27 Sep When the story repeats
In furniture design, innovation is a significant challenge, primarily due to the notion that “everything has already been done.” I personally find this statement quite superficial because there’s always room for innovation, even if we don’t perceive it immediately.
A few months ago, I wrote an article for CieloTerra where I recounted the story of the Cesca chair (Knoll), also known as S64 (produced by Thonet GmbH), and the controversy surrounding its authorship between Stam and Breuer. According to Breuer’s account, he drew inspiration from a stool he created using folded tubes, whereas Stam seemingly took inspiration from the car seat of a Tantra T-12.
Beyond the debate over the actual authorship of this design, what fascinates me is how a designer can take new technology and reinterpret it to create something entirely new.
I believe chairs are the perfect product category to explore this topic since, as mentioned earlier, it’s often perceived that “everything has been done.” Nevertheless, innovation in chairs still occurs, and technology plays a crucial role in driving these developments, with style being a natural consequence.
By taking a technology and applying it to a different context, designers can create innovations in various products. Let’s examine some examples where a fresh perspective on technology has led to the creation of functional products with unique aesthetics.
A prime instance of blending ideas and function is the work of Zieta Studio. Once a design studio, it has now evolved into a brand that creates a diverse range of products based on the same technology. Some years ago, the designer oskar zieta embarked on a new challenge: creating inflatable metal furniture. He needed to combine two different innovations – first, adapting inflatable technology (usually used with plastic) to metal, and second, giving shape and function to this technology.
It appears that Zieta succeeded, as the product remains highly successful, with his brand thriving. He has even introduced new products like the Ultraleggera (which can be compared to Gio Ponti’s Superleggera). Notably, around the same time, another designer, Moran Barmaper, also explored inflatable metal furniture. While I don’t know who was first, this offers an excellent opportunity to compare the products of these two designers and try to understand why Zieta’s work gained more success.
The Barmaper stool feels somewhat incomplete, like a halfway point. Although she successfully inflated the seat, the decision to attach wooden legs on top makes the product less daring, leaving the innovation process only 50% complete. On the other hand, Zieta’s stool is entirely made of this new technology, and its shape perfectly complements the inflation process, showcasing a well-thought-out profile that assumes a specific form when blown.
Another design that piques my interest is the Pressed Chair by w Harry Thaler which happens to be one of my all-time favorites. Despite being well-marketed, I believe it hasn’t received the attention it deserves from critics. Thaler had a brilliant idea a few years ago: using a metal sheet and stamping it with a metal tube between the sheet and the press.
It seems to be a brilliant fusion of understanding the technology and the need to eliminate molds. With the tube, the production start-up costs are reduced, which was crucial for an emerging designer conducting independent research. The result is astonishing – an upside-down chair, where the structural part appears removed instead of added.
The intriguing aspect of this design is that, upon closer examination, it’s essentially a simple chair archetype interpreted through this innovative technology. The approach is successful because it could have easily resulted in a strange shape that might never have been produced. Instead, it establishes a connection with the user’s subconscious, allowing them to recognize the archetype while accepting the new aesthetic.
Interestingly, the chair itself is more famous than its designer, overshadowing Thaler’s other works that didn’t make as significant an impact in the design world. But that is a topic for another discussion, which I might explore in the future.
These examples greatly stimulate me as a designer. As a professional, I understand that such brilliant ideas may come only once in a lifetime (although I hope that’s not the case for you). Most of these breakthroughs occurred in the early stages of these designers’ careers when they decided to invest in or dedicate their lives to these ideas – something not everyone can do. Nonetheless, with practice, creativity can be stimulated. I encourage you to try this exercise: choose a particular technology and design a small accessory that seemingly has no connection to that technology (and then attempt to prototype it). The results might be strange initially, but through practice and time, you will witness your ideas becoming more realistic.
Once, just for fun, I designed a bottle opener as a Christmas gift for my clients and friends. It involved metal turning on a hexagonal rod. Here’s a picture of it: