Interview

Polymer Science

Munich

31 January 2018

In 2016 Coalesse, the boutique division of the American office furniture company Steelcase, launched Lessthanfive, a chair made from carbon fibre. Designed by Michael Young, Lessthanfive was an attempt to bring carbon fibre into the realm of furniture design, exploiting the material's stiffness and lightness to produce a lightweight stacking chair.

Two years on, Steelcase have revisited the lessons learned from Lessthanfive with SILQ, a task chair that professes to strip away the complex mechanisms that typically dominate the typology in favour of providing a material solution to creating an adaptive chair.

In place of the hundreds of parts required to produce a fully adjustable task chair, SILQ employs a curved panel of carbon fibre that provides the chair's structure. As the user sits in the chair, the carbon fibre flexes to automatically fit stature, movement and posture.

Carbon fibre, however, is an expensive material that is presently ill-suited to the production of an affordable mass-market chair. As such, following SILQ's development in carbon fibre, Steelcase also created an alternative version of the chair that uses a proprietary polymer material that emulates the qualities of carbon fibre. Whereas the carbon fibre SILQ retails for over $3,000, the polymer version's starting list price is $970.

The chair was developed by a small team led by designer James Ludwig, Steelcase's vice president of global design and engineering. To mark the chair's launch, Disegno spoke to Ludwig about the challenges behind the chair's design and conception, as well as the material science through which Steelcase developed its carbon-fibre aping polymer.


How did the SILQ project begin?

In 2008 we were starting a flagship seating project and in the midst of that I did a sketch showing a kind of magical material that performed like all of the machinery and mechanisms underneath a task chair. That chair looked like a series of tendrils, and was more organism than machine. So we worked at that idea for a couple of months before we realised it was kind of a “not yet” project.

What prompted that feeling that it was a “not yet” project?

There wasn’t maturity in the material science and we didn’t possess the necessary expertise. Also, at that time we were developing the Gesture chair, which is really our flagship task chair and is infinitely tuneable and adjustable – a very different kind of chair. We were also working on the Lessthanfive chair with Michael Young and Coalesse, which was a challenge to try and understand carbon fibre and what it means to our industry. There was a sort of zeitgeist around carbon fibre in the world of product development at that time. We’d seen some early studies, but nobody had created a commercially viable product. We were super happy with the end result of Lessthanfive, which was about carbon fibre’s virtues of lightness and stiffness, but I felt there were other aspects of carbon fibre that we hadn’t exploited, like its flexibility. So I asked our chief engineer if, given what we’d learned about carbon fibre, we could pick up this other idea again from 2008. I grabbed a small team of five people to work with me for six months to see if there was something there.

Why did you want a small team?

I didn’t want to brief. I just wanted to operate on an intuition that there was something there and not revere the industry standards of the criteria that make up a task chair. Sometimes ideas are fragile and you need to incubate them in a different way. So we papered over the windows, put locks on the doors and I reported to the CEO that we were working on something interesting and would show him when it was ready. He was supportive and so was the CFO, who channelled money our way.

How did you sell them on this more atelier-like form of development than what you might normally get at Steelcase?

We had to take it to a point where the idea was so compelling that people couldn’t say no. It was a big risk and I took some very talented people out of their jobs for a significant period of time, but I had the feeling that this was something possible. So we developed what we now call SILQ. The idea was to create something that was more organism that machine, and we solved that technical challenge in carbon fibre. The chair has a height adjustment lever, but everything else is driven by the energy you put into the system. The carbon fibre creates an intuitive sit that automatically fits your stature and posture. The idea of replacing something complex with something simple seems so obvious, but it’s a difficult challenge. Simplistic is easy, simple is not. If you look at a high-end task chair there is normally a couple of hundred parts making up those machines. This has 30-ish.

How did the project proceed from that breakthrough?

Carbon fibre is a premium material and a premium solution. That initial chair was a technical marvel, but how can we make a market out of that given how expensive the material is? How do you do get the same solution at a price point? That’s what I challenged our engineers. They were pissed off for a week, but then came back with a non-carbon version of the chair. We invented a proprietary material and process that virtually replicates the carbon fibre at less than a quarter of the price. The premium carbon fibre version of the chair is upwards of $3,000, whereas the standard version goes under $1,000.

So what is the material behind that standard version?

I can’t say. One of the reasons we’re excited is because the material isn't replicable yet. We see it as a competitive advantage, so telling you what it is would be a little like exposing your flavour formula to a competitor.

But what makes it non-replicable? Is it a case of not knowing what the formula is, or is it just technically difficult to manufacture?

It’s kind of both. I can say, for instance, that the invention of the manufacturing process was as important as the way we use that process; it starts to edge up on ideas around self-assembly and if I say too much more than that I’ll get in trouble. You certainly wouldn’t be able to duplicate this chair using conventional materials. It’s a threshold moment and I liken it to how at one point telephones had dials, then they had buttons, now they have glass screens. It’s hard to imagine the next telephone being designed with a dial. It’s going to be hard to be excited by more springs and pulleys after this.

Is it an evolution of a material the company was already working with or is it something completely new? I’m curious, for instance, as to why you had to go through the step of carbon fibre to get here.

We like to think about it in terms of the difference between state of the art and challenging the edge of solvability. The task for designers and engineers is to find that edge of solvability and then make it repeatable such that it becomes the new state of the art. Carbon fibre allowed us to challenge that edge of solvability and once we had that knowledge, we were able to go back and rethink the original problem and solve it a different way. One of the fascinating things about innovation is that when you see it, it feels like it should have been easy. There’s a certain ease to this chair and you look at it and wonder why someone didn’t do it sooner. There’s a reason for that – that edge of solvability was elusive. Even though we had a hunch, it took us many years to solve that technical challenge. Only when we’d made that breakthrough, we could then flip it back and tackle the problem with all of the algorithms, flow analyses and computer models that we’d done with the carbon fibre.

How do you see a chair like this being received? There seems a sense in which the complexity of task chair is almost a badge of honour – a sign of quality.

The evolution of seating has been about complexity and featurism, but there now seems to be a desire to have a more intuitive experience. I think the world is ready for simple. Good designers are always searching for some sort of essence in a material, and are looking for material-based solutions. It’s only when you can’t bring those essential qualities out that you look to have to replace them with a machine. That’s why we’re excited about SILQ. The move from complexity to simplicity is absolutely what people are looking for.