My work is rigorously functional. Yet the motivation behind it is art and sculpture. Furniture design is about style and fashion. Its intent is commercial. My work, like art, has content and meaning beyond simple look and style. The criteria for sculpture is that it must work compositionally in the round. The shapes are timeless as opposed to stylish and pared down to a single unified statement. Each piece addresses a slightly different message, yet the recurring themes are environmental – resource issues and their effects on aesthetics. My work envisions novel methods of construction or materials that have not been pursued by mainstream manufacturers. When used in interiors, my designs fit anywhere or nowhere. It all depends on the talent of the designer and if they are able to think beyond accepted styles.
So, what does all this mean? The very first piece I made that is indicative of my personal style is this sofa. Like art, it challenges the viewers idea of what a sofa can be. It is sort of like a friendly arthropod bio-morphed into a sofa. Note the novel construction. The entire sofa is cantilevered from the center of the rear. My personal challenge was to see if I could engineer it to support 3 or 4 people. I made 3 of these sofas, two are out there somewhere. The one shown here is in my living room since 1974. It has held up nicely through many parties and children.
In 1976 I visited a Thonet factory and saw how plywood is molded. They molded plywood in wide sheets, then cut it up into parts - legs, arms, cross braces etc. Then they put them all together again. My immediate thought was that this was counterproductive. Why not mold a whole chair at once? It would be stronger and more resource efficient. This idea became a puzzle I needed to solve. To the left is my first one-piece plybent chair. The Danko chair is in many museum collections including the Smithsonian and MOMA. My father and I invented and built a plywood molding press to make it. That was also a challenge we both enjoyed, and the results were groundbreaking.
In 1985 I wanted to design the ultimate ergonomic wood chair— the Waveform Chair. It may be the most comfortable wood chair ever made. Not only is it comfortable, it stacks and the seat flips up for cleaning. A unique property of molded plywood is its natural flexibility that doesn't compromise structure. The seat is attached by a hinge to the front cross rail and suspended by seat belts from the backrest. Since the seat is not attached at the back, the wave shape you see on the sides of the chair flexes and supports the user as they move. This alleviates static fatigue, making the chair ultra-comfortable. Since the seat is not attached to the back it can be flipped up for cleaning. Note the arm is thin at the middle so it flexes. It’s novel construction not only challenges the idea of what a chair should look like, but the arcs and lines of its design flex, making the chair exceptionally comfortable.
The ultimate challenge for every woodworker is to design a rocker. Adding to the challenge I wanted the design to be a statement about recycling and resource use. Rockers are inherently difficult to design because they have two centers of balance: One when it is occupied and one when it is not. It must be beautiful when no one is sitting in it and comfortable when sitting. I wanted to use recycled seat belts for this design and used the Shaker tradition to guide me. Shaker designs are studies of simplicity and elegance. Their chairs were often belted and frugal in their use of resources. The belts minimal weight act to attractively balance this chair when it is not occupied. Seat belts are extremely strong and will last decades without the seat bucketing out. Note how the front leg arc extends beyond the rocking arc. This functions to make the chair stable when entering and exiting, so old coots like me can easily use it. This chair is the size of a lounge chair yet weighs only 22 lbs. A true optimization of resources. A 300 lb person can sit in it without a problem. How can this be? Because the construction is most interesting: the side frame, though bent, acts as a triangle, the most efficient and sturdy of structural elements. The belts themselves are structural, their tension make the seat/back assembly a tensegrity structure, actually holding it together. The seat belts are a post-industrial material. Many colors are available. The frame is made from prime grade bent-ply Maple. The Atmos was designed in 1999 and recently featured in a juried exhibit at the Delaware Museum of Art.
Circa 1993 I was a Webelo leader for my son’s Scout Troop. In the quest for merit badges it was suggested I teach for a badge on woodworking. I decided on making a model bridge and destruct test it so they could learn about structural design in addition to woodworking. The bridge is a Truss bridge. It is 42” long, 7” high and 5” wide. It is made from little sticks with 3/8” cross sections. It weighs very little. For the destruct test we put it between two chairs and started piling books on it. We piled up an impressive 40 lbs. Then out of the blue one of the scouts ran and dove on it. I’m guessing he weighed about 80 lbs plus the kinetic forces. To everyone’s utter amazement the bridge remained undamaged! The other scout masters thought this was enough, so the bridge was spared. I still have it to this day.
This event got me to thinking about how to make a chair using stress skin panels, similar to how the bridge was constructed. I began making a series of chairs, simpler and simpler until I arrived at what I called the Grace & Lace chair. It consists of only 5 parts and weighs about 11 lbs. This construction is orders of magnitude stronger than wood chairs using conventional mortise and tenon construction (see image on left). It is doubtful an 11lb. chair of conventional mortise and tenon construction could be stood on like this. This design is a phenomenal way to conserve resources.
This last example of my work is more about a process of making furniture than about a specific design. I began working on this process 25 years ago and here’s why: imagine if all the furniture in the world could be made with a small fraction of the resources we use now and be more beautiful.
