Project

Smooth Like Consumer Electronics

London

23 February 2021

“It all stems from making crossbows in the forest in France when I was a kid,” says Tom Robinson. “I would craft handles into these pieces of wood, it was very medieval. I didn’t realise it, but I was refining stuff at quite a young age.”

Robinson, a London-based designer, applied this same crafty mindset to his latest project. The Evolve chair is a design that aims to treat recycled plastic with the same artisanship as wood or stone. “Recycled plastic is perceived of as a material that big international brands like the Coca Cola company work with,” explains Robinson. “I wanted to take recycled plastic and make it into something that feels a bit more human and crafted.”

Evolve is made from sheets of polystyrene supplied by Dutch manufacturer The Good Plastic Company, which produced the material using discarded computer components. “Ideally, I would find old bits of recycled plastic, crush them up and create the sheets myself,” Robinson says, “but it requires a lot of investment to repurpose waste plastic in house.” The Good Plastic Company uses pellets of plastic supplied by recycling centres, and makes them into standardised sheets using a thermapress. Each sheet is made of a single type of plastic without any dyes or additives, such that it can be recycled forevermore.

Speaking with Robinson on a Zoom call, The Good Plastic Company’s commercial manager Kerry Mckenzie illustrated how strong the material is by getting one of the warehouse workers to jump up and down on a huge plastic sheet. “It flexed but never broke,” Robinson says, “it was amazing.” Robinson’s design reflects the resilience of the material. “It’s got quite a blocky, Donald Judd-style aesthetic to reflect that the chair wouldn’t break. But it still flexes in the back and there’s flex in the chair when you sit on it.”

Evolve’s wide rectangular seat top is gently curved for comfort, inviting you to nestle into it cross-legged. The back of the chair can be removed to make a stool, and the design can be flat-packed for economic shipping. The comparatively thin back of the chair looms above the seat like a screen over a keyboard, although Robinson suggests that it is knowledge of the material’s origins that creates this perception. “Looking at my clunky laptop right now there is some similarity, but that wasn't the inspiration for it,” he says. “I originally did a small plywood mockup, and in wood it had a Japanese joinery element to it, with very simple verticals and a beautifully tailored seat top.”

The surface of the plastic is smooth like consumer electronics, but air bubbles in the middle of the sheet create a porous texture. “As corny as it sounds, I went beneath the surface of this shiny plastic material. I started to machine these pieces, and then I found that it’s actually quite beautiful and stone-like,” Robinson says. “There's a lot of other people working with recycled plastics, for example Vitra’s new Tip Ton chair, but that uses injection moulding. What I wanted to do was to take a manmade industrial material into the territory of craft.”

Robinson treated the material like a board of MDF, which can be made as smooth or as coarse as desired. “The seat top is super smooth and you get a lovely ripple water-like reflection on it, and the back is a bit more rugged,” he says. CNC milling was used to create the seat top, but the rest of the chair is engineered by hand and held together with traditional woodworking joints. “If you go too fast with the CNC machine you can end up burning this material quite easily. So you have to kind of shift your traditional way of working with wood to plastics,” he explains.

Robinson sees Evolve as an everyday piece of furniture, a kitchen table stool or a living room chair. However, transforming recycled materials into sheets without additives is an expensive process. “The raw material costs are high, so the price we have to sell it at puts it in more of a design gallery kind of realm,” Robinson says. He is working with The Good Plastic Company to streamline the process, and believes that recycled materials will get cheaper as they become more widely used.

“I wouldn’t brand it as a sustainable chair because I don’t think there is one,” Robinson explains. “Anything that you produce draws on resources and electricity, and that has an effect on the environment.” However, Robinson sees the project as helping to create a different attitude towards waste materials. He says that other furniture manufacturers who traditionally work with wood have asked for his advice on working with recycled plastics. “That was the intention,” he says, “to interest people who had never considered plastic in their workshops.”