Principles Of Design: Special Studio

Special Studio is a circular design studio that manufactures timeless homeware using recycled materials and 3D printing. Located near an extinct volcano on the New Zealand coastline, their product designs have a characteristic playfulness, brightness and flair that remains somewhat rare for additive manufacturing.

Special Studio is a circular design studio that manufactures timeless homeware using recycled materials and 3D printing. Located near an extinct volcano on the New Zealand coastline, their product designs have a characteristic playfulness, brightness and flair that remains somewhat rare for additive manufacturing.

As a founder and creative force, Matt Watkins is a product designer, tinkerer, and technology innovator. When he couldn’t find the systems to make the objects he imagined at scale, he simply began building his own.  Other makers are now beginning to adopt these machines. Having supplied Reflow materials to Special studio for over 5 years and adapted our product lines to Matt’s feedback and ideas, we decided to sit down with him to pick his brain and get his thoughts on design, 3D printing and sustainability.

Can you tell us about your journey as a designer, how does 3D printing feature?

I've been in product design for a long time outside of additive manufacturing. At one point I was working for an American company, while being based in New Zealand, and we made products in China and sold them in Europe. This supply chain seemed crazy to me. So I sat down and tried to answer the following: “What is the most efficient way to make something?” First, I went about identifying what materials are the most abundant, cheapest and easiest to process. This led me to recycled plastics and polymers. The next goal was to find a manufacturing method that allowed for the creation of a range of different products, with minimal effort.  That led me to 3D printing. 3D printing is great for making lots of different things, which, in a market where consumers are demanding rare and customised products, 3D printing is great. The main drawback of 3D printing is scale, the vast majority of 3D printing studios and makers focus on small, low value objects. This is slowly changing and is the reason why we focused on larger scale production from the beginning.

"This supply chain seemed crazy to me. So I sat down and tried to answer the following: What is the most efficient way to make something?"

Could you tell us about your creative process and design philosophy?

My design process is fairly simple and the only rule I follow is that the geometry of an object is unique. We want to lead with our design and not follow others. We try not to box ourselves into any corners, so our design philosophy is that the object must have a function, we don’t produce anything that is purely ornamental. I also have a disdain for the hubris of most modern designers, it's not about me as a designer, it’s about the product and it should speak for itself. That's why you basically don’t see myself in any images with the products. There's no ego in our studio, it's about creating great products that speak for themselves.

How do you incorporate sustainability, into your design and production processes?

Our main pillar of sustainability is around product stewardship. We have invested in and built the capacity to recycle all of our failed prints and off cuts. We also offer a lifetime warranty on our products as long as the material is returned and we design for disassembly. Returned products are reprocessed into new input material for the next round of production. Any object created must be easy to recycle or disassemble; we don't mix material types, use glue, fixings or paint and don’t employ any post processing techniques.

From day one sustainability was front of mind at Special Studio, we made the decision to use only recycled plastics in all production and partnered with Reflow to achieve this. Localising our supply chain remains the final challenge which we are working hard to achieve while also maintaining relationships with suppliers.

How did your choose REFLOW as one of your material providers?

Reflow was the only supplier when we started who produced 3D printing materials made from recycled plastics that also provided a beautiful range of aesthetics and colour ways. It was obvious to us that Reflow was focusing on the right material properties; the most important to use was finish quality, specifically the Matte rPLA range. Despite the distance materials need to travel, we stay committed to Reflow because the product is simply better than anything else we’ve tried. In terms of sustainability, distributing production is by far the most important next step for all manufacturing companies. We need to bring high quality finished material production to New Zealand and to distribute Special Studio production closer to our customers. Ideally, as our volumes increase, we’d like to work with Reflow to produce, recycle and develop materials in house here in NZ.  It’s while off yet, but still the long-term goal.

The design community often thrives on collaboration. Are there other artists, designers, or creatives whose work you admire?

It seems that every day a new 3D printing studio or product line shows up in my Instagram feed. I think this is awesome as competition will drive us to make better products and processes. The big ones for me are Nagami, Aectual, the New Raw and CEAD. These companies are pushing extra-large format 3D Printing to the next level and I’m so inspired by their work. We are moving into the large format category soon, so watch this space.

Education and awareness play a crucial role in promoting sustainable practices. How do you communicate this aspect of your work and is tone important?

It's about being honest, there's a ton of greenwashing in people's marketing today. We don’t shout about our sustainability, but we do mention that our materials are 98-100% post-industrial recycled materials and are open about the fact that at least half of our materials are imported from half a world away. Moving forward our marketing will focus on our ability to recycle and reprocess our own products, waste and materials. It’s all well and good to flood the market with recycled plastic, but if that material ends up in landfill, that's not that much better than using virgin materials. In house recycling, circularity and product stewardship is fundamental to creating a long-term sustainable manufacturing sector.

Lulu Stool made with Reflow Berry rPLA ⸻

Can you share any insights into the potential impact of 3D printing on the future of sustainable design?

3D printing is great because it allows for low waste production, but more importantly it mitigates over stocking risk. Have you ever wondered what happens when IKEA or some big box retailer can’t sell a particular product because the design trend shifts or the product simply wasn't a hit? I'm not sure where all that unsold product goes, but I bet it isn’t somewhere good. 3d printing allows for a shift from “just in time” mass production to “just enough” agile manufacturing. Beyond this, material development is likely to be where the next big breakthrough will come. PHA for example, is one material on my watch list. Currently formulations are difficult to print but I think a PHA fibre composite is on the horizon that, if the printability issues can be solved, a truly sustainable polymer could be achieved.

"3D printing allows for a shift from 'just in time' mass production to 'just enough' agile manufacturing."

You are also an inventor of technology. How does it compare to interior product design?

Building our own large format machines came out of necessity more than anything, being in New Zealand we simply couldn't scale fast enough as machines needed to come from the other side of the planet. We also needed a machine with specific features so we set about developing the hardware for both printing and material handling such as a dry box big enough to fit 8-10kg spools. Hardware development is as satisfying as it is frustrating. With a technical system it's always about identifying and fixing bugs whereas developing products is significantly easier.  For us it was also about building hardware that functions reliably and looks good. Building our machines in house allows us to scale faster at lower costs and it's likely our machines will be available for sale in the coming year.

Where do you want Special Studio to be in 2024-2026?

The next big step for us is a large format FGF machine. Direct pellet printing has always been on our hit list and our new machine will arrive in April. We have a number of commercial fitout projects on the go at present and I see this growing to be a much larger part of our business. Beyond this we’d like to distribute our production into Europe and the USA. This will enable us again to have greater proximity to the material source and customer.

What is an element about 3d printing led design that you think the industry is not focusing on that you think is important?

Originality and software is something the industry is not focusing enough on at the moment. I'm so tired of seeing the same shapes and textures being used in 3D printed products. Fluted designs should be outlawed. I think this stems from a lack of 3D printing centric design and software tools and also is a downside of 3D model market places. It’s a bit like stock footage in videography. If everyone is using the same models, the products will all look the same and they do, which is a shame. I challenge all newcomers to the space to design your own products, inspired by your own creativity and not copy others. We are still yet to see a slicer dedicated to furniture and large format printing which tends to favour simple “vase mode” tool paths. While Cura and the other slicers are great for technical parts with loads of travels and infill, there isn't an affordable slicer that is dedicated to producing large single wall parts. As direct pellet printing becomes more popular, the need for this well grows and it represents a huge opportunity for the market.

You can explore and pick up the unique creations of Special Studio here and follow their journey on Instagram for new updates.


Creative Director
Gets really excited about projects where design, tech and sustainability meet. Likes gardening, cats and all things photography.