As a child I collected butterflies because the patterns and colors of the wings fascinated me. I was obsessed, the patterns and colors are just too perfectly beautiful. They are not for mating, pheromones are for that. Their size and colors are a liability for survival. I understand Darwinian rationalizations. But birds see better than us and they are not so stupid be confused by the colors. They are beautiful because they are.
So is there a pattern here? Yes! The Universe is going from simple monotony to complexity and diversity. Each step is perfect, sometimes to 100 decimal points. It’s a becoming of novelty and each step is ever more beautiful. In every field of science, from Astrophysics to Zoology, scientists will tell you they see beauty. Clearly the universe is a progression, with a bias for novelty, going from simplicity to complexity and diversity. The pace is quickening and becoming ever more beautiful. Proof of the idea of beauty is baked into evolution. Consider the Manakin, and other creatures that evolved a subjective esthetic sense beyond and unrelated to survival of the fittest. (Poor Richard Dawkins, his neat narrative is at the top of the heap and Richard O. Prum is messing it up)
And how do humans fit into the pattern? Humans develop diverse beliefs, art, crude technologies. Civilizations evolve from simplicity to complexity and become diverse. Rudimentary “philosophies” try to understand it all. We build cities, roads, and trade. Then another explosion, it’s vast and of our creation. We call it the enlightenment, and it spawns the scientific method and the industrial revolution. The pace quickens. Science branches, forms diverse disciplines, each observes the universe as ever more complex and beautiful. Humans have a bias for novelty, in the arts, architecture, design and fashion. We are becoming more empathetic, more understanding and craft a rule of law. Yes there are dark forces, authoritarians seeking power and environmental degradation. The Universe is always testing us. It does not tolerate an unwillingness to adopt and defend. It is the job of creatives to overcome challenges. To lead culture toward a greater beauty. We are part of the pattern. Proof? Is it a coincidence that math can describe the universe? That music is so mathematical? That the waveforms of music have such a strong hold on our emotions? Our spirit? That music mirrors matter and matter is waves? It is all connected. We are the Universes’ apprentices and we are the Universe awakening. We must believe this not as an act of faith, but because it is logical. It is truly scary but there is a rightness to it.
One of my aha moments was when I finished the book “The Sixth Extinction”. It was depressing because it left me with a sense that we are heading in the wrong direction. That we needed to go back. Right now everyone thinks this. Then it dawned on me that we can’t go back. Like an exploding star, the Universe is doing creative destruction. Civilization is part of the becomingness. The question is: Where is it going? Who knows? My guess is that it is going to a state of greater beauty. It fits the pattern. But whatever that is, the universe will not tolerate hesitation. We must have faith in the process, be willing to adopt, follow the pattern, and plow forward.
Plowing forward, creators of things can and must forge a path through our environmental conundrum. Limit degradation and plow on. In my discipline, the green building movement is taking architecture and design through a limited version of creative destruction. It is mostly nuts and bolts. There is little intrinsic beauty in the process. It simply introduces greener ingredients to the status quo. So here’s the problem: The creation of things has been evolving methods of production and productivity along a single path for the last 200 years. It is sophisticated and capital intensive. It has great inertia. More important, the methods and materials used are accepted in the marketplace, and with the emergence of green building people think they are doing the right thing. But green building is incremental change, it is just an add on.
However, if sustainability is foundational, the processes and materials used would be different and a new esthetic of things would emerge. Things would be functionally similar to the status quo but sustainability would be intrinsic to their design. The best of which would contribute to a state of greater beauty and the becomingness of the Universe.
My designs are motivated by the thinking as described above. I have faith in the process, I’m following the pattern as best as I can and plowing forward. My work addresses the idea of moving design to this intrinsic beauty. I can’t do much about authoritarians, but I hope to make a difference in the creation of things.
So what does all this mean? Here are a few examples:
The very first piece I made that I see as indicative of my personal style is this sofa. By this I mean there is always novel engineering in the use of materials and form. In this case the sofa is cantilevered from the center of the rear. Also indicative of my personal style is that it challenges the viewers idea of what something can be. The bi-lateral symmetry of this design connects it to nature. It is segmented with a hierarchy of form of like a friendly arthropod. I made 3 of these sofas, two are out there somewhere. This one has been in my living rooms since 1974. It has held up nicely through kids and parties.
The inspiration for this chair came to me when I visited a Thonet Factory in N. Carolina. I saw them using large presses to mold plywood shapes in wide sheets and then cut them up into chair parts: legs, arms etc. It immediately occurred to me that this seemed counter productive. Why not mold the chair as a single piece? Then you would not need to machine joints, maintain dimensional tolerances, organize routing logistics or the time consuming and tedious process of assembly. Further, the end product would be far stronger since the unitary construction avoids joints and joint failure. There is also less waste because the material thickness can be thinner. Consider also that veneer construction uses far less wood because logs are unrolled and solid lumber boards is cut square from a round tree. This design envisions a new way of making something using less resources, stronger, and with a lyricism beyond the static nature of conventional furniture.
An important aspect of this design is the idea/challenge of using as little material as possible. Note the front leg has a cabriole shape to it. The contour of the legs are such that when the area between the legs is cut out it forms the seat. The cut out is flipped, contoured, upholstered and attached to the chair.
This was my first chair of notoriety so I named it the Danko chair. It is in many museum collections including the Smithsonian and MOMA and the PMA. My father and I built a plywood molding press to make it. That was a challenge we both enjoyed.
