Wednesday, December 7, 2011

computer, COMPUTER, Furniture

Computers, the Internet, and other manifestations of technology are all creations of humankind. A CAD 3D rendering of a computer chip still relies on the same brain that created stone hand axes, and today, the video card that allows programs like SolidWorks or Rhino to operate relies on a complex relationship between humans and technology that makes their existence possible. Thus, a single designer working on a single personal computer, creating a CAD file for manufacture on a single additive photolithography rapid prototyping machine, is standing on the shoulders of countless individuals.
            Looking at furniture works being created and refined during the now is ever important, even to the traditional cabinet-maker. The Now, as defined by Scott Constable, will prove useful in understanding the implications of hyper-contemporary technologically- driven furniture:
"'Now' does not and cannot actually exist, the flow of time and energy being in constant motion. Perhaps 'now' is more like an expanding membrane that defines what is perceived as 'the present’ an edge, the shape of everything in flux at any given time. Regardless, 'now' can only ever be understood as a singular perspective, a consciously framed viewpoint of consciously moving in simultaneity with the rest of known reality. The perspective of 'now' carries most meaning when it is a consciously shared state with others"
This exhibition must necessarily be such 'a consciously framed viewpoint' so it is not misunderstood. Viewers must understand that these pieces are being made today, and represent a certain technological frontier of manufacturing, but also must grasp that this catalog is merely a pixilated snapshot of a facet of a sphere that rolls down a hill we cannot even perceive as a hill. Looking at the current state of CAD/CAM1 furniture we can learn something about the past, about intentions of designers, and about states of creating.
                                                Frieder Nake, ‘Hommage a Paul Klee 13/9/65 Nr 2’, 1965
Each piece of contemporary furniture already exists as an artifact of the past. Looking to the history of two dimensional computer art we can further understand the context CAD/CAM contemporary pieces exist in, and further understand how the included pieces exist as artifacts of our 'now'. In the 1960s, software and hardware became accessible enough for non-programmers to create work. In Frieder Nake's Hommage a Paul Klee 1965, Nake "wrote random variables into the program", creating room for the computer to make a choice in the final composition of the piece. Another pioneer, A. Michael Noll, discussed in 1966 why this work was important, as well as why it was so frustrating to those who held great importance for the emotions of the artist. Noll is described as a pioneer of the "attempt to underpin the creative process with a logical procedure" (V&A). The adeptness with which computer's can handle algorithms allowed logical and unerring procedures to be put in place to determine the composition and mark-making in a two dimensional format. In this lies the technological roots of algorithmic or biomorphic justifications of form that exist in contemporary design.
            Steel changed the way furniture makers thought about form's relationship to structure. With no grain, a homogenous composition, a high strength-to-weight ratio, and the ability to weld or fasten with relative ease, steel allowed new structures and forms to manifest themselves plentifully. With the advent of rapid prototyping technology, including but not limited to selective laser sintering, stereo lithography, laser cutting, and CNC routing, as well as the software that makes the creation of digital, three-dimensional forms possible, new structures and forms have emerged yet again. Stereo lithography generates forms that are homogenous and stable. Considerations need not be given to historical material challenges such as joinery, fastening, welding, or gluing. Paul Discoe said to me, "it is more interesting to react to a set of rules". With SLA, these rules seem less interesting, this could be because it is a younger medium, but it is most likely because it really has less to offer in the way a set of rules for resistance against. Patrick Jouin is quoted on the i.Materialise blog, describing the merit of designing without rules determined by the material or manufacturer through additive manufacturing, stating:
“When you design an object… you will always have someone else who will come in the process and say, ‘Sorry Patrick, you can’t do it like this because our machine won’t do this.’ So I change it. I don’t want to, but I have to find a solution. Or the manufacturer will say, ‘I             can’t sell this, the market will not accept.’ But this time, there is no technical constraint, and no one in the middle of the process. It’s now a pure idea; not cooked, but raw. Which is why it looks so incredible.”
The intimacy between product and designer is clear in this process. The designer designs, and the machine builds precisely as the designer commands. Hal Foster states, "Autonomy, even semi-autonomy, may be an illusion, or better, a fiction: but periodically it is useful" (Foster 25), suggests that this process, could provide illusory autonomy and even prompts the thought that perhaps financial autonomy in design is not far away when these processes are made inexpensive enough. Companies like ShapeWays provide rapid prototyping services to the public relatively inexpensively. Much of the products created seem irrelevant and ill conceived. Where is the middle ground? The designer is not connected to the manufacturing of the product physically, but is intellectually involved in the creation of the instructions to be given to the machine if they are the designer of the file. How do you design to materiality in a medium like Stereo-lithographed epoxy? So far the constraints are rigidity, strength (although it may be machined), and the scale of the machine that will be fabricating the piece. If the designer wishes to use materials other then epoxy, selective laser sintering may be used, which can fabricate in polymers, polystyrene, steel, titanium, alloy mixtures, and composites.
