Time and again, the advancement of industrial production methods has given rise to new design languages for furniture. A prime example was Thonet’s design for bentwood furniture in the second half of the 19th century, in which the pioneering use of steam and pressure enabled solid beechwood timbers to be bent into virtually any shape. Thonet’s finished articles using this new production method had a unique aesthetic which clearly reflected the emergent modern age. Dutch designer Dirk Vander Kooij could also be regarded as a pioneer of furniture design. The inventive creator has linked the possibilities offered by digital 3D printing with the potential of robotics to manufacture pieces that can take their place in even the most stylish settings. His trademark creations are made by layering colourful printed plastics, forming substantial one-of-a-kind designs which seem to have been inspired by the art of sculpture.
It all began in 2009 when Dirk Vander Kooij was planning his graduation project at the Design Academy Eindhoven, for which he chose to work with a huge industrial robotic arm. His objective was to remodel the tool so that it could extrude gigantic objects out of recycled material. To gain his degree, Vander Kooij had to simulate the process because the available time was too short to complete development in full. He therefore designed a chair by hand made from melted plastic, which imitated his envisaged process and had the visual appearance of an object produced by a 3D printer. The first chair, made of plastic string, had an accordingly elaborate, detailed and complex aesthetic, almost as if knotted together. However, in 2011, Vander Kooij succeeded in producing his Endless collection, using the world’s first industrial robot that was able to produce 3D-printed furniture from 100% recycled material. Vander Kooij explains, I combined a number of different machines in order to design my own tool and make it work. The robotic arm already existed and had been used in applications like automotive production, but never previously in 3D printing. The furniture designer then bought an additional extruder for injection moulding, which he modified to function in line with his own purposes. This modified industrial robot applies layer upon layer of molten plastic, recovered from the finely shredded interiors of old refrigerators. In just three hours, a continuous sausage of smooth plastic is squeezed out as if from a huge tube of toothpaste, forming a bulkily angular, linear piece with a somewhat outré appearance. Like the rings on a cross section of a tree trunk, the growth of the piece can be charted. Just as rings in the wood of a tree trunk trace the growth of the tree over the years, the lines trace the layers of plastic. I wanted to show this off rather than conceal it.
Along with the resultant new design language, the process offers further advantages over traditional production methods such as injection moulding: a piece of furniture can be modified at any time without the need to manufacture new tools for the purpose. The machine can be programmed for any conceivable shape and size, enabling a great variety of products to be produced. This eliminates the need for high-volume production runs solely for reasons of financial viability.
Other designers have also been working on digital production processes that occupy the interface of design, digital translation and three-dimensional output.
As early as 2002, Oliver Vogt and Hermann Weizenegger were already deploying individualised production processes with their statement piece, the Sinterchair. The design process included a questionnaire where customers indicated their particular musical preferences or favourite authors, which algorithms analysed and then translated into a computer-based chair design. Selective laser sintering technology, as previously employed for prototype production by the automotive and aeronautical industries, was then used to produce a three-dimensional object by carving the contours of the chair from a block of powdered polyamide, layer upon layer. What was new about this was that the design process was tailored to the individual customer: by producing unique one-of-a-kind pieces, the side effects of serial production such as logistics, warehousing and modelling costs were avoided at a stroke.
In 2007, Sweden’s all-female Front design duo, Kram and Weisshaar, came up with the Sketch Furniture brand. They investigated how far it would be possible to translate a drawing of a chair or table, sketched only in the air in hand gestures, into a 3D object using new digital technologies such as motion capture and rapid prototyping. The result is quite amazing: glossy white sculptural and wholly original furniture made of thick, paste-like lines with an almost viscid densely three-dimensional effect. At the 2015 CEBIT, Front’s interactive installation showed how intelligent production systems of the future might enable visitors to design and create their own product with the aid of robotics. A robot equipped with a hot-wire cutter was used to carve the visitors’ own designs from foam cubes.
