The Future of Furniture Design

I am conducting research for a short presentation next week on ‘The Future of Furniture Design as a Creative Discipline’. Of course predicting the future of design is a tricky business and the results depend upon who is doing the predicting. Maybe a set of design Tarot Cards would be useful or maybe we should have asked the writer and University Professor Isaac Asimov to prepare us a road-map. To make sense of the presentation title we also need a definition of the word ‘creative’. There are many definitions of creativity and after reading fifty plus I quote John Hunt Emeritus Professor at London Business School: ‘Creativity has little to do with the ‘flash of inspiration out of the blue’. ‘Creativity is not something where someone who has never worked in that field suddenly gets this marvellous idea. Creativity is relating a concept to a particular body of knowledge. The existing body of knowledge is as vital as the novel idea and really creative people spend years and years acquiring and refining their knowledge base – be it music, mathematics, arts, sculpture or design.’ 

As a young furniture designer designing chairs I was struck by the image Marcel Breuer conjured up when he talked of a future when we might not sit on furniture pieces rather we would be perched on jets of air emanating from holes in the floor

– an elegant if sterile solution. When coming up with this creative vision, Breuer was no doubt drawing on his work as a furniture designer and the body of knowledge he had amassed as a practitioner.

At the recent Milan Furniture Fair Vitra  showed a new chair by Alejandro Aravena Called ‘Chairless’. It is a simple woven strap that slips around your knees and back while you’re sitting on the floor – a device similar to that used by the Ayoreo Indians of Paraguay and an idea that might make yoga guruji BKS Iyengar raise an eyebrow (straps are used in yoga asanas to assist the practitioner) Alejandro Aravena says he saw a picture of an Ayoreo Indian sitting on the ground and became fascinated by the reduction of the ‘chair’ to an absolute basic element. Maybe Aravena was thinking of Marcel Breuer too when he decide to appropriate this simple device.  

As product designers when engaging in new product innovation we are advised by Professors Cagan and Vogel to analyze the SET factors (Society, Economics and Technology). In their book ‘Creating Breakthrough Products they identify key factors associated with successful innovation, and presents an approach to building products and services that aim to redefine markets or create new ones. Long before the publishing of ‘Creating Breakthough Products’ and when studying Furniture and Product Design I was told by my Design History Professor John Heskett to look out for the PEST factors – Politics, Economics, Society and Technology, an approach that Cagan and Vogel adhere to but this time with the added aspect of Politics (thanks John!). Judging by what is, and what is not going on in the world today (economically, socially) I think that it is safe to say that Politics and Political Ideologies will continue to have considerable bearing on the future of design.

Key areas future focused furniture designers need to investigate:

Sustainable Practice: As Alistair Fuad-Luke reminds us, ‘to create sustainable design solutions has to be one of the biggest and ultimately most important design challenges’. Designers must view the creation of sustainable design solutions as an interesting and necessary opportunity rather than as a debilitating threat. Due to factors such as geographical location, habitat, culture, socio-politico-economic systems and the availability of resources, green design solutions will always be diverse. This diversity could help us rediscover and regain our sense of regional design qualities, something we seem to have lost – sustainable design solutions could provide designers and manufacturers with a way of differentiating themselves within a world of globally sited production lines. 

Another exciting opportunity for the future of furniture design could be pursued through a more conscientious integration of products and services. Amongst other things, integration would help ensure a productive use of material resources. An example of this is the Dutch company Gispen who maintain and repair the furniture they sell to clients, Gispen ensures that they retrieve, re-cycle and reuse their products and materials effectively.

On William McDonald’s website, McDonald describes the 2002 book he co-authored with Michael Braungart Cradle to Cradle as a ‘manifesto calling for the transformation of human industry through ecologically intelligent design’. Time Magazine described McDonald and Braungart as  ‘Heroes for the Environment’. Cradle to Cradle is a hopeful book. Indeed hope is a necessary quality in any designer of the future. When pondering how to make funerals more hopeful one of my ex-students Greg Holdsworth designed a simple non-toxic biodegradable casket called ‘Return to Sender’ . Return to Sender is, in my view, an excellent example of intelligent future focused design.

