Lithobox: Custom Shape 3D Printed Lithophanes

This project began with an interest in how traditional artistic techniques could be applied to new technological innovations. Our goal is not to automize processes of making, but rather, by exploring new mediums of fabrication, create more opportunities for expanded design and creative production.

Lithophanes in Ceramics

Lithophanes were first created in Europe in the 1820s. A lithophane is a translucent porcelain plaque which when backlit reveal detailed images. Traditionally, porcelain lithophanes are made by carving a design onto a wax plaque. The thinner the wax is carved, the more light will be able to shine through, and the lighter that part of the lithophane design will appear. The wax is then used to make a plaster mold, which can then be used to make multiple ceramic copies of the lithophane design. Because of this production approach, most lithophanes were flat and curved lithophanes were very difficult to make, and, therefore, extremely rare.

below: Rare Meissen lithophane globe, shown lit and unlit, German, 19th century, Blair Museum acc. no. 1794, Height: 11.5″. Retrieved from The Blair Museum of Lithophanes


Lithophanes and 3D Printing

There has been some previous interest in making 3D printed lithophanes, since lithophanes offer an easy means of adding pictorial detail to a object through the use of light and physcial shape. This is ideal for 3D printers, which can easily fabricate incredibly detailed objects.  Some sites, such as, allow individuals to generate their own lithophanes from images, using a few pre-offered shapes. Largely, these have been used as an alternative means to display photographs.

3D Printing Lithophanes: Unique Design Opportunities

We seek to go beyond the current options of 3D printed lithophanes and explore unique options of the medium. One of our early realizations was that, given the approach of 3D printing, there was no need for the relief image to be on the side of the lithophane that was visible to the viewer. By placing the relief on the inside of the lithophane, any indication of the image is invisible when the lithophane is not lit. The silhouette of the lithophane could also be varied, and we experimented with making lithophanes of various shapes.

below: example of round lithophane with design printed on the inside. When not lit up, the lithophane appears completely smooth.
orb lithophane fish1.jpg       orb lithophane fish2.jpg

below: example of a lithophane with a custom silhouette shape (in this case, a vase), and designs printed on both the inner and outer sides of the design. When lit up, the design printed on the outer side of the lithophane appear crisp and clear, while the design printed on the interior appear blurred and spectral.

lithophane vase1_1.jpg       lithophane vase1_2.jpg

Lithophane toolkit: Lithobox

As part of our research, we wanted to create a way for people to easily create custom shaped lithophanes with the options for have images both the inner and outer sides of the lithophane. The program (Lithobox) allows users to build a 3D lithophane in 3 steps: 1) creating the sihouette of the 3D lithophane 2) adding outer or inner images 3) setting the intended size of the lithophane and exporting it as a 3D printable .obj file




We held a study with undergraduate students to get feedback on the interface. Overall, students felt the interface was easy to use, but did suggest some changes such as adding specific instructions of how the program works and including templates. In terms of function, the participants suggested applications such as night lights, phone covers, and costume pieces. Even more interestingly, some suggested complex, multi-lithophane structures and combining lithophanes with other technology, such as Arduino powered lights and motors.

This work is ongoing. Looking forward, we want to talk to ceramists about what it means to combine and translate artistic practices into different art mediums, and how new approaches may change how artists create art. We are also seeking to work in collaboration with light artists to create new experimental lithophane designs.

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