How Has New Technology Affected Furniture Design?

How has New Technology affected Furniture Design

New technology has profoundly affected furniture design through innovative materials and processes available to current designers.  Chief amongst these are the capabilities of computer programs which enable representation of forms previously impossible to draw but which are also translated into direct manufacturing processes. 
This review of the interaction between designer and end product is considered with a case study of a practitioner, Ross Lovegrove, who is at the forefront of innovative design and construction techniques.  He has evolved a curvaceous style which is modelled on natural forms and processes.  The approach is not universally applicable but the techniques Lovegrove uses to achieve these ends have lessons for all designers.  This report looks at some of Lovegrove’s key designs and, within the space allowed, attempts to identify methods and materials used in their creation.
The effort required to achieve his outcomes are, however, reliant on an collaboration requiring great input; most may not be a suitable path to emulate for those without commercial viability.  At this point, those projects relying on more readily available materials and processes must be built upon, despite fascinating results from Captain Organic. 
Continuing technological advances will soon enable designers to draw upon further processes and materials now being refined.  A continuing awareness of developments is vital.  
1.1  Overall picture
Furniture and technology are intimately linked. With technological developments, new forms of expression and structure have become available for furniture producers. Furniture design reflects the broadening of the technological lexicon from the introduction of the nail by the ancient Egyptians to the spectrum of digital manufacturing techniques available today. With technological shifts, new developments in furniture have been enabled
Often with the introduction of new manufacturing techniques and materials, particularly in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, it was furniture that first used new technological possibilities. The two main technological fields that have most relevance to furniture are materials and processing techniques, though increasingly computer design packages, as well as the rapid dissemination of ideas through the internet have become equally important. Today a wide range of technologies developed in recent years is available to furniture designers and makers, resulting in lots of new possibilities, making it a very exiting time to be involved in furniture.
I would like to explore some new technologies available to furniture designers and how these new technologies have been used. This report reflects on recent and current technological innovations. Due to the multitude of new technological processes and materials it will be impossible within the size constraints of this report to give more than the general thrust of advances in some of the new technologies.
The question of how new technologies have affected furniture design has numerous different answers - too many for a single narrative response. This lack of narrative is indicative of the post-modern cultural milieu in which contemporary furniture design resides: the concept of post-modernism has emerged due to technological developments.
Practitioners who focus exclusively on new technologies can be naively blinkered however. The handsaw first developed by the ancient Egyptians around 3000 BC, though much refined, is for many designers as necessary as the most modern machinery. New technology should be assessed in relationship to older technological approaches in judging new form and structural possibilities, as well as in reduction of production costs incurred in older processes.
1.2 Why is new technology relevant to furniture?
In ancient Greek, the word techne was used instead of the words ‘art’ and ‘craft’ and is best translated into the word technology. According to the Chambers dictionary, technology is ‘The practice of any or all the applied sciences that have a practical value and or industrial use; technical methods in a particular area of industry or art.’
Use of new technology is one of the defining features of post-millennial furniture. As one of Germany’s leading furniture designers, Werner Aisslinger says:’ Designing at the beginning of the 21st century will overcome the stylish minimalism of the last decade, with innovation based purely on shape. Instead, there will be a return to parameters that have always been the basis of new epochs and dimensions in design: the sophisticated use of new materials and technologies. Historically, exciting, visionary and pioneering designs have always rested on the transformation of materials and technology into a new context.’
1.3 Does technology define the practitioner?
Materials and processing ability are synthesised by the practitioner craftsperson / designer into furniture. Craftsmen are often defined by their use of technology. As the industrial revolution took hold in the mid nineteenth century, the craftsman became marginalised, or as Giedion states ‘eliminated’, enraging John Ruskin and William Morris. There is an inverse relationship with the demise of the craftsman and the emergence of the industrial and mechanised furniture designer, who started to gain prominence as they capitalized on new technological developments in mass manufacturing.
