The Houdini, Stefan Diez’s 2008 chair for E15, is an exercise in folding. The chair’s backrest is formed from 4.5mm-thick oak-veneered plywood, which is meticulously bent into a deep curve that encompasses the sitter. So too is the upper portion of the seat folded into form around a solid wood base, before being itself subsumed by the curve of the backrest. The Houdini is a series of folded sheets within folded sheets, such that a three-dimensional form is achieved through the application of force to two-dimensional panels. Subjected to an outside influence, the materials assemble themselves into the object. For a designer such as Diez, this must be an incomprehensibly rich process. Diez’s work regularly references magic and he delights in the magician’s ability to conceal their operations behind a seemingly effortless final result. Ditto with folding. The creation of three-dimensional objects from two-dimensional materials is perhaps the closest you can get within an industrial framework to a self-generating object. In light of this, the Houdini presents a perspective upon design that demands investigation – let’s begin with Aristotle.
Writing in the fourth century BCE, Aristotle is a long way to travel back for insight into a present-day production technique, yet his reflections on the nature of being go a long way towards explaining the allure of folding and bending. The Metaphysics, Aristotle’s investigation of ontology, is compelling reading for a design audience insofar as it represents a conception of creation that closely parallels modern perspectives upon design. For Aristotle, all substances break down into form and matter. Matter is the raw material, onto which form is imposed. Form is what bounds a thing and is what makes any set of matter into some definite thing. Form may be conceived of as shape in some cases (in respect of a bronze sphere, bronze is the matter, sphericity the form), but it is also more than this – a thing’s form is its essence, to the extent that Aristotle identifies the soul as being the form of a person. Bare matter, then, is a potentiality of form.
In contrast to the later Christian notion of creatio ex nihilo – by which something is made from nothing - Aristotle’s idea falls within a tradition of thought in which the act of creation is essentially akin to the practice of a designer: it is the provision of form to pre-existent matter. It is a notion that accords well with the bulk of 20th-century design history and which is ably evoked by Charles Eames’s encapsulation of the discipline as “a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose.” Look also to the architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s 1981 New York Times lament for what he saw as a dearth of architects creating innovative work at a scale befitting the discipline: “Architecture has forms galore, but no form-givers”.
If you think of design in this way, it is no surprise that bending and folding appear as particularly clear examples of the discipline’s core principles. In folding a material, nothing is added to it beyond shape, nor is the nature of the material being fundamentally altered (in contrast to, for example, processes such as bonding or anodisation). Both bending and folding exist in the realm of pure formation: the material is merely being recalibrated such that a form emerges. It is a point upon which the critic Peter Maxwell expanded in his 2013 essay ‘The Fold’ for Disegno magazine: “[Folding] and its effected object [a fold] exist as an inseparable pair, the one predicated on the other. This is why, when we describe the fold, what we really describe is the gesture that created it.”
Folding and bending display an economy of material and process, which provides an explanation for their frequent appearance at the vanguard of experimentation with new materials. Marcel Breuer’s work with tubular steel at the Bauhaus – resulting in the 1925 Wassily Chair – was rooted in bending metal into shape, while Charles and Ray Eames subjected plywood to similar processes to produce their 1946 Molded Plywood chair. Both projects utilised bending and folding lightly, selecting bending as a technique because of its capacity to showcase the capabilities of their respective materials. In a similar spirit, the artist Josef Albers, in teaching the preliminary course at the Bauhaus, invited his students to produce shapes out of newspapers, advising that “We have to make the most out of the least. [...] I want you to use the material in a way that makes sense – preserve its inherent characteristics. If you can do without tools like knives and scissors, and without glue, the better.”
The challenge of folding and bending is to find applications within an industrial context. Albers’s class was intimately linked to handcraft and it is no coincidence that the most formally developed and systematised school of creation through folding is origami. While origami has come to benefit from the application of computer programmes to achieve more mathematically ambitious shapes, the actual production process remains almost entirely handcraft. For a design audience, this is most clearly visible in Issey Miyake’s 132 5 collection of garments, released in 2010. The garments were developed in collaboration with computer scientist Jun Mitani, who enabled Miyake and his team to design clothing formed by folding single pieces of fabric in such a way that the resultant three-dimensional clothes can be entirely packed down into two-dimensional graphic symbols. In spite of computer technology aiding the development of the forms, the folds themselves still need to be made by hand. David Balkcom, a researcher in robotics at Dartmouth, sets out the problem in his paper ‘Robotic Origami Folding’: “Paper is flexible and springy, but stretches hardly at all; simulation and manipulation are hard […] Another difficulty is that folds made in paper are typically very acute; punch-and-die folding methods like those used for bending sheet metal are problematic, because the punch must be very thin, and it is difficult to see how to remove it after folding the paper through.”
