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.