In production of clay pots, there is a specific tool or technology associated with the process: the potting wheel. The technology, the potting wheel, defines the potter. Perhaps technology defining practitioners is more related to craftspeople rather than the designer, as designers take an intellectual approach to manufacturing rather than manufacturing the product themselves. In the industrial world, a schism emerged, divorcing the design and manufacturing from being undertaken by a single person, to a Fordian manufacturing model, in which production is undertaken by lowly skilled and paid workers, while the designer is removed from the physicality of production. This is changing, as in a post Fordain world of micro manufacturing, often using digital manufacturing techniques, the designer can become the technician in control of production (as seen at Metropolitan Works with its digital production). Perhaps the technician is now a digital craftsman, interpreting ideas into production.
Furniture’s form and function is often widely interpreted through application of new technologies, as can be observed in the work of people like Ross Lovegrove, Ron Arad, Philippe Starck and Tom Dixon. An amorphous shape created on 3D Studio Max by using computer keys and a mouse perhaps could equally be produced in Murano by a glass-bower. Glass blowers have a limited palette of tools while today’s designers are bewildered with the plethora of computer-aided design programs. Yet today’s designers will most probably have their design vocabulary constricted by the software they have chosen to use.
There is an abundance of new technological manufacturing possibilities. Some designers, like craftspeople, are specialising in one particular field. In that field they often have greater concerns for the manufacturing process or the materials used, which can lead to a thematic method of working. For instance, much of Assa Ashuach’s work relates to the use of rapid prototyping technology, leading to coherences and recognisability of his products through manufacturing similarities.
1.4 Materials
Material development is as important as manufacturing developments in the story of how new technology affects furniture design. Material developments can be observed as in a symbiotic relationship with the processes of developing them. Materials and processes are inextricably linked, which is particularly true of manmade composite materials. Beylerian and Dent suggest: ‘processing will have as much effect on the final properties of aluminium or alumina as its chemical composition’.
Processing materials could be thought of as primary, with a secondary process of manufacturing materials into products.  In many cases, production of the material and the product happen at the same time. With reaction injection moulding (RIM), the material, polyurethane resin (PUR), is created from raw constituents, as the product is manufactured liquid isocyanete and liquid polyol in a mould, typically used for furniture foam moulding. 
Plywood is a good example of how technology enables material development. Plywood has been found in the sarcophagi of the ancient Egyptians and is perhaps one of the first examples of a manmade material used for furniture. Plywood is constructed from cross-laminated veneers into a sheet so it can resist complex forces. Plywood as we know it today became increasing popular from the 1870s onwards with the invention of new sawing techniques and new glues. Modern production of Plywood uses at least 35 steps.
German manufacture Reholz, originally a veneer company, has developed a new form of manufacturing that has advanced plywood technology. The patented process produces deep three dimensional curves, first used with the Gubi chair designed by Komplot in 2003. Using an iterative pre-treatment in which the wood is relaxed, it is possible to bend the plywood into shapes that were once unthinkable. As the pre-treatment is responsible for the plywood’s new structural ability, Reholz’s plywood should be classed as a new material. Reholz innovations in material development are conjoined with processing deployments, which is often observed in material science. This process has primarily been used to produce the body of chairs.
Gubi chair
1.5 Manufacturing
In manufacturing, perhaps the most notable area of new technological development is the use of computer files (CAD files) to drive machinery, technology known as digital manufacturing. As there is no tooling in this process, it brings down the price of manufacturing, particularly for one-offs and batch runs. Digital manufacturing, according to Lefteri, represents the biggest change in the nature of mass-produced products since the industrial revolution. Digital manufacturing has enabled a much closer relationship between the designer and production. The concept of mass customisation is partly realisable though digital manufacturing’s flexibility.
Digital manufacturing falls into two main areas, computer numerical control (CNC) and rapid prototyping (which it could be argued is a branch of CNC). CNC machinery encompasses a range of processes and operations include lathe turning, drilling, laser cutting, engraving, milling, water jet cutters and wood routers.  All of these process work on sheet materials apart from turning.
Rapid prototyping is used to produce simple and complex geometries by fusing together very fine layers of powder or liquid. Digital manufacturing has led to new forms of expression by designers.