Educating designers in sustainable design requires a different approach to that being taken in many Universities around the world. Since the publication of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ and Victor Papanek’s ‘Design for the Real World’ academics have been developing tools, courses and alternative methods and a select number of Universities sustainable design programs. Royal Melbourne Institute of Techology’s Center for Design developed the Rapid Assessment Tool (RAT). The RAT is a paper-based environmental assessment tool for product design process which provides assistance to product developers regarding the integration of environmental considerations during the product development process. RAT includes step-by-step guidance for the application of various Design for Environment (DfE) strategies in order to lower environmental burden of the product. Anne Thorpe has recently written ‘The Designers Atlas of Sustainability’ and the IDSA published OKALA which is an excellent resource for ‘practicing and beginning designers’ that provides an introduction to ecological and sustainable design. Canadian organization The Natural Step have equally excellent guides to assist designers, businesses and manufaurers get to grips with sustainable development. And there are many more resources and think-tanks out there such as 10:10, the Designers Accord, The Kyoto Design Declaration). As found in some of the more enlightened Universities, splitting sustainability out of the curriculum makes sustainability a specialist subject that designers can choose not to take, it give the excuse to some designers to leave it to the others – integration is required. This leads me onto another point, that of ‘Emotionally Durable Design’. In his book ‘Emotionally Durable Design Jonathan Chapman explores the essential question, “Why do users discard products that still work?”. He argues that sustainable design fails to “understand the actual drivers underpinning the human consumption and waste of goods” I believe that what is needed for our future health, the health of our offspring (and theirs) our economy and our planet are design courses that integrate much of what I describe above into major awards.


 Design Methods: There are many different design methods or design processes some of which are described in Ecology above. Hugh Dubberly of the Dubberly Design Office published a 147 page book called ‘How do you Design’ outlining over 100 definitions of design and design processes. By presenting his book, Dubberly aimed to “foster debate about design and development processes“. This is a good book that I have referred to on numerous occasions but what we also need to be fostering debate around is ‘what and why do we design’. Our world is marked by an over production of superfluous goods and social inequality. I would like to see the ‘old fashioned’ questions of form, function and style supplemented with the designer’s obligation to design better products. For example, there is enough research around that has been conducted by ergonomist and doctors that shows sitting in chairs can be bad for our health. If we sit for too long in even the most ergonomically correct task chair we run the risk of damaging our posture or risking heart problems. This is something Peter Opsvik must have thought hard about when he designed the innovative Variable Balans Stool in 1976 and the Reflex 1 in 2002. I believe that to be able to create better functioning and ultimately ‘better’ pieces of furniture designers need to employ empathic design methods and other user centered design methods to understand more fully the needs to the users. IDEO partner Jane Fulton Suri has much to say about the use of empathic design methods as does founder David Kelley (see below).


David Kelley on User-Center Design

Collaboration:  The designing and developing of truly innovative products are complicated processes that needs to draw upon the collective skills and knowledge of designers (from different disciplines), business people, engineers and scientists.  Due to the levels of opacity and uncertainty experienced during the the start of the product development process this stage is sometimes referred to as the “Fuzzy Front End”. To assist in Fuzzy Front End developments designers need to leverage off such contributions from diverse product teams. Different types of collaborative design methods are well documented and proven by design companies such as IDEO and Universities such as Stanford and their D-School. These methods ask for constant evaluation and reconsideration throughout the design process incorporating feedback from many people including potential users.