The products created by Dirk Vander Kooij also follow the laws of what is technologically possible. His objects are more rough and ready than delicate, almost a little crude, and highly idiosyncratic. Certainly, he says, they should be solid and honest. The material should speak for itself and not be forced in any way, and the production process should also remain visible. Given this, the latest 3D printers, capable of printing in increasingly fine detail and high resolution, are of no interest to him. Instead, he is excited by the cruder results of the first printers that were already in operation 30 years ago. Vander Kooij is a hands-on man of action, with a passion for tinkering with machines with new functions.
Although made from hollow plastic tubing, the “Not Only Hollow Chair” is by no means “only hollow” : as a clear benefit, the new 3D printing technology saves on materials. The transparent fibres from 100 per cent recycled plastic are printed using extremely low resolution, resulting in bold, minimalist lines revealing visible traces of the production process.
While the extruder exudes a sausage-like rope of plastic, the robotic arm to which it is attached creates the shape of the “Chubby Chair”. Reminiscent of an oversized children’s chair, it emerges layer by layer from the raw material.
These new soft furnishings are based on a design in which every material plays an independent role. The upholstery is crafted from hemp yarn and needs no zips, nails or clips. It is easy to separate from the 3D-printed plastic frame, which in turn is produced from recycled refrigerators. The third material used here is wood.
I decided to develop new machines that bring out precisely this low-resolution texture and can therefore create interesting furniture structures — in fact, it’s quite odd that something like that doesn’t already exist, he muses. To him, it is clearly the machine itself that essentially determines the appearance of his furniture. Technology inspires him and leads him to dream up new shapes, sometimes even by pure coincidence, or as the result of a happy accident. Never fond of drawing, Vander Kooij has no stock of preliminary studies where design and technology are supposed to coalesce. To create something new, new technology is needed first and foremost. Then we tinker with it and the result is often something that is innovative and works well. The automated, yet flexible process of working with a robot enables many different versions of a single object to be produced. The Endless Chair is available in a variety of different colours and textures, and despite its industrial production, it is redolent of a unique hand-crafted piece. Even with the wealth of available design possibilities, the furniture remains functional, pure and free from fussy adornments, without sliding into excessive embellishment. The rich spectrum of colours and shapes could also be regarded as functional ornamentation. When asked whether he could ever imagine discussing the design process with his robot, in a situation where it would be able to propose -ideas and designs as part of a dialogue of sorts, Vander Kooij laughs: My robot is a machine: but it’s also pretty stupid. You could advance its automation much further than its present level. Any process could be automated.
However, Vander Kooij does concede that it would be intriguing if his robot were in a position to offer visualised suggestions that would assist him in making decisions.
Dirk Vander Kooij opens the discussion with a passionate declaration: I always wanted to design and make furniture. At the age of 12, he was already making things out of wood and selling his creations to his friends’ parents. Later on, he began working with plastic. My priority was to find a material besides wood that exuded a sense of honesty again. And strangely enough, for me that was plastic. Generally, plastic is thin and brittle and processed cheaply. As a furniture designer, I wanted to make something that would last forever. And his furniture is indeed indestructible. Even before the designer began working with the 3D printer, he was exploring melting down plastic and acquiring a wealth of experience. At first, the material became wrinkled and uneven as it hardened. However, Vander Kooij persisted in experimenting until he had found a method of shaping the material without using brute force and coercion. He wanted the material to be able to stand on its own, without imitating anything else. The variety of the designer’s creations is remarkable. The strikingly colourful marbled patterns of his Melting Pot Tables, one of his best-selling series, and his Menhir Benches are created by leaving the plastic pieces fed into the burner as large as possible, instead of shredding them into smaller pieces in advance as is usually the case. This produces liberal splashes of colour that seems to blur into each other, endowing each piece with its unique quality. From time to time, the melting pot receives a prototype or a Chubby Chair that has served its purpose–the latter an item with a product language that might have been borrowed from a sketch or cartoon, reminiscent of an oversized child’s chair. This is how products are disposed of respectfully. At the next stage, an enormous press built by the designer himself forms the malleable material into huge, thick slabs, which can then be processed without further finishing apart from the rare addition of materials such as the odd screw here and there. For his Blown Light, Dirk Vander Kooij uses only transparent plastic from the recycling industry. He concedes that this smacks of cherry-picking, but explains that the raw material must be clean, single-origin and of high quality. And in truth, the liquid raw material blown into shape by the robot really is very like glass. Vander Kooij’s Fresnel Light and Satellite Lamp are likewise made of translucent plastic, but are not blown into shape; instead they are built up layer for layer in a similar process to the Endless collection. This ensures that these lamps maintain their integrity as products and demonstrates that unlike with the Endless Chair, the machine is also able to print consistent, uniform curves — even a robot can learn new tricks.
