The Aluminium Bench by Jonathan Olivares


16 June 2015

Designer Jonathan Olivares’ Aluminium Bench, which launched last night at the NeoCon trade fair in Chicago, celebrates something of an unsung hero. “This thing is not a public component and