1.5 Summary
This report explores something of the great range of materials and manufacturing currently available by focussing on the work of Ross Lovegrove because his innovative œvre covers wide spectra of furniture types, materials and techniques.
The interaction of technology and design is a topic which those books detailing realisation techniques raise and which show variety and evolving alternatives available to designers.    Those given in the bibliography may not be exhaustive but do seem to be the clearest and most comprehensive.  .
The primary sources studied for the Case Study is Ross Lovegrove’s (and by others) book, Supernatural.   This sets out the complexity of the commissions and the innovative approach with which they have been addressed in articles by himself or by those authorised directly by him.  A lecture given by him is available on the web.  .  Selective items are also covered in books and compendiums on current design cited in the bibliography.   
Further information on techniques should also be derived from practical exploration and more detailed comparisons which the listed sources set out in principle.   The bibliography in Supernatural provides further reading.
3.0 Case Study:  Ross Lovegrove
3.1     Design Ethos
Few foundation year design students can have carefully watched and recorded the decomposition of a tomato over three months but this is what Ross Lovegrove did.  He stresses that he believes in research and in learning from the natural world to generate an approach to design he calls ‘organic essentialism’, that is ‘the intelligent evolutionary economy of form in unison with what you need – nothing more.  I am not interested in trying to push anything further than what is ultimately essential’    Often expressed as the slogan ‘Design, Nature, Art’ (DNA) Lovegrove’s approach has guided him in creating work as different as water bottles, light fittings, furniture, cameras, bicycles and cutlery for a prestigious range of clients including Herman Miller, Luceplan, Biomega, Japan Airlines and Zanotta.
As Lovegrove stresses, his work is intended to by ‘polysensorial’: it is intended to appeal to all the senses, hearing, touch even scent, as well as sight.  To achieve this range, Lovegrove has had to use a very wide palette of new materials and manufacturing methods. 
3.2 Herman Miller desking
One of the earliest examples of this thinking is shown in Lovegrove’s 1995 design for an integrated office environment for Herman Miller.  He started by inventing a raised steel floor that offered a grid into which the hollow lightweight alloy legs of the desks could be inserted.  The legs supported desktops of injection moulded polymer – strong and lightweight, yet resistant to wear.  When injection moulded into honeycomb form, resulting structures ‘can be up to four times more resistant to structural failure than their wood composite equivalents’  Support legs could be inserted anywhere on the floor grid and further acted as vertical conduit for wires.  In storage units designed for the same system, honeycomb HIPS components were filled with inert gas ‘to promote lightness’  
Both desk and storage units were capable of changing colour by activating embedded lights, adapting through the working day to ‘provide a biologically synergetic ambience unlike anything experienced in the office before’
Herman Miller desking below
3.3 Orbit Chair
Lovegrove later developed the honeycomb structural principle further by investigating possibilities offered by structures akin to those of human bones – very light compared to their structural strengths.  Exploratory work was undertaken with a company devoted to developing prosthetic devices using complex internal struts contained within tubular shell-like structures similar to those of bones.  A somewhat similar structural approach was adopted in the Orbit Chair.  One of the many variants of Arne Jacobsen’s Ant chair, the Orbit has a seat and back formed as one piece in which stiffness is obtained by two layers of ply with a cavity between, the whole pressed into a single but very complex curved form. The structural method, often used on a much larger scale in buildings, gives a high strength-to-weight ratio, and is economic in terms of material use.  Details of the shape are determined by anthropometric analysis of subtlety unavailable to Jacobsen.  
Ant Chair by Jacobsen
3.4 DNA Spiral Staircase
Further exploration for biomorphic shapes and functions continues.  The DNA staircase is created out of epoxy resin, stiffened by a combination of fiberglass and uni-directional carbon.  A hand rail is incorporated on the inner edge and the resulting form resembles a fragment of giant spiral sea shell.  As usual with industrialized spiral stairs, the form of each standardized blade-like tread is honed in section to respond to the stresses it has to withstand with the imposed loads of people walking up and down, the deepest part of section next to the central column, which is itself built up out of the rings that form the inner part of each element.  Formed by bladder moulding, the treads are hollow and blade-like, gently tapering in every direction away from the centre.
