Step into the Silver Lake home of the Sugar Lab and it’s clear that architects, not scientists, work (and live) here. On the polished concrete floor sits a 3-D printer. You’d mistake it for a Xerox machine if it weren’t making sounds like a vintage arcade game as it slowly assembles layers of sugar into lacelike sculptures that seem too pretty to eat: sugar cubes customized with logos for corporate clients and wedding cake toppers in geometric designs.
“Basically we’re mixing water and sugar, which is what frosting is,” says the Sugar Lab’s scruffy cofounder, Kyle von Hasseln. “If you’ve ever made icing and didn’t clean the bowl right away, you know it gets really hard,” adds Von Hasseln’s wife and business partner, Liz. The two met as high school students in Maine 15 years ago and, Liz explains, “have followed each other around ever since,” most recently to the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), where experiments using 3-D printers led them to sugar. In 2011, they dreamed up a business that would revolve around the printer they’d hacked to create edible sculptures. In September they sold their technology to the printer manufacturer 3D Systems, which plans to turn out a version for restaurants and home cooks.
Theirs isn’t the first attempt to combine food with 3-D printing, a tool traditionally used by product designers to make quick prototypes from plastic. NASA is researching the feasibility of 3-D-printing food during deep space missions. Fittingly, engineers at Cornell University collaborated with the French Culinary Institute to print space shuttle-shaped scallop nuggets. And last year an NYU grad student gained attention for his Burritobot, which “printed” layers of guacamole, beans, and pico de gallo on a tortilla in proportions determined by iPhone-equipped eaters—a glimpse of fast food’s potential future.
But while these experiments could take years to hit real-world kitchens, the Sugar Lab is taking orders for cakes today. Clients pay anywhere from several hundred dollars for an eight-inch composition to five grand for a multitiered one. (The pastry portion is made off-site by a professional baker.) Sugar sculptures function structurally, as edible tiers holding up layers of confections, or ornamentally, as a unique crown. A bride can bring in lace from her dress, and the Sugar Lab will print cake decorations to match it.
“It’s brand-new technology,” says Ace of Cakes star Duff Goldman, owner of Charm City Cakes West in West Hollywood. Goldman has been working with the Von Hasselns to bring their sculptures to his clients. For one fundraiser Goldman asked the Sugar Lab to print 200 sugar diamonds, which anchored a chocolate mousse dessert. “It’s easy to come up with beautiful things you can do with the stuff,” says Goldman, “but to make it beautiful and also edible…”
That’s the thing: The Sugar Lab’s sculptures actually taste good. Pop a printed sugar cube into your mouth, and it’s much softer than you’d imagine—crumbly on the outside, creamy on the inside, and it melts, none of which is by accident. “You just have to design that food object to strike all those notes,” says Kyle.
The Sugar Lab, Silver Lake.