Why a 3-D Printed Gun Belongs in the Victoria and Albert Museum

"Liberator Gun," 2013, by Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed
(Courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum )

At the start of the London Design Festival, the city’s epic 10-day celebration of the functional arts, the Victoria & Albert Museum unveiled five stunning new acquisitions purchased by the Design Fund to Benefit the V&A. Chances are, however, that you’ll only be hearing about one: The Liberator (2013), the world’s first fully functioning 3-D printed gun.

The Liberator was created by Cody Wilson, who “never thought of it in terms of design,” according to the display text inside the gun’s glass case. As the founder of Texas-based civil liberties organization Defense Distributed, he painstakingly developed the blueprints for an entirely 3-D printed weapon — despite interventions from the U.S. Department of Defense, private repossession of his rented 3-D printer, and the potenial dangers unlicensed plastic gun manufacturing implies — to make a political statement, fueled by “hostility to political inequality and contempt for legal regimes,” as he announced in April.

The Liberator’s controversial development has been closely documented by gun enthusiasts, tech skeptics, and socially conscious critics (ARTINFO among them) since its inception, but there’s been little controversy on its merits of design, unlike the nearby Design Museum’s AK-47. Its 2011 acquisition was met with punchlines, but this gun is apt to be taken more seriously. Disassembled and laid across a glass display, its small parts cast whimsically-shaped shadows below to reveal the inner workings; all it took were a few tiny plastic pieces and a singular metal nail to create a lethal weapon.

Design milestones are marked by their uses of emerging technology, a fact as true for the Eames’ mid-century molding of plywood as it is for Wilson’s contemporary tinkering with rapidly prototyped plastic. Like the museum’s other new acquisitions — the mobile privacy of Studio Makkink & Bey’s sound-muffling 2003 Ear Chair; the Macguyver-like qualities of Thomas Thwaites’s ad-hoc, low-tech 2009 kitchen appliance, the Toaster Project; the plant- and animal-derived polymers of Formafantasma’s 2012 Botanica vessels series; and Gareth Neal’s 2013 computer-drawn remix of 1800s royal design, Chest of Drawers: George — the Liberator checks the museum’s self-stated collection criteria: “new, influential, innovative or experimental, and what is representative of current trends in design and society.” 

The "Liberator" on view at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Photo by Janelle Zara

Beyond its shock value and protests against its creation (ARTINFO’s included), the Liberator design is destined to become historical artifact. Of all the new objects created by 3-D printing technology — like WertelOberfell’s intensely geometric Fractal.MGX table, acquired by the V&A in 2011, or Murray Moss’s ornate reinvisioning of the bust of Lady Bellhaven’s headware, a V&A display during the 2011 edition of the LDF — the Liberator is arguably the first to separate the production method’s actual widespread potential from its super-niche fantasy. The weapon will be remembered as the turning point at which 3-D printing crossed over from sci-fi to reality, albeit a sort of terrifying sci-fi reality.