DNA Spiral Staircase
3.5 Lugg Bicycle System
In some cases, Lovegrove uses actual organic components.  An example is the Lugg Bicycle System which, in one variant, has bamboo members in its frame to generate a very cheap, sustainable cycle that, like all the others in the range, has a special handlebar system that can fold to allow the bike to be hung flush on the wall, saving space in small dwellings.
Lugg Bicycle System
3.6 Organic table legs
Taking the ideas of sustainability and organic design even further, Lovegrove has proposed plantable table legs in which a bio polymer bracket is put on a growing bamboo sheet.  As it grows, the shoot naturally fuses with the plastic and, when it reaches the needed height, the snoot is cut down and its lower end is dipped in natural rubber to form a foot.  The plastic component allows the top end of the leg to be easily joined to the plane surface of the table top, usually a difficult task with bamboo furniture.
Plantable table leg
3.7 Aluminium Table
While Lovegrove is committed to exploring the potential of new materials (sometimes in combination with traditional ones) and in searching out the potential of radical methods of production, he is far from indifferent to the aesthetic, sculptural qualities of his designs.  Bradley Quinn recounts a visit to Lovegrove’s studio when the latest version of a prototype milled aluminium table was delivered.  The designer greeted the product with the announcement that it ‘finally confirmed by belief that modern technologies really can create liquid sculptural forms’
Aluminium Table
3.8 Relationship to Nature
Undoubtedly, Lovegrove is inspired by nature in certain ways. Think for instance of a sycamore seed.  Each seed has been honed by evolution to break away from its twin when it is ripe.  Its blade then causes it to spin helicopter-like in the wind so that it can be carried away from the shade of the parent tree, giving the seedling a chance to grow in light and be watered by rain.  It is this kind of functional elegance that Lovegrove wants to emulate.  But he does not take account of what Darwin called ‘the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horribly cruel works of nature’ In the case of the tree, the vast number of seeds produces to ensure that even one grows to maturity is wasteful by normal human standards, just as is the process of sculpting a slender piece of furniture out of a solid block of metal.   Here is clearly a flaw, milling a table out of a solid block of aluminium is plainly a very expensive thing to do in terms of material, milling time and of course money. In Lovegrove’s DNA, D regularly seems to triumph over N – artifice over the organic.  One reason for this may be that, for all his distinguished career, Lovegrove still has problems of realization.  ‘It’s not easy because I’m not autonomous and I’m working with people that have other motivations.  There is often a sense of dislocation between my need to research and the commercial ideology of the people that manufacture, distribute and sell what I do.  The irony is that this commercialized context is often completely distanced from the personalized solutions that we are offering’.
3.9 Economics
A further irony may be that the economics of the Lovegrove operation may be forcing the designer into ever more extreme personal positions to make products more like rare and precious works of art than artifacts for everyday use.  His recent work has perhaps shown an affection for curved forms he calls ‘organic’ (never a very useful description for any form of design from Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture to the twirling tentacles of many a graphic designer).  Lovegrove’s curves often have no justification, he just likes them.  Fair enough.  However, a typical example is the bottle he produced for Ty Nant, a Welsh mineral water company.  Its curves are intended to reflect the patterns of water in a country stream, and maybe they do, but they make the bottle difficult to pick up, space demanding in packaging terms and necessitating thicker walls (hence more plastic) than conventional bottles.
3.10 Lovegrove’s predictions
 ‘I can see a path emerging in manufacturing that will split into two arteries’, said Ross Lovegrove of the future of product development in 2004.  ‘Firstly, the path of precision manufacturer will continue on as before.  A new surface quality will be generated that will see glass run seamlessly into transport polymer then into aluminium as economic “single skin” architecture and transportation… born out of the use of highly refined materials…the resulting aesthetic will reflect this superclean holistic approach’.
In parallel and indirect contrast to this path will be the emergence of “craftech” the creation of manufactured components and products that are made from more experimental processes and material combinations.  We will see grasses mixed with polymers to create organic composites that will appear fibrous and earthy.  We will also see the development of materials that are wholeheartedly the result of mimicking processes in the natural world where the genetic combination of polysaccharides and proteins create remarkable structures that are resilient, enduing yet break down organically in water’.