I have always admired Frank Ghery’s cardboard furniture because it is cool design with a humble material. This is where my thinking started to evolve. The world needs more of this kind of invention. In 1996 I saw a 10mm (3/8”+) thick piece of corrugated plastic at a workshop I visited. I was fascinated with this material and immediately wanted to learn more and experiment with it.
Here is what I learned, pay close attention because it is important: Hollow core plastic materials were originally developed by the automobile industry to close a resource loop in their supply chain. What does this mean? It means instead of shipping things with cardboard and putting it in landfill, they developed a process to make their packaging from hollow core plastic. It is much more durable than cardboard so the packaging can be reused multiple times. When an automobile part is discontinued, they simply shred the packaging made for that part into pellets, then re-extrude it into new packaging. Today, automobile companies have a totally closed loop system for their supply chain. AMAZING!
When I read this story, I recognized it as a fantastic step toward sustainability. Then I asked myself: What if furniture and cabinetry was made from this material? Most furniture and cabinetry end up in landfill - millions of tons wasted. In addition, most cabinetry is made from plywood and particle board - millions of trees. Seems like a great idea right? Unfortunately, there are three HUGE problems…
1. Furniture and cabinetry have to be designed so this bland utilitarian material is seen as BEAUTIFUL.
2. The open edges are sharp. They collect dirt. They are not attractive.
3. Public perception is that Hollow Core plastics are so lightweight it could not be strong and would not possibly last.
Let’s take the 3rd HUGE problem first: This may be people’s perception, but they are SO, SO VERY WRONG.
Now for the second huge problem: In the late 1990s I began making prototype machines to attractively close the edges on this material. It has taken me years to master this process and do it consistently. Now I see why no one developed an edging process for this stuff, because it was really difficult. But I did it! I have been working for years on this process just for the opportunity to design really cool, really beautiful, really really recyclable stuff.
So now for the 1st HUGE problem. You may not believe it, but it is SO COOL. Because of its light weight, it is possible to do things that are not possible with other materials. Some of my designs appear to suspend of the laws of physics and seem like magic.
My home kitchen was completed in 2008. It is an excellent example of the beauty and magic of this material. My wife and I have used this kitchen for over 10 years. The plastic has held up nicely. We love it. Some of the features are actually more user friendly than conventional kitchens. As you can see in the video, a firm tug will pull the doors off, so they can be cleaned in the sink and rehung instantly. The doors are self closing. The cabinets are smart. As we enter our kitchen the cabinets illuminate, when we leave, they turn off, saving energy.
One of my criteria when I designed this kitchen was to use discrete materials that could quickly separate for recycling. Recycling the doors is a breeze. The cabinet construction however is unique, held together under tension by stainless steel straps. There are no nails or glue or screws in their structure. All that needs to be done to recycle is to snip the straps and the cabinets separate into discrete parts.
Another example showcasing the possibilities of hollow core plastics is this glow cabinet. It is an experimental cabinet with inline sliding doors. If you push the door in and sideways, it goes behind the door next to it. This cabinet also has an IR sensor, so it illuminates when you walk into the room. When you leave, the light goes off. On top there is an integrated USB and electric socket for easy charging. This is ecological cabinetry for the 21st century.
I wanted to see how much weight this stuff could take. In the picture to the left, I stacked boxes of paper, each weighting 37 lbs. I cut shallow slots in both the top and bottom of the boards to hold the folded the plastic in a U shape. I started stacking the boxes, expecting at some point for the plastic to buckle and collapse. When I got to 13 boxes (just shy of 500 lbs.) I stopped because I was afraid when it collapsed I would get hurt. Then I just watched, figuring in a few minutes the whole thing would crumble. At the end of the day it was still standing. The next morning it was still standing. 3 weeks later, it was still standing when I needed the space. The plastic holding all that weight, was 4-1/2 ounces! I was stunned! The moral of this story is to create knowing strengths and limitations of the materials you are using when you design.
Designing furniture with humble materials like hollow core plastics is reminiscent of portrait painting. In traditional portrait painting, throughout the ages, the area behind the figure is very often a muddy bland color. That muddy bland color, however, is finely tuned to complement the color of the figure, acting to make the figure and the painting fabulous. Taken alone, that boring color is just muddy and bland. It is the same using hollow core plastics. When paired with a material of outstanding character, both works together to make a fabulous design.
The four examples cited above are just a few examples that demonstrate the nature of my art. Like art, each was motivated by a vision or personal challenge I set for myself rather than a commercial motivation. Each idea incorporates a distinct aesthetic narrative or function. To make them required devising and experimenting with methods and technologies that are unique. My designs are often about resource use. Over the years I have designed prototypes using folded wood, recycled tires, post industrial seat belt material, explored new aesthetics in molded plywood, dyed wood, wall hung seating, all while devising unique methods to accomplish each of these ideas. Each design is a personal challenge to resolve its aesthetics in a sculptural way that flows compositionally in the round. Like art, each design is resolved in a way that is timeless as opposed to merely stylish.