3D-printing at Gipsformerei Berlin

Pascal Johanssen inter­views Miguel Helfrich.

The Gips­formerei is one of the few (and leading) plaster mould shops in the world. How did it come about that this Berlin insti­tu­tion was able to posi­tion itself so clearly inter­na­tion­ally?

The Gips­formerei is over 200 years old. At that time it was common for large museums to run their own plaster mould shops. This was for economic reasons — people wanted to multiply things — but also to facil­i­tate the exchange of objects. The esteem in which replicas were held varied. The Neues Museum, for example, was built specif­i­cally for casts, while Humboldt was of the opinion that casts did not belong in a museum. In other cities, due to the differing esteem in which they were held, the museum foundries even­tu­ally abol­ished the casts. The casts lost their impor­tance. But they have signif­i­cance: a casting is like a contem­po­rary witness that we as plaster moul­ders bring to life. We are the ones who have preserved this craft to this day in its entire breadth.

For what reasons?

In Berlin, there was no casting collec­tion after the war. It was slowly built up here, and this gave rise to great esteem.


Miguel Helfrich

Which other plaster mould shops are inter­na­tion­ally rele­vant?

The Louvre in Paris has more objects than our Berlin insti­tu­tion, as the Louvre was founded earlier. The strategic direc­tion, however, is a different one; it’s more about small objects for museum shops that are produced there. Well, who actu­ally knows us? We would like the people of Berlin to know us better, but our customers are insti­tu­tional insti­tu­tions, museums...

...Jeff Koons too ...

Oh, yes, he had previ­ously made contact with Paris and Brus­sels. There is a large collec­tion in Brus­sels, but he didn’t find what he was looking for. Copen­hagen no longer has staff, only the collec­tion, London no longer either. So Jeff Koons finally ended up with us.

What role does your large archive play? I’ve been told it’s enor­mously exten­sive.

In the mean­time, we have the largest archive collec­tion in the world, because we keep all the objects. Others have over 500 objects in their program, with us rather 7000 plus.


Perg­amon Frieze at Gips­formerei

There’s a big differ­ence here.

Yes, but the ques­tion is what is behind the number. Prob­ably we have even more, because there are still things we haven’t really explored, some­times very small forms, in the size of finger­nails... but then of course again very large objects like the Perg­amon frieze — over­sized things. This is yet another speciality that we have, the focus is on large orders, because we are partic­u­larly good at that.

How does the quality of a plaster cast differ? Is the differ­ence in the plaster itself, in the produc­tion?

The types of plaster play a role, yes, but they are not the greatest chal­lenge. This is because we find the right balance in the treat­ment of our moulds. Our histor­ical forms are on the one hand museum objects, but at the same time also means of produc­tion. With every use there is wear and tear that must be kept to a minimum. This is the respon­si­bility we have to ensure that the atten­tion to detail is main­tained in subse­quent produc­tion.

What do you do when you reach the point where the mould has to be renewed or produc­tion has to be stopped?

We have several options. Either we lock the mould and stop using it, or we look for other ways to reac­ti­vate it. The problem is that with very compli­cated moulds, addi­tives such as beeswax used to be added to make them more flex­ible, but after 150 years the moulds are no longer as stable.

Who makes these forms for you?

We basi­cally live from moulds that were bought 150 — 200 years ago or that we produced here at that time. We only make core moulds ourselves, but only a few a year so as not to forget the craft.

Contem­po­rary moulds come from external clients?

Exactly. Jeff Koons had sent extra mate­rial from New York, hard gypsum, which we couldn’t have used in the moulds because they were broken. That’s why we made new moulds. Jeff Koons basi­cally came to us because of the surface quality, because it’s much better here than else­where. We didn’t know that until now either.

Scan­ning a bust by Schadow

Were there any other “high perfor­mance projects” from recent times?

The Great Elector who went to Mexico. He is 4.20 meters tall, designed as a bronze.

Why do the Mexi­cans want the Great Elector of all people?

Inter­esting ques­tion. He has never been to Spain or Mexico and has no corre­sponding connec­tion there. The Museo Inter­na­cional de Barrocco in Puebla, that’s how I under­stood it, simply wanted a special sculp­ture. They also have the Count of Sweden with waving flags. This is a modern, visu­ally and digi­tally oriented museum, they prob­ably wanted some great sculp­tures. Anyway, it was a big chal­lenge for us to deliver it there undam­aged, it was too big, you had to divide it into three parts, build it up so that none of the visi­tors could see it during the exhi­bi­tion.

What new tech­nolo­gies are helping?