            Although many of the pieces feature contemporary designers that are somewhat alienated from the physical making of their objects, many pieces exhibit a careful attention to the detail, form, and concept on the part of the designer. Some, if not most, of this design was carried out through the medium of the computer and CAD software. Bruce Mau sheds some light on why this might be limiting in An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, "the bandwidth of the world is greater then your T.V. set, or the internet, or even a totally immersive, interactive, dynamically rendered, object oriented, real-time, computer graphic-simulated environment". It takes an extra effort on the part of the contemporary CAD/CAM designer to immerse themselves in the material of the piece in it's finished form, and hands-on action on the part of the designer is the exception rather then the rule. One exception is Dirk van der Kooij and his Endless collection, where he has appropriated a robot off of a Chinese assembly line and used it as a makeshift, low-res, 3d printer. The human scale of the robot, Kooij's involvement with the color, the use of recycled refrigerators as a medium, and the mark making of the robot are all essential in creating a final product that is conscious of its own material. The robot seems under Kooij's direction, and the acknowledgement of the machine's role and the beauty of it is apparent in the way the imperfections in the bead of the line are left untouched, and the construction becomes the ornament, further emphasized by the addition of pigments. This is in contrast to the Cinderella Table that requires many, many hours of hand labor to erase any evidence in its surface that a machine tool touched it.
            Computers easily execute complex algorithms that would be too tedious for calculation by humans and allow appropriation for the sheathing of uninspiring forms in complex, unnatural concepts or decorations. Bruce Mau elaborates on this, stating that "in this environment the only way to build real equity is to add value: the wrap intelligence and culture around the product. The apparent product, the object attached to the transaction, is not the actual product at all. The real product has become culture and intelligence" (Foster 23). The Nebula Coffee table by Chris Kabatsi for Arktura is an example of a simple form, essentially a rectangular box, with five laser cut sides that attempt to wrap the simple form in a ‘complex, unnatural’ decoration. The decoration is derived from algorithms that explore the formation and organization of the cosmos, and are an attempt to justify an uninspiring form, build enough equity around the total product, and create a relevant and desirable piece of furniture. Unfortunately, the coffee table seems conceived, the sheath too obvious, to work in a holistic way. Pixel, by Platform Wertel-Oberfell, works in a less overt way to sheath a simple form, a long, low-slung rectangular cabinet on four legs with an intellectual, pixilated comment on the use of tropical hardwoods in furniture construction.
            Precision rapid prototyping tools such as high-resolution additive printers and laser cutters allow impulsive design to be executed equally impulsively, with none of the ramifications that physical involvement with the material would involve. Evan Murphy’s Puppy Daybed uses lasercut veneers of smiley faces and penises as a decorative motif around the rails of the bed. Would he have included such a motif without laser-cutter technology at his disposal? Identical circular veneers are hard to cut by hand; the rapid speed of the laser cutter allows humor to be present in this piece.
            The 3d renderings of the software that shapes the construction and design process of much of CAM furniture has an undeniable affect on the end product. A preference for smooth, uniform finishes seems evident upon a superficial survey of contemporary furniture trends. Evidence of the manufacturing process is mostly shunned, but projects like Haptic Craft by Studio Homunculus and the Endless Collection by Dirk van der Kooij celebrate the inconsistencies in mark making of the human hand, and an imperfect industrial robot respectively. The human hand is also present in other pieces, but less obviously, and often with the intention of masking marks. The Cinderella Table, Joris Laarmen’s Bone Furniture, Wertfell-Oberfell’s Fractal Table, the Nendo Diamond Chair, and Patrick Jouin’s C2 chair have all had hand-finishing work carried out to give them uniformly homogenous surfaces. This often takes a relatively large amount of human labor, something Adolf Loos would not be pleased with, and indeed, surprised our culture has not emerged from. In defense of the mark as the finish as the ornament, Kooij’s endless chairs take five hours to produce and require little finishing, and a Nendo chair takes five or six days to produce and must be liberated from its mold by hand.
With the advent of the Internet and global economy, proximity has been decreasing in importance. Increasingly, a digital photograph or video determines how most people will ever view a specific project or unit of furniture. With ShapeWays, individuals can design a product at home, submit a file digitally, and receive a product through the mail. Will tomorrow’s homes be able to furnish themselves with SLS machines taking the place of garage woodshops? Individuals unfamiliar with 3d design programs will order designs digitally from firms, and produce them in their own homes within days. This has the potential to revolutionize the economy of scale by eliminating it entirely. Shipping costs, both economic and ecological, could be halved. A revolution in democratic design and sustainability, by individuals for individuals, could ensue. But rapid prototyping holds in it the potential for a great and unfortunate flood of horrible design. Most synthetic resins used today are derived from fossil fuels, and are toxic. Biodegradable plant based synthetic resins have been developed, but are not in widespread use. With no constraints, new methods of wasteful production would replace old ones. It is the responsibility of the users of these technologies to keep this in mind, and the responsibilities of designers to shepherd the trend.

