December 17, 2009

Thomas Heatherwick’s dynamic and sculptural chair is crafted from extruded aluminium.

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Design Week in London is jammed with claims for the best, brightest and newest design. Among the clamour, at this year’s September event it was a glistening suite of seating by Heatherwick Studio that truly laid claim to a premier design experience. Sweeping, metallic forms exhibited in the Extrusions show at the Haunch of Venison were the world’s first series of extruded chairs. The series drew on Thomas Heatherwick’s abiding fascination with the possibilities of extruded aluminium sections and the discovery of an equally daring aeronautic manufacturer.

Like much work from Heatherwick Studio, Extrusions was the result of a curiosity about manufacturing processes and how they can be reinterpreted for alternative uses. “I believe in doggedly hanging in there if you think there may be something worth investigating,” Heatherwick claims. For him, the possibility of experimenting with aluminium extrusions began as an undergraduate design student.

“However interesting the profile, when you think of aluminium extrusions they’re usually quite boring to look at,” he admits, “racks and racks of straight, straight stuff.” But 18 years ago when visiting Alcoa’s manufacturing plant in Banbury, Oxfordshire to watch the manufacture of aluminium poles for his final year project, he became unexpectedly enthused. “When [Alcoa] extruded them, it started off like toothpaste coming out of the machine – but all the interesting bits were chopped off and thrown away!” The possibilities of the wobbly cast-offs has stuck in his head ever since, with the potential idea of a simple solution for kilometres of airport seating. “With all the different components involved, the world of furniture design sort of struck me as a lot of fiddling and fussing and I suppose I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing to just squeeze out a seat in one go?’”

Years later, this is exactly what visitors to Extrusions saw, albeit immaculately polished dynamic forms reminiscent of surging tsunami waves or bowed coral growths. They result from large billets of heated aluminium being squeezed in the world’s biggest extruding machine through a chair die designed by the studio. “People often say, ‘It’s not rocket science’ – but actually this is,” Heatherwick jokes. The designs adapt a production process that normally produces train carcasses or tubes for rocket casings, which are swiftly sliced into discrete cylinders.

Similar to the process first seen at Alcoa, the overscaled forms have an unexpected and dynamic life of their own. The twisting, wrenched metal that distinguishes each end of the seats is considered a defect in manufacturing – and early prototypes were marked as such. “Straightaway, they were saying: ‘Right – condemned!’ and we were yelling ‘NO!’” Heatherwick recalls. The creation of arbitrary forms is something the Studio has explored in previous projects, such as Bleigiessen for the Wellcome Trust. “In design, some things have their own life and spontaneity and it’s more about what you’ve done to facilitate it rather than sculpting each and every way,” he adds. “When you shape it too much it can look wrong.”

With seven extrusions now complete, only eight more spontaneous sculptured seats will be produced from this die. The limited edition works are both prototypes with an artistic dimension, but also have the potential for pragmatic applications – an exciting consequence of discovering how to push the technology forward. Aluminium elements of this size offer many architectural applications, and may replace current smaller components. It is this broader aspect that excites Heatherwick most.

In the meantime, gallerists have their hands full, deterring visitors from testing the mercurial seating that draws an audience equally curious to assess ergonomic performance as they are the tactile surfaces. Perhaps they will be mollified to hear that next year a 100-metre long version will be made for a public venue. Though exactly where or how has not yet been revealed, what is certain is the continued interest it will create.

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