In his recent report entitled ‘Ingenious Britian’ Jame Dyson has called for support for STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). He suggests that the government must put it’s efforts into supporting a culture where science, technology and engineering are held in high esteem, an educational system that inspires a future generation of scientists, engineers and technicians, a system that knows how to apply knowledge in the creation of ‘world beating products’, and supporting and financing of high-tech through investment in R&D and direct investment in companies and projects. Not dissimilar calls to those made by Sir George Cox is 2005 report. Dyson is a trained designer, he knows that collaboration is a key factor in the development of new products and business models, after all he employs 1,200 people, 300+ of which are engineers and scientists. In New Zealand, the Department for Trade and Enterprise organised ‘Better By Design’ a number of event, schemes and supporting facilities for New Zealand manufacturers who wish to make use of Design in their companies. ‘Big’ names were flown in to the country and talked about design and ‘the competitive edge’ it bring to business, design audits carried out and case studies exposed. The result is that design is now being seen (in some businesses) as ‘a behaviour not a department’, that designers need to be given all the information and brought into project development teams at the start of the product development process rather than as stylists at the end. The future of design is one where designers are given the space and remit to move away from styling things and focus on assisting in the development of improved (in every sense of the word) products and services.



Technology and Network: Everyday products are becoming smarter and smarter with technological developments being seen in domestic goods, cars, communication devices and so on. Domestic and contract furniture however tend to revert to their ‘knife and fork’ approaches with new designs expressing themselves more often than not through styling rather than real innovation. Vitra, Steelcase, Herman Miller and others have all developed technologically advanced office seating but these designs almost always find their place in office buildings and not in the home.

Products like the iBOT (anscestor to the Segway) have made huge leaps in wheelchair design. How can such technical innovations provide us with better furniture?

Simple technology can assist buyers and users. When working with the Keen Group Ltd in 2000 we looked at how RFID and Bluetooth could be used to assist building facility managers keep ‘smart’ inventories of the products they were responsible for. By embedding such networked chips into furniture, a manager can scan a room or a piece of furniture and instantly see who has designed and manufactured the furniture, what the materials it is made from, the name and shade of upholstery, the guarantee scheme, the date of delivery and so on. It would not be difficult to take this a stage further and have furniture that responds to our commands wirelessly and once ‘trained’ senses our presence and pre-loads a chair to our desired comfort specifications.

There has been alot said and written about the mac, the ipod, iphone and now the ipad, it is likely that furniture and technology such as this will merge with the furniture being the lead player. For example an easy chair with a built in but upgradeable computing facility (an upgraded take on the M.I.S.S. ((Music, Image, Sofa, System)) by Starck) could conceivably find its way onto the market. There are of course many more ways that the integration of technology might improve the furniture we buy for our homes. At Stanford University in 2007 Donald Norman delivered a 1.5 hour address based on his book of the same title which describes his thoughts on how we might make the designs of the future work for us.


Donald Norman.

Rapid Manufacture: In their book ‘Design Now’ Charlotte and Peter Fiell suggest that

“The world of contemporary design is in flux, with no single direction or philosophy enjoying a clear ascendancy. Mass-producible universal designs, consumer objects with a degree of personal customization and limited edition “Design-Art” pieces all jostle for notice in a media-driven wold that feeds on novelty rather than substance”

What makes this passage stand out from similar sentiments expressed over the last few decades are the words ‘personal customization’. Never before has it been easier for designers and the public to create physical products. There are ‘Rep-Rap’ machines, rapid prototyping machines of various types and desk top rotational moulding machines. 3-D printing technology has until now only been available in companies and universities but now the prices are are getting low enough and the quality good enough that it is easy to contemplate homes having 3D printers in the future. For the first time in history these machines allow designers and shed-tinkeres to make complicated and previously ‘un-makeable’ items at in sheds. The use of rapid manufacturing machines will provide us with many benefits such as the opportunity to customize, mend and prolong the life of products but the danger we face with wider ownership and use of home 3-D printering is the making of junk or ‘for the sake of it’ objects. The increased usage and disposal of hazardous industrial chemicals and the effect this would have on us and the planet. Professor Martin Rees speaking in the 2010 Reith Lectures wonders whether we can survive this century or will we destroy ourselves through bio-error or bio-terror? Rees has talked about the need for scientists to get involved in public debate and for science to help us understand how we can make it through to 2050. I wonder if Rees would agree when I say designers need to be in on those debates too (back to collaboration).


