Furniture Designers: Embracing Technology, Honoring Tradition

The following speech and images are excerpted from a talk Metropolis editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy delivered June 24, 2004 at the Savannah (Georgia) College of Art & Design. The occasion was a conference held by the Furniture Society.

If you don’t believe that furniture is intimately connected to its user, think of two scenes from the film “Regarding Henry.” As the shark-like attorney with predator instincts, Henry (Harrison Ford) says he hates the new dining table that’s just been delivered to his deluxe condo. He says something like, “It looks like a damn turtle.” And sure enough the obviously hand-crafted table does bear some resemblance to a turtle shell.

After Henry is shot in the head and needs to learn how to live again—like a child experiencing life and its wonders for the first time—Henry says he loves the table. His newly re-shuffled imagination finds the turtle table fascinating.

I’m not suggesting that you have to be a victim of random violence before you can truly appreciate the beauty of craftsmanship. What I am saying is that each of us has a close, unique relationship with our furniture, which is influenced by our state of mind, ambitions, temperament—a myriad of things that make us who we are. For this reason the beautiful piece you’re making will surely find a loving owner.

Having said that, I could go home now and curl up in my Saarinen Womb Chair—that breakthrough piece of mid-century modern industrial design which, by the way, would not be as satisfying as it is without its hand-finished detailing. This 50-plus-year-old design is also a symbol of the long-term debate between craft and industry, a debate with which you’re all familiar.

Today we recognize both the production piece and the hand-crafted to be beautiful. There’s also a new kind of beauty which our eyes are just getting used to—in objects that are made with new technologies. These technologies may be named Maya, Catia, Rhino, CNC (computer numerically controlled) milling, or lasers, among others.

There’s great beauty in materials that result from scientific and technical experimentation, like fiber optics, electro-luminescence, and carbon fiber. All of these have come in contact with a twentieth-century invention called computer software. The results are something remarkable, not just in form, texture, and function, but also in the ways we think of design, art, and craft, and in the way art production is done.

The tools of the twenty-first century are bringing with them new creative opportunities. The best and brightest have already adapted them. They are reconnecting design with making. While industrialization distanced the design from the maker—separating art from craft—it looks like post-industrialization is having the opposite effect. Architects who are adapting software intended for industrial designers send their designs directly to manufacturers’ computers, instructing the machines to build intricate forms to be assembled at the site, usually by craft methods.

The best-known advocate of this new building practice is Frank Gehry, whose office now has a software division called GT (Gehry Technologies). The Gehry office is capitalizing on its research: on ways to build complex, sculptural forms with the aid of unique software developed through collaborations with MIT and Georgia Tech, as well as IBM and Dessault Systems, the developers of Catia (a software program originally meant for aerospace, automotive, and packaging design). GT is selling this software and a system of instruction with the hope that both will bring the construction industry into the twenty-first century.

Young architects like William Massie talk about the pleasures and rewards of making intimate connections between the creation and production of their designs. We’re clearly onto something new here. So what does this craft-tech world look like? Let me show you some possibilities.

Categories: Cities, Furniture