3.11 Future possibilities
Materials of this kind, made from starch derived from rice or potatoes, have so far been compressed and heated to form various kinds of low-cost packaging products, particularly for electronic components and comestibles.  Their ability to be dissolved in water is clearly a great advantage in bulky packaging that is usually discarded, adding enormously to garbage disposal problems.  In fact, Lovegrove has made use of the durability of the kind of foamed polypropylene (PP) often used as packaging in furniture.  For instance his chairs Air One and Air Two are very light, stackable and surprisingly robust.  They are created in microporous aluminium moulds by thermoforming PP foam.
Water bottle inspired by a water fall
Other plastics used by Lovegrove include the high impact polystyrene (HIPS) which is formed into the desk top elements of the Herman Miller range by injection moulding into the honey-comb structures.  Of course injection moulding is not a new process, being used extensively in the automotive, electronics and furniture industries.  In the case of the desk tops, gas injection was used, which gives a very precise result with minimal shrinkage because the gas pressure is kept up as the plastic and its mould cool.
3.12 DNA lessons
The whole DNA stair does really resemble a natural structure.  The outer handrail is completely detached from the main structure and the design.  Lovegrove suggests further possibilities for the design with the inclusion of energy transmitting glass and metallic fibres that could make the stair into a sensor or transmitter of signal or perhaps a heating element.
Lovegrove's studio
Another application of glass fibre reinforcement is in his Supernatural chair which combines injection moulded glass fibre with reinforced plastic using two layers of polyamide (PA) plastics chemically similar to nylon) to provide a seamless surface with the legs growing out of the thickened edge of the back and seat surfaces.  The chair is lightweight but the glass fibre ensures strength.  There is a version with a pierced back and one with arms.  All can be used outdoors.  Lovegrove describes the process of generating the chair’s design as similar to that involved in the evolution of animal bones – specifically a tiger’s skull in which, gradually, lightness (and hence hunting efficiency) were achieved by paring the structure and thickening only where biting strength was needed.
10.13 Fat Free Design
This is an application of what Lovegrove often calls his pursuit of ‘fat free design’,[1]   design pared down to the barest essentials.  Perhaps his most striking design of this kind is his Go chair which is made of magnesium, a metal which has a comparatively high strength to weight ration (e.g. higher than aluminium, another light weight material).  The chair is fundamentally a frame with a seat.  Front legs and the back are formed as a single three dimensional curve, with the seat and the back legs acting as a prop.  White or silver powder coating are the finishes.   Few designs have been honed to such a clear extent and the result has a clear affinity to Lovegrove’s favourite tiger’s skull.  Die cast solid magnesium was found to be 40 per cent lighter than an equivalent aluminium design and early test showed that a magnesium structure would weight 6.8kg rather than the much less manageable 11.3kg that it would have weighed if made of aluminium.  The chair is the first to be made with a magnesium frame - and may be the last because of the cost of the material.
Go chair made from magnesium
4.1 Findings
For all the problems of Lovegrove’s work, his innovation, reverence for nature and certain natural forms cannot be dismissed easily.  Nature is often clumsy and wasteful, but does have the power to hone precise responses to function: perhaps much can be learned from these responses and the processes of their evolution.  His work goes further than most in trying to explore the relationship, using the potential of modern materials and manufacturing techniques to generate products that economically and appropriately respond to human need. 
4.2 Recommendations
The difficulties of others trying to emulate Lovegrove’s approach follows from his own acknowledged difficulties mentioned above.  Affordable processes are to be built upon with innovation kept in a narrower field than bio engineering or materials which at the moment remain out of reach.  The range of processes represented by Metropolitan Works, although not necessarily inexpensive, are at the forefront of new techniques.   It is amongst these techniques that a future project should be realised. 
The continuing and speedy advances being made in all fields necessitate designers being continually alert to developments and, while refining their use of those areas already familiar, keep up continuous research for those new processes and materials which may help inspire or facilitate other solutions. 
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