Unfortunately, plastic domestic refuse is not suitable for these purposes at present. However, consumers can bring their own plastic waste to Vander Kooij’s workshop. Located in an industrial park in the vicinity of Amsterdam, it functions as a showroom, production workshop and experimental playground rolled into one and offers customers the chance to have their own individual piece of furniture made there.
Creator, inventor and innovator Dirk Vander Kooij studied at Eindhoven Design Academy, an institution noted for its experimental and research activities. Inspired by the environment there, he immersed himself in experimenting with materials and developed his own production tools, graduating with a project in which he developed a huge robotic arm for extruding plastic. This later became a successful business model built on his design philosophy. Although Vander Kooij markets his own collections worldwide, all his products are manufactured on site in his own “factory” or in collaboration with other local manufacturers from the industrial park on the edge of Amsterdam. The factory is an intact ecosystem, incorporating showroom and sales point, robotic arms, presses and other production machinery in conjunction with a material warehouse, research and development area and offices.
The designer produces furniture, but also vases, lamps and sculpturally inspired large-format speakers, embellishing them with new textures to create distinctive designer pieces.
Dirk Vander Kooij adores his factory. His paramount priority is to ensure his employees are satisfied in their work, one big happy family. But his favourite way of spending his time is tinkering with his machines and inventing new ones, creating an ever-increasing variety of ways to shape plastic.
Dutch designer Dirk Vander Kooij develops tables, chairs, vases and lamps with close leanings towards sculpture. His signature products are visually one-of-a-kind objects, created from molten recycled plastic as single pieces with no further joints or bonds. He was the first to fit an extruder to a robotic arm device borrowed from the automotive industry, enabling a wide range of monoblock forms to be produced in a variety of structures and textures. Vander Kooij’s “Endless Chair”, “Chubby Chair” and “Not Only Hollow Chair” and his “Fresnel Light”, “Sun Flower” und “Satellite Lamp” thus take their characteristic appearance from the 3D printing process. His top-selling “Melting Pot Table” and his “Menhir Bench” glow with attractive swirls of colour, -created by adding large chunks of plastic to the molten mass before it is moulded into slabs and furniture by special custom-designed presses.
Asked about his role models and whether designers such as Gaetano Pesce, who also experiments with molten plastic, have influenced him, Vander Kooij responds abruptly, No, that would be a bit like incest. I’m not interested in the work of other designers, but in my own machines and processes and how I can make my operation a happy factory. He is currently working on the design of a new robot, his third overall. I love this place: it makes me happy, he affirms. Perhaps it is precisely this attitude which makes him so independent. Instead of working with furniture manufacturers, he prefers to remain his own boss. In addition to his showroom, which doubles up as a sales area, he supplies his designs to a network of retailers all over the world. Things are going well. He is currently working on new editions for Milan and even on an upholstered piece, likewise of recycled material, where the filler material is renewable. So how does Vander Kooij see the future of furniture design? He replies that he is an uber-materialist who loves things and would like to keep them forever. And it is this belief which informs his understanding; furniture must once again begin to be produced in such high quality that it will never lose its value or be thrown away. Looking at his product design, perhaps the future lies in the idea of remodelling pieces of furniture over and over again — for example, by melting them down. And how many times can his furniture be melted down? At least 20 to 30 times, he guesses, making the process virtually endless