As students at the Design Academy Eindhoven, Katharina Mischer and Thomas Traxler were pushed to think big. “Professors encouraged us to study huge concepts rather than objects,” Traxler says. “And somehow, production became a starting point for us.” In one project, consumers monitored the decoration of a dinner plate on the factory floor via a Webcam and decided when to stop the doodling machine from applying its pattern. Another exercise envisioned new life for Ikea overstock by adapting and recombining unsold merchandise into new, unique pieces. But the pair’s most abstract concept, their 2008 graduation project, called the Idea of a Tree, translates a tree’s maturation process into a technique for making benches, lamp shades, and containers.
“A tree is always recording its surroundings,” Traxler says of the concentric rings whose size is determined by climatic conditions. “Its growth is a reflection of its surroundings.” Similarly, with the Idea of a Tree, the duration and intensity of daylight dictate the color and dimensions of the furniture produced. The designers—who this year moved to Vienna and founded the studio Mischer’traxler—exhibited their solar-powered manufacturing device during the Milan Furniture Fair in April.
Fashioned entirely from off-the-shelf Plexiglas and electronic parts mounted to a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall steel armature, the machine is a Rube Goldbergian contraption for the sustainable movement. A 100-watt photovoltaic array powers three motors, which pull thread through dye and glue basins and then wind it around a mold, so that the overlapping string forms a hardened surface. Stronger rays mean a faster motor, so the thread speeds through the dye tank and wraps more heavily around itself: a pale, thick section indicates intense sunshine; a thinner, deeply hued area suggests that the thread has traveled at a leisurely pace under a cloudy sky. The longer the day, the larger the products that can be made.
“We experimented with dripping plastic, milling, but winding thread was the strongest way to go,” Mischer says. Currently Mischer’traxler has four molds that yield an oblong bench, a truncated conical lamp shade, a triangular container, and an oval side table. The designers plan to ramp up production by outfitting the apparatus with one mold for every day of the week. Mischer imagines ultimately installing Ideas throughout the globe in order to compare objects that are rendered on the same day.
“There’s a kind of locality to our project,” Traxler says. It’s a quality that the recent graduate hopes will influence the furniture industry’s approach to design. “By giving up authorship and just setting parameters,” he says, “things can develop in unexpected ways.”