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Shape of things to come

Technology is revolutionizing how furniture is made -- and what pieces are headed for our living rooms. The look of the future? It's fluid.

January 04, 2007|David A. Keeps | 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."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday January 08, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Furniture maker: In an article in Thursday's Home section about new technologies in furniture making, a caption misspelled the last name of Will Rollins of the L.A. design firm 100xbetter as Rollings.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 11, 2007 Home Edition Home Part F Page 4 Features Desk 0 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Furniture maker: In a Jan. 4 furniture trends article, a caption referred to Will Rollings. The correct spelling is Rollins.

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.

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