I want to try one of these days.
If you weren’t limited by current technologies, what would you want to make using 3D printing?
I still have a lot of standard objects to create, so for the moment I don’t dream of new technologies. Mastering the existing ones is still my goal!
Inspired? See more of Francesco’s incredible work in his Shapeways Shop, his Flickr page and read more about anamorphoses here.