Furnishing the future

Furnishing the future

A little over 11 years ago I was involved in bringing Vitra Design Museum’s world renowned 100 Years 100 Chairs exhibition to Manchester – with a fantastic team and supported by an enthusiastic Architecture Community. It was the acclaimed exhibition’s first visit to an English speaking country. Another first for Manchester, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, Joy Division, the Post Punk music movement, the Hacienda, the worlds first Computer and the city where Rolls met Royce. This exhibition at CUBE Gallery was its most successful ever, with between 12-14000 visitors during it’s 10 week stay and national press coverage. One architect simply referred to it as ‘Chair Porn’. Suppose it’s a bit snappier, but google search results would vary.

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The exhibition further ignited my passion for furniture design. Cleverly curated, with a chair to represent each year of the last century, a walk through the stands took you on a journey through an evolving, humorous, odd, weird and wonderful world. From Hoffman’s Sitzmachine to Breuer’s Wassily Chair. From Le Corbusier’s LC4 to Eames Plastic chairs. As you progressed through decades of design, you were immersed into the roaring 30’s, post World War austerity and the beginnings of globalisation, progressing to the freedom of the 60’s, funky 70’s fashion, 80’s pop culture and 90’s acid house.

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Aside from visibly evolving trends, fashions and design styles, one of the leading influences in the evolution of furniture design is advances in production methods and discovery of new materials. The exhibition underlined the Eames’ thirst to understand and conquer new materials -from plywood, to metal, to fibre glass. Later, designers like Martyn Van Severen and Philippe Starck would further this progression with with aluminium, plastics and polyurethane.

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Marc Newson’s Lockheed Lounge chair (1986)
I was reminded of the exhibition recently when I saw Jorge Pensi’s Toledo chair – previously made (and featured) in cast aluminium – now produced as a single piece of injected polypropylene following manufacturing advances. A fantastic chair, that was often priced out of projects – the redesign in polypropylene gives a new lease of life to a cult classic.

“like trying to write a book in one continuous movement with your pen never leaving the page”

One of the biggest global influences of modern and future furniture production is 3D printing. There are a growing number of design studios developing furniture and interior products to be produced solely by 3D printers. Due to the continuous nature of the 3D printing process -like trying to write a book in a continuous movement with your pen never leaving the page –  the designs are still very much evolving. But it’s here, it’s happening and it’s progress.

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Barber Osgerby’s London 2012 Olympic Torches were 3D printed
Back in my home city of Manchester there is a wave of new Government backed University buildings full of scientists pondering over Graphene, the new wonder material that is more solid than steel and a better conductor than copper. Terence Woodgate and John Barnard already explored the inherent rigidity of carbon fibre to design a table up to three metres in length with an ultra thin top and just four legs, using state of the art autosport and aerospace technology.

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Surface table by Terence Woodgate and John Barnard

“Maybe we just haven’t had the lightbulb moment yet…”

‘So what’s next?’ I ask. Factory capability, new innovative materials and production advances means furniture factories are more advanced than ever. But maybe the material is already here, in front of our noses, in disguise and being utilised for another purpose. Maybe we just haven’t had the lightbulb moment yet.

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Think about this. Arne Jacobsen’s original proposal for the Ant chair was laughed at and expected to fail with its ‘little spindly legs’. Marcel Breuer borrowed the idea of bent metal for his Wassily chair from hospital furniture and bicycles. Charles and Ray Eames initially steamed wood to create leg splints for injured soldiers returning from war, before transferring this know-how to create the iconic plywood chair. As we produce and consume more, creating more waste, many designers are turning to rubbish as our next abundantly available material.

Keep your eyes peeled. Sometimes >>>>new ideas<<<<  are right in front of your eyes.