From crystal to baked chairs: Why they show the future

WATCH: Time-lapse footage shows the chairs being baked in an oven

The Egg Chair by Arne Jacobsen. The Eames Lounge Chair by Charles and Ray Eames. The Barrel Chair by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Barcelona Chair by Mies van der Rohe.

Some of the most iconic works by the world's leading architects and designers have been chairs. Just why is the chair - and not the table or the cabinet - such a favourite item for this group?

A piece of foam expands and grows, forming into a chair in an oven in a Brussels studio.

While currently putting the compressed product in an oven, the team is aiming to create a chair that is heated - and expanded - using electricity, meaning you can just plug it in and watch it grow.

Carl de Smet and prototype of chair Carl de Smet shows a small-scale prototype of his chair, which self-assembles when heated

"The idea is that you can buy it in a local store," explains designer Carl de Smet. "It's a small package, you put it under your arm, and you carry it home because it's also super light.

"Then at home you plug it into electricity," he continues. Ten minutes later your chair will be ready.

Mr de Smet and his team at Noumenon are testing potential uses for a particular type of memory foam called shape memory polyurethane (SMPU).

The material is co-created by the studio and comes as a by-product of Mr de Smet's experiments on metals with memory effects.

The best way to test this new technology is to make something we all use and need - the chair.

"Chairs have a practical use and they also need to have structural support," Mr de Smet says.

"A person has to sit on it, and that person can have the weight of 40kg for a child, to a big fat person at 160kg."

Start Quote

A chair is not just for sitting on”

End Quote Tokujin Yoshioka Designer

Currently they have programmed the material to expand at 70C (158F). They are now working on a chair where the foam at the surface heats at 35C.

This means that the top layer of foam will be heated by simply sitting on it, and will therefore mould to suit the body of the sitter. Plugging the chair into the mains will return it to its original shape.

The studio is aiming to use the SMPU for shoes and bags, and is working with car manufacturers interested in creating more flexible interiors for cars, but need the chair to experiment and refine the material and process.

"It's like a symbolic blueprint," says Mr de Smet.

Big but affordable ideas

The relatively small scale of chairs can also make them good products to introduce bigger ideas and concepts to the public, and that is why they have been a favourite of architects.

Architecturally trained designer James McBennett is a proponent of the "digital to physical manufacture" concept, where the digital design of a product can be sent to a local manufacturer for production and assembly.

Rocking stool by Fabsie Fabsie is hoping to introduce the public to the "digital to physical manufacture" process through its three-piece rocking stool

"You send a file to anywhere in the world and it gets manufactured on demand," Mr McBennett explains.

This is a concept that is still new to the public despite its familiarity in the worlds of architecture and design.

Mr McBennett was part of a team at JDS Architects who designed a ski jump for the town of Holmenkollen in Norway. The drawings for the ski jump were created by the team in Denmark. The files were then downloaded, printed and assembled on site.

Now keen to spread this idea into the mainstream, Mr McBennett acknowledges that there needs to be a more accessible and affordable way to involve the public.

He is the co-founder of the online platform Fabsie, which aims to publicise the concept.

Their first product is a chair made from three pieces of plywood that slot together. Called This Stool Rocks, it is easy to assemble and cheap to produce.

"I think it'll be difficult to get someone to buy a downloadable house right now," he says. Chairs are a small and affordable way to attract public interest.

"I think people need to get used to an idea on a small level first," he says.

Success or failure

Many industrial designers find chairs useful for testing out the practical and aesthetic aspects of a new idea.

Tokujin Yoshioka grows a chair from crystals Tokujin Yoshioka's Venus chair was grown from crystals

"You can actually say that the design has failed or has done well because it has to support somebody's weight," says industrial designer Greg Saul, of the Diatom studio.

"It's also something that lives in plain sight all the time so it should be aesthetically pleasing as well."

Mr Saul wants people to be more involved in the design process, which will allow customisable products.

The chair is the first product Diatom is using to test this concept with the public, with the aim of extending it to other forms of furniture.

The Sketch Chair allows users to adjust the design of the chair to suit their needs and preferences before the pieces are cut and assembled.

Looking for the future

Chairs are not just effective for introducing the public to new or different concepts.

Designers and architects also use chairs as a medium to test out ideas in their own circles.

Having grown chairs from crystals, made them from paper and baked bread into chairs, Tokujin Yoshioka has helped designers such as Carl de Smet and Greg Saul think differently about the potential of ideas and materials.

The Japanese designer spends much of his time creating products for brands such as Swarovski, Lexus and Cartier.

For Mr Yoshioka, creating chairs is an essential part of his own design and experimentation process, and helps him see where his work can go next.

"The chair is a product which is closely connected to the human body," Mr Yoshioka says. "Sitting is always such an essential function, so it expresses universality."

Tokujin Yoshioka folding out his Honey Pop chair Tokujin Yoshioka's Honey Pop chair is made from paper that folds out

As chairs have a particular function, he says it is a challenge to do something new with them, and that is why they are good for pushing the boundaries of ideas.

Mr Yoshioka aims to test entirely new methods and ideas when he designs a chair.

For example, his Honey Pop chair is made of paper and folds out into shape. While a simple idea it still has to fulfil the requirements of a chair while being made of paper.

The Venus chair was made from natural crystals that Yoshioka grew in an aquarium. The project explored his interest in the intersection between nature and design.

He is currently working on a chair made from ten pieces of thread, having been inspired by spider webs.

Mr Yoshioka needs to make chairs to explore where he can go next.

"A chair is not just for sitting on," he says.

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