Belkom’s point might be expanded to other materials. While folding and bending represent conceptually pure design processes, they carry with them the complexity and practical difficulties of any industrial manufacturing technique. One of the earliest examples of a product to make use of these processes, Michael Thonet’s steam-bent wood no. 14 café chair from 1859, is celebrated for its aesthetic qualities, but its greatest success was the method by which it was industrialised. Thonet’s chair set out to solve the problem of curved wooden elements weakening as they deviated from the direction of the grain, and his solution was to use solid timber treated with steam to make the fibres temporarily pliable – the grain would simply travel with the curve. Steam-bending wood was not new as an artisanal process, but Thonet rationalised it and made its occurrence within industry feasible. As the designer Tim Parsons notes in his book Thinking: Objects, “This innovation made fast, efficient production possible […] and enabled Thonet to become one of the first mass producers of wooden furniture.” The challenge of any industrialised bending or folding process is to move beyond the individualism of specific material samples and their resistance to reforming, and to instead develop a generalisable system whereby the results are predictable. How do you move beyond the craft of a process such as origami and establish an industrial process to rival Thonet’s?
The challenge is in part ideological. In line with Aristotle’s notion of form, a fold or a bend is suggestive of an intimacy between maker and material. To paraphrase Maxwell, a fold or bend becomes a “trace” of the gesture that produced it, such that the craftsperson behind that gesture retains a tangible presence within the object and becomes an essential part of the object’s form. This phenomenon is particularly clear within Diez’s Houdini chair. “With Houdini we couldn’t use a very thick backrest because we needed a very, very thin plywood, to be able bend it by hand,” the designer noted in a 2013 interview with Disegno magazine. “Houdini was a tailored chair. It was made from cut-outs glued together, with a lot of hand crafting processes in between.”
Diez resolved his question over the link between industry and craft with a second project for E15, 2013’s This That Other family of chairs. This That Other borrowed the visual language of Houdini but simplified it, creating a series of designs better suited to industrial manufacture. Dedicated tooling was created, allowing the backrest to thicken to 7mm from Houdini’s 4.5mm. “That’s the essence of industrial production,” remarked Diez. “The trick was to take the heritage from the Houdini that was totally handmade and transfer that to a kind of t-shirt version.” To understand the significance of the move from the bespoke shirt to the printed t-shirt, it is best to return to Aristotle. In 1946, the philosopher Bertrand Russell responded to Aristotle’s concept of form and matter in his History of Western Philosophy. The theory of form and matter is unsatisfactory, Russell argues, insofar as Aristotle conceives of forms as substances that exist independently of the matter in which they are variously exemplified. The result of the theory, Russell suggests, is the hypostasis of ideas: a supersensible world in which shadowy entities such as sphericity reside, ready to be embodied within any number of particular things. It is an unpalatable conclusion and one from which Aristotle’s only way out, Russell believes, is to maintain “that no two things could have the same form.” Under this revision, each individual sphere would have its own particular sphericity. These forms would then be manifest in their own particular object, such that each form would be unique (a multiplicity of sphericity) and each resultant substance within the world would possess its own essence.
At this point, industrial design is best advised to depart from Aristotle’s conception of creation and being. The core of industrial production is the idea that the essence of each object produced in a series is identical. As argued by the design critic Joseph Grima, writing in the catalogue to his 2012 show Adhocracy, industrial design’s business is “making perfect objects – millions of them, all the same, to the exactingly consistent standards prescribed by the International Organization for Standardization”. When folding and bending transition from a craft process in which the hand of the artisan is visible to an overarching industrial design strategy, the discussion that runs alongside it must change also. Rather than examine the form of the objects produced, we must search for form within the processes that created them.