Materials: More on collaboration – materials are not often created by designers rather they are developed by scientists, researchers and technologists. Easy ways to see just a few of the many material developments that designers can take advantage of is to visit the ‘Why Design Now’ exhibition catalogue published by the Cooper-Hewlitt Musuem and click on the materials download button, or browse the library at Material Connextion.
In order contribute to the development of new solutions and to push the boundaries of the materials that are available to designers I have been working with research institute SCION in Rotarua New Zealand on developing and exploiting a material for furniture production that is made from a combination of plant extracts and natural fibres. The aim of the project (BioChair) is to develop 100% bio-based contract furniture. Sodra Pulp have been working with designers on a chair made from paper pulp and more recently on short projects with the Royal College of Art.  Material developments and improved manufacturing techniques as well as traditional materials and improved manufacturing processes hold some of the keys to the future of the profession. 

BioChair by Roger Bateman and SCION.

Cultural and Spiritual Design: My friend the designer David Trubridge talks about design in the way some of us talk about food. In his writting entitled ‘The Cultural Designer’ David speaks out for and approach to design that provides us with ‘nourishing products’ rather than the ‘fast-food products’ designers and manufacturers offer us. David says:

“No wonder we show all the symptoms of undernourishment!  We are consuming junk food which is designed to sell maximum bulk with minimum satisfaction.  One small meal of good nourishing food will leave you feeling fit and satisfied for a long time.  One large heap of junk food leaves you only craving more, where you are hooked, obese, lifeless and truly like a junkie!”

David argues convincingly for a breed of design which is both culturally as well as spiritually nourishing.

David Trubridge

Within his work David is investigating Maori myth and legend and the notion of Kaitiakitanga: In Maori Kaitiakitanga means guardianship, protection, preservation or sheltering. It is a way of managing the environment, based on the traditional Māori world view. Traditionally, Māori believe there is a deep kinship between humans and the natural world. All life is connected. People are not superior to the natural order; they are part of it. Like some other indigenous cultures, Māori see humans as part of the web or fabric of life. To understand the world, one must understand the relationships between different parts of the web. Kaitiakitanga expresses itself in different ways:

Kaitiaki – Guardians. A kaitiaki is a person or group that is recognised as a guardian by the tribal group with authority in a particular area. For instance, a sub-tribe might be the kaitiaki for a lake or a forest. Interest in kaitiakitanga is growing today.

Environmental Impact: All human societies, including Māori, affect the environment they live in. Before Europeans arrived, Māori hunted the moa to extinction, and burnt large areas of forest. They had a negative impact on the environment in other ways too. However, Europeans also had a serious impact on native plants, animals, land and sea after they settled in New Zealand. For example, large areas of forest were felled to make way for farming.

Guardianship of objects: Kaitiakitanga can also apply to valued items. These include family heirlooms such as korowai (cloaks), mere pounamu (jade clubs) and books about genealogy. An item that belongs to a person later becomes the property of all their descendants. It is cared for by an individual kaitiaki on behalf of the group. The kaitiaki is responsible for bringing the object to important occasions such as funerals, and for holding information about it.

Kaitiakitanga is a wonderful concept and one which we have much to learn from.  It speaks of the integrated approach to design that I suggested we need in ‘Ecology’ above. But it goes much further than this, kaitiakitaga is about community, sharing, guardianship over ownership, preservation of culture and respect.

I was delighted to find that the Cooper-Hewlitt Museum has launched an exhibition called ‘Why Design Now’ the website for which says:

Why design now? Designers around the world are answering this question by creating products, prototypes, buildings, landscapes, messages, and more that address social and environmental challenges. How can we power the world with clean energy? How can we move people and products safely and efficiently? How can we shelter communities in sustainable environments? How can we close the loop of materials extraction and disposal? How can we enable people around the globe to generate and share wealth? How can we improve the quality of life for all people through health-care innovations? How can we communicate ideas effectively and creatively? How can we discover beauty and wisdom in simple forms that use minimal resources? Collectively, designers are seeking to enhance human health, prosperity, and comfort while diminishing the conflicts between people and the global ecosystems we inhabit‘.