We worked 150 years ago. But we’re often asked what Gips­formerei 4.0 looks like. The answer is rela­tively simple: our trea­sure is the preserved histor­ical forms. This is an anal­o­gous storage of corre­sponding templates. Digi­ti­za­tion brings an addi­tional tech­nology that has its own specific advan­tages in approaching orig­i­nals without touching them.

With your focus you could of course be a driver of inno­va­tion. What would be the benefit for the plaster mould shop?

It’s only a matter of time before this tech­nology will show its full poten­tial. How can we transfer crafts­man­ship into the digital? I am firmly convinced that the craft knowl­edge and skills, the analogue perspec­tives, can be trans­formed into the digital. It can be very inter­esting to take on the change of perspec­tive from both sides, the analogue perspec­tive and the digital one, and thereby gain new insights. There I would find it exciting to work with insti­tutes that deal with 3D printing.

Has the Gips­formerei ever worked on a research project in this direc­tion?

We connected the tech­niques with each other in an Achill figure by Tieck. It was missing from our collec­tion, but it was also avail­able in Potsdam and Weimar. In Potsdam the foot with the Achilles’ heel was missing and the spear; the Weimar was complete, but the surface quality was worse because it had been painted over. So we went to Weimar with the TU, scanned the heel and the other missing elements there, made a normal impres­sion of the Potsdam part and finally combined the two. The complete figure was better than the fathers.

Laokoon, Gips­formerei Berlin

Was the joining a digital process or a manual one?

Both. The next step is to go even further and imple­ment this analog knowl­edge into the digital process.

How can that work?

For example, someone could make an analog impres­sion of some­thing, produce the core piece in various small parts and look at each indi­vidual surface indi­vid­u­ally, analyze its struc­ture and event. Then he looks to see which analog tech­nique gives the best result. With the digital, it’s different: you scan first and the computer assem­bles a model. From our point of view, you would then have to develop a digital model and each indi­vidual part and then assemble the indi­vidual compo­nents.

So to adapt the scan to the human eye?


This is very exciting, espe­cially to see what the tech­nology can do in the finish to incor­po­rate the human patina.

After all, our task is to main­tain the inven­tory and preserve new cultural assets. But that doesn’t mean we can’t add new things, and 3D printing in partic­ular can be very inter­esting for us here. You can also use this tech­nology, for example, to restore a shape with a faulty piece. Then you can add the printed part to this figure. This is then not only repro­duc­tion, but also restora­tion.

Apart from the histor­ical works and the restora­tions: is there also a shop with new forms? Or is a case like that of Jeff Koons an isolated one?

He wanted to have things that are in our inven­tory.

He didn’t modify them?

No, he just added things.

So it never happened before, for example, that an archi­tect came to the plaster work­shop and wanted new forms for archi­tec­tural elements in the aesthetics of a wall relief?

No, we don’t do new things. We take up new things. We are a museum insti­tu­tion, that is, we try to preserve the things we have and to repro­duce them as faith­fully as possible. Nor do we make any reduc­tions or enlarge­ments. We only make orig­inal sizes, unless there are histor­ical reduc­tions that are already in the inven­tory.

From which coun­tries do most inquiries actu­ally come? The Top 5?

This differs much too much from year to year to be able to draw up a list. China, yes, Iraq, Venezuela, Argentina, Russia, Poland, Finland — actu­ally from all coun­tries. We are also constantly amazed at how well we are known.

Let’s take a look at the future: What will the plaster mould shop look like in 10 years?

Well, first of all, I hope that we will continue to culti­vate our roots, keep them and reac­ti­vate them again and again. My second topic is the transfer of the plaster work­shop into the digital age. We must seize our oppor­tu­nity, we can really be an inter­na­tional pioneer at this point.

When we think about the future, we think reflex­ively of young people: How does the Gips­formerei get good employees, young talents?

We don’t have any fluc­tu­a­tion, the people who are here don’t go. The profes­sion closest to our work is plas­tering. But the plas­terers no longer learn what is mastered here. That’s why we’re talking to the Chamber of Commerce and indi­vidual plas­tering compa­nies. We want to build or initiate a network in which these profes­sions can be well learned and trained again. We don’t want to hide our knowl­edge either.

This Interview will be shown in the book:
Handmade in Germany. Manufactory 4.0.
Editor: Pascal Johanssen
240 pages
Publisher: ARNOLDSCHE; Auflage: 1 (1. Juli 2019)
Languages: Englisch, Deutsch
ISBN-10: 3897905418
ISBN-13: 978–3897905412