Shape of things to come

Times Staff Writer

AS piles of sawdust collect on top of a sheet of plywood in a basement workshop, Brendan Sowersby and Will Rollins of the downtown L.A. design firm 100xbetter watch an enormous Shop Sabre 4896 cut and engrave the pieces of their DB chair. The Bauhaus-influenced seat used to take a full day to make by hand. Now their $40,000 machine can cut two chairs in an hour.

“We can be at the computer designing something else or have lunch while our robot works,” says Sowersby, 36. “It’s soothing to watch it and know we’re getting exactly what we want.”

In the world of contemporary furnishings, digital technology is radically transforming not only how pieces are made, but what kind of designs will land in our homes in the years ahead. Just as the first machine lathes of the early 19th century made it possible to carve uniform curves in wood and metal, the latest generation of routers, lasers and water-jet cutters can slice and dice wood, acrylic, even solid steel into delicate filigrees and Rococo curlicues. This new technology -- called computer numerical control, or CNC -- is bridging the gap between the handmade and the manufactured.

“Technology is having a huge impact on how furniture is made and marketed,” says Brooke Hodge, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. “And people have become more comfortable with digitally designed items made from industrial materials like plastic and resin in their homes.”


Labor-intensive designs that had been sold as expensive one-offs now can be produced en masse, with more eye-catching decorative detail -- and lower prices.

“Each iteration of Tord Boontje’s folk art designs gets less expensive,” Hodge says, “but the real future of this technology is that you could customize furniture like you would a car. Instead of just picking out fabric, you could change the shape of a sofa.”

Technology, Rollins says, is redefining the art of furniture design. “Machines open the door to continue to make things that are intricate and beautiful,” he says, “in a fraction of the time.”

FIRST developed after World War II to fabricate metal components, CNC systems now work in concert with the kind of computer-assisted drawing programs that architects have used for decades. Whereas 20th century Modernists such as Isamu Noguchi and Verner Panton sketched flowing curves and amorphic forms on paper, the current generation of designers draws three-dimensional objects on their laptops.


In the 2005 book “Blobjects & Beyond: The New Fluidity in Design,” authors Steven Skov Holt and Mara Holt Skov propose that these sometimes-goofy forms are the direct result of digital design and manufacturing, leading to “new creative possibilities for the look of even the most ordinary object.”

As the London-based Future Systems proves, a bench need not be a rectangle on legs. The firm’s Drift is a rounded, lacquered wood sculpture, reminiscent of a Nike swoosh or the work of artist Henry Moore.

In the case of Fold by English designer Alex Taylor, a single piece of computer-cut metal can be bent into a lamp and its shade.

Stefan Lawrence, whose Los Angeles showroom Twentieth represents Future Systems and Taylor, believes that these early explorations in digital manufacturing will become collectibles. (The Fold lamp, in fact, was just added to the Museum of Modern Art’s international contemporary design collection.) Lawrence likens the new generation of computer-generated shapes to the emergence of Cubism in the early 20th century.

“Computers are able to design curves and shapes that look like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid buildings,” Lawrence says. “There really are no limits as to what designers can create and customize now that they have this technology.”

In the not-too-distant future, a computer will be able to carve a Louis XIV chair from a block of plywood, or use a blast of water to cut it out of solid steel. Here’s how: The computer will scan an image -- say, a photograph of a chair from an auction catalog, or perhaps a period etching of one -- and translate it into a three-dimensional model. With the aid of a human programmer, the computer code will then choreograph machinery to whittle away material into the chair’s final shape.

At the moment, there is just one hitch: No machines can cut the underside of a solid block of material. A process called stereo lithography, however, can build small-scale three-dimensional objects from the ground up out of resin or wax, which can then be used to create molds for manufacturing.

For Jason Miller, the Brooklyn-based designer of I Was Here, a table made of plastic, faux wood planks carved with CNC graffiti, these new technologies have some potential drawbacks.


“Saying that it can equal a wood carver or graffiti artist is dangerous,” he says. “Using technology to replicate an existing craft misses the point.”

Though he will use a computer to execute a piece, Miller does not design online.