In 1985 I wanted to design a chair with as few parts as possible and it turned out to be the ultimate wood ergonomic chair— I called it the Waveform Chair because the name reflects the nature of matter and music. It may be the most comfortable wood chair ever made. It also stacks. A unique property of molded plywood is its natural flexibility that doesn't compromise structure. The seat is attached 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, thus making the chair ultra-comfortable. This feature also allows the seat to be flipped up for cleaning. Note also the arm is thin at the middle so it flexes with the movement of the user. Like the one piece chair above, the novel construction envisions a new way of making a chair that is strong, simpler, and uses less material. The design reflects its novel construction and allows a lyricism that would be difficult using conventional woodworking methods.
Stress Test Grace and Lace Chairs
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 use of belts for my rocker are minimal in weight and act to attractively balance this chair when it is not occupied. Seat belts are extremely strong and will last decades without 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. It is a true optimization of resources that embodies the intrinsic beauty mentioned earlier. All the more significant since 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. Surprisingly many belt colors are available. The frame is made from prime grade FSC certified Maple veneer. The Atmos was designed in 1999 and was recently featured in a juried exhibit at the Delaware Museum of Art. It has since been acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art for their design collection.
Grace & Lace Chairs
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 is a phenomenal way to conserve resources and another example of beauty and its intrinsic sustainability.
Grace and Lace Chair
Hollow Core Samples
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 am still tinkering with it. 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.
The inspiration for pursuing this came from Frank Ghery’s cardboard furniture. It is cool design with a humble material and a great example of repurposing and up-cycling. 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 polymer materials were originally developed by the automobile industry to close the 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 polymers. 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, and 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 ends up in landfill - think millions of tons. In addition, most cabinetry is made from plywood and particle board - think millions of trees. Great idea huh? Unfortunately there are three HUGE problems…
Experimenting with hollow Core Polymers
1. Furniture and cabinetry has 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 plastics are cheap looking and are not good for the environment. In addition hollow core plastics are so lightweight they could not be strong and will never last.
Let’s take the 3rd HUGE problem first: Eliminating plastics is like eliminating forests and swamps because they generate toxic pollen and biting insects. This perception is group think gone awry. More on this another time. Regarding being not strong enough, read on.
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. I am still tinkering with it. This process will offer creators of things the opportunity to design compellingly beautiful cabinetry and furniture with an intrinsic sustainability orders of magnitude beyond what we make today.
So now for the 1st HUGE problem. The problem is a lack of imagination and understanding of its potential on the part of product designers. Because of it’s light weight, it is possible to do things that are not possible with other materials. Some of my designs appear able to suspend of the laws of physics and use magic. Consider our home kitchen which was completed in 2008.
Compelling Design with Magic
Our kitchen has the tranquility of Japanese design. It combines the feel of a shoji screen and a Japanese lantern. As for its magical properties see this short video:
Susan and I have used this kitchen for over 14 years now. It has held up nicely. We love it. Some of the features are actually much 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. It saves energy. The illumination also acknowledges the person entering. It makes us feel welcomed.
One of my criteria when I designed this kitchen was to create structures that can quickly separate for recycling. Recycling the doors is, of course obvious. The cabinet construction however is unique, they are held together under tension by stainless steel straps. There are no nails, staples or screws in their structure. All that needs to be done to recycle is to snip the straps and the cabinets collapse into discrete parts. This novel kitchen is a perfect example of closed loop thinking and its etherial design contributes to a new esthetic of things.
Exploring further the possibilities of using hollow core panels is this glow cabinet. I have always found sliding doors problematic because the offset doors interrupt the continuity of a design. Since the door panels have a low coefficient of friction, I had the idea that they could work inline making the design more elegant. It works by pushing the door in and sideways, so it goes behind the door next to it. This cabinet also has an IR sensor, so it illuminates when you walk into the room. It acknowledges us. When you leave, the light goes off. On the top there is a USB port and outlet. This design can also be easily dis-assembled for recycling. So it too contributes to the new esthetic things bringing us closer to a balance with nature.
I wanted to see how much weight the panels could take. In the nearby picture I stacked boxes of paper, each weighing 37 lbs. I cut shallow slots in both the top and bottom of the boards to hold the folded panels in a U shape. Then I started stacking the boxes, expecting at some point for the material to buckle and collapse. When I got to 13 boxes (just south of 500 lbs.) I stopped because I was afraid when it collapsed I could get hurt. Then I just left it alone figuring in a few minutes the whole thing would collapse. 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! Amazing. The moral of this little story is to know the strengths and limitations of the materials of your design. This test was the inspiration to design and build this shelf/storage system for our house. It is functional, easy to clean, sturdy, easily recyclable and most of all, beautiful.
Designing furniture with humble materials like the panels is a little like portrait painting. In portrait painting throughout the ages, the area behind the figure is very often a muddy bland color. If that bland color is finely tuned to complement the colors of the figure, they react to make both the figure and the painting fabulous. Taken alone, that bland color is just a bland color. The same idea applies to using the panels. When paired with a material of outstanding character, both work together to make a fabulous design. It is the job of the creative class to cultivate this thinking so the public understands this idea the same way they understand great paintings.
The created objects cited above are just a few examples of my “plowing forward”. Like art, each was motivated by a vision or personal challenge I set for myself rather than a commercial motivation. They all have the intrinsic beauty I mentioned earlier. To make them required devising and experimenting with processes, materials and technologies that have not been pursued by mainstream manufacturers. They are about material optimization and recycling. Over the years I have designed prototypes using folded wood, recycled tires, post industrial seat belt material, industrial conveyor belting, and explored new esthetics in molded plywood, dyed wood, and wall hung seating. I’m “plowing forward”. This is what the world’s creatives must do and the public must understand. We can’t go back.