 Foot Notes
1 Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Manufacturing

"5 Amazing full sized furniture pieces made with 3d printing." i.materialise. Materialise, 16 Nov 2010. Web. 7 Dec. 2011. <>.
Beddard, Honor. "Computer art at the V&A." V&A Online Journal. 2 (2009) Web. 7 Dec. 2011. <>.
Constable, Scott. "The Scale of Now." Deepcraft. N.p., 04 Nov 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2011. <>.
Foster, Hal. Design and Crime (And Other Diatribes). New York City: Verso, 2002. Print.
Mau, Bruce. Incomplete Manifesto for growth. 1998. Print.


Ifeanyi Oganwu, Double Agent Desk, 2011. Composite Material. 2960 x 1780 x 827 mm.

Oganwu visited CCA, and I had the opportunity to ask him about his design process. He explained that he does not draw in analog 2d to ideate- instead; he begins straight away with 3d software to ideate. His forms are the direct result of his unique relationship with 3d software- they embrace the gracious rounded forms one would visualizes when prompted to imagine a 3d rendered form.

Jeroen Verhoeven, Cinderella Table, 2005. Plywood.

 The designers of the Cinderella table wished to illuminate the big magic that is possible when an intelligent machine is liberated from the assembly line. Two sketches of classic Danish furniture forms were transformed by a computer into a digital manifestation. The contrast between machine production of the plywood slices with the immaculate hand finish, coupled with the contrast between the sweeping, abstract curves of the computer translation and the easily recognizable silhouettes  create a piece full of tension and potential interpretation.

Joris Laarman, Bone Furniture, 2006. Cast Aluminum.

The chairs form was influenced by the bone growth influenced optimization software developed by Claus Mattheck in 2004. Nature’s beauty, logic, and strength were tapped to arrive at the form of this piece. However, the software was not used to create the lightest, strongest chair possible, but rather “as a high tech sculpting tool to create elegant shapes with a sort of legitimacy.” Algorithmic software was used to arrive at a form deemed elegant, but not utilized to its full extent. Instead, aesthetics and intention of the designer trumped what could have been a potentially interesting venture. Ultimately, the chair resembles Art Nouveau, but in a new modern aluminum finish.

Michiel van der Kley, Globus, 2007. Baydour shell, cast aluminum base, fabric.

This is not a chair to look outward from to experience a view or engage in a conversation. It is a form that turns the user inwards, presumably towards one’s laptop computer; a complete departure from the Adirondack chair. Ever increasingly, electronic products and networks divert our attention from what is close to us, and encourages humans to forget about proximity.

Platform Wertell Oberfell and Matthias Bar, Fractal Table 2009. SLA.

This is the second iteration of the fractal table with MGX, the first was built through SLS, and this edition of 25 was built with SLA to connect the top grid of branches in a geometric pattern. The form of the table is compelling, and not capable of being manufactured through any other processes.  Executed with Materialise’s Magics software.

COCO Design, Lasercut Table, Steel.

            The functionality of this piece is questionable. Little imagination is used between how to get a flat sheet of material on to the laser cutter, cut it, and create a compelling 3d form. The form is uninteresting, with the laser cut screen details providing ornamentation merely.