The 3D printed gun – the most important thing you’ll see during London Design Festival

Tucked away in a small gallery in the Victoria & Albert Museum, between the Sculpture Court and the Sackler Centre, is one of the most important and intriguing objects you’ll see during this year’s London Design Festival.

Incongruously sited next to Gareth Neal’s George chest of drawers and Studio Makkink & Bey’s Ear Chairs is a disassembled yet fully operational model of Cody Wilson’s Liberator – the world’s first 3D printed gun.

The Liberator has been acquired as part of the Design Fund to Benefit the V&A, an annual project that funds the museum to buy contemporary design objects for its permanent collection, with an emphasis on the innovative, the influential and the exploration of current trends.

With its acquisition of the Liberator, the V&A has put itself at the heart of a controversial debate about the boundaries of new technology and the democratisation of design and manufacturing.

Developed by Texan law student Wilson, the Liberator was first fired in May. Wilson’s company Defense Distributed now creates designs for guns and gun parts that can be downloaded and printed out by anyone around the world with access to a 3D printer.

That this development is so far ahead of current licensing and laws is evidenced by the hoops the V&A had to jump through to acquire the object.

The Liberator Gun, 2013, by Cody Wilson
The Liberator Gun, 2013, by Cody Wilson

V&A curator Kieran Long  told the Observer that Wilson refused to bring the gun over himself, for fear that he might be arrested, and furthermore couldn’t get an American export license to send it over to the UK. Instead, a London-printed stand-in is on display.

The V&A is not the first institution to display guns as contemporary design objects. The Design Museum brought an AK47 into its permanent collection in 2011, sparking a debate over whether an object created to kill people could be presented as a ‘design icon’.

In displaying the Liberator so modestly and without ostentation though, the V&A could never be accused of this. Even the most ardent gun fetishist would struggle to be turned on by a pile of small plastic parts.

What the V&A is doing, laudably and simply, is making us think about how design pushes the boundaries of human possibility – in beauty, in function, in comfort, in thought – in good and in bad.

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