Incidentally, within this exhibition there is a sneak-preview of what innovative future focused furniture might look like. Lin 94 Chair

I would like to suggest to you that this exhibition celebrates much of what furniture designers need to investigate. The curators of ‘Why Design Now’ write: “Collectively, designers are seeking to enhance human health, prosperity, and comfort while diminishing the conflicts between people and the global ecosystems we inhabit“. But let us not forget the need for all products to also engage the user in a truly emotional way and by this I mean not just feeling good about designing sustainably.

In Summary, the future of (furniture) design could be one where we see the collaborative creation of empathic, user centered, emotionally engaging, sustainable products and services that employ innovative materials and technologies in their manufacture.

NOTE: I emailed a small number of practicing designers asking them to comment on what they thought the future of (furniture) design might look like. To see their responses scroll up to the top or down to the bottom of this blog entry and click on the grey word ‘comments’. Thank you to those who responded


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Inhabitat Nokia Phone Charges by Drawing Energy Out of Thin Air

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Alessi – Managing Innovation

You  might find this article  about Alessi interesting. Alberto Alessi, head of his family’s iconic design factory, talks about how to sustain innovation over decades—and why companies should take more risk. Alberto Alessi is the third generation to lead his family’s iconic design firm. Founded and still based in Crusinallo, about an hour north of Milan, Italy, the firm remains privately owned. In Alessi’s view, both the ownership structure and the location of his company have imbued it with a strong tradition of artisanship—and given its designers the freedom to create as they see fit.


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PDR – The National Centre for Product Design & Development Research

PDR (UWIC) University of Wales in Cardiff provide us with an excellent model for research and development in the field of product design. The Centre's team is made up of senior and junior designers researchers, research assistance and research students. The focus of the team is on 'research which reflects the strategic importance of the creative application of design and the design process in the devlopment of new products, systems and methodolgies'. A recentt document I received from the PDR states their research mission as being:

'twofold; firstly, the devlopment, adaption and realisation of new knowlegde, technologies and systems which support and facilitate creativity within the design process, and secondly, the creative application of such knowledge and technology in the design and developmetn of new products capable of enhancing the well-being of both individual users and the economy as a whole'

Check out their website for more information.

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� Group Lead Design. Innovative concepts in under 2 hours.

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Innovating – how to encourage and nurture the slippery side.

How do you encourage and support innovation? There is much written about this subject and it is evident that innovation and creativity are now buzz words in corporations around the globe. But innovation and creativity don't just happen, they need to be encouraged and nurtured. One way assist the innovation process is to create  opportunities for  it to happen – you need to take the initiative before something can happen. In a recent article Ed Bernacki  mentions Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway:

' (When) Ernest Hemingway started work on a book, he did not wait for divine inspiration – he started writing every day at 11.00am. His goal was 1,000 words per day regardless of the time it took. He built a special pedestal as he preferred to stand when writing. Interestingly, he stopped writing in the middle of the last sentence. He found it easier to continue the next day by starting in the middle of the last sentence'  Bernacki goes on to say:

' Artists create the opportunity to create; they don't wait for inspiration. They act. Businesses must also act'

So as design students what do you do to get inspiration each day, how do you retain your self motivation to work when the going gets tough? Here are a few ideas:

1) create an inspirational space to work in – decorate and construct props int he studio – have a fun and enjoy being 'at work'
2) create a relaxation space in the studio where you can collaborate 'in your own time'
3) respect each others space and and allow people to concentrate when need be (contrary to popular belief loud music doesn't help everyone)
4) make the space safe – this is tied to 3 above as safety here means respecting others and their property
5) invite guests professionals into your studio and ask for their opinion

The overall goal is to help spark the creative process – jump start you creative juices by constructing a space that invites collaboration, concentration, serious play and delight.

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