“The blobists of recent fame always try to equate their shapes to nature or ergonomics when really they are making the most unnatural shapes possible,” he says. “They are just making easy-to-render digital shapes.”

DESPITE its inherent creative potential, digital design is most often used for inexpensive plastic products made through decades-old molding processes. Similarly, CNC machinery is more frequently employed to speed the production of low-cost items such as IKEA cabinets or the lacy silhouettes that Tord Boontje recently created for Target’s holiday decor.

In Los Angeles, however, a growing number of independent furniture makers are beginning to employ CNC machinery to become miniature factories, producing original designs in quantities that were impossible to achieve in years past.

“It’s all about CNC,” says Venice designer Ilan Dei. For the Ilan Dei Studio’s Namibia collection, he uses a computer-driven router on fine hardwood tables. The results, inspired by a visit to Africa, are tabletops whose sculpted patterns resemble topographical dunes and rippled water.

“It allows a designer so much freedom of expression,” Dei says of the technique. “In the past, if I wanted to do a sculptural, sensual, nature-oriented form, it was next to impossible to reproduce without a master carver.”

For 100xbetter, the technology allows accuracy and, says designer Rollins, “repeatability.” Chairs, shelves and pendant lights are made with interlocking pieces of precision-cut, half-inch plywood sheets that can be shipped flat in a box and assembled without nails or glue. “It’s empowering to be able to make the parts for a lamp and know that it’s going to fit together, no question marks,” he says.


The machine is also capable of imprinting assembly instructions directly into the surface of the furniture components or carving intricate relief work, such as a stand of bamboo engraved into a sheet of plywood.

“That’s something I would never have attempted by hand,” Rollins says.

If Rollins and Sowersby take a form-follows-function approach to computer furniture design, the Highland Park consortium known as MachineHistories follows a more theatrical path. Jason Pilarski, a professor of industrial and environmental design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and his colleagues Patrick Dachtler, Steven Joyner and Clancy Pearson gained acclaim at the international Milan furniture fair last April by exhibiting an intricate, computer-carved bed made from the countertop material Corian. “CNC technology is really prevalent in manufacturing, but not in furniture design,” Pilarski says. “People have learned how to make a buck, but they haven’t learned the aesthetics of the technology and what the machines can do.”

Joyner learned firsthand when he converted a loft on the floor above MachineHistories’ industrial shop. Using computer programs, he created a living space with a built-in DJ console and a clothing closet concealed behind a wall-sized door used as a screen for a projection TV. The apartment is also filled with experiments and prototypes, including a long, undulating dining table made from laminated sheet rock.

Downstairs in the laboratory, the designers of MachineHistories are shaggy-haired mad scientists, all in their 30s, speaking jargon and using computers to create 3-D collages that superimpose imagery such as flying birds with pixel patterns. On a recent afternoon, the team used a CNC router to gouge one design into Corian, then heated the slabs and bent them around a pipe to create lighting pendants that glowed like an alabaster relief.

The group also has produced elaborately carved mirrors that took two days to design on the computer and an hour for the CNC machine to cut out.

“It would take a year to do that kind of work by hand,” Pearson says, “and you could never get such clean lines and crisp edges.”

PERFECTION is not MachineHistories’ most important product. Oftentimes, the designers will throw a tweak into a CNC program just to see what the machine will do.

“When people talk about crafts, they talk about being able to sense the hand of the artist who makes things,” Pilarski says. “This allows them to see the hand of the machine.”

Jason Miller also uses computer tools to provoke new ways of thinking about digital design. For a piece called Scotch Magic, he laminates computer-cut pieces of frosted glass onto a solid mirror. The finished piece looks as if it has been shattered and taped back together -- and serves as a reminder that perfection can lie in imperfection.

“Designers need to think of CNC technology as a craft unto itself,” he says. “It has peculiarities, both good and bad, that are uniquely its own. Ideally these will be exploited on their own merits, resulting in something entirely new and honest.”

Rollins of 100xbetter agrees.

“We didn’t buy a CNC machine to see how much time we could make and money we could save,” he says.

Then why did they buy it?

Says Rollins: “We thought, ‘That’s a crazy tool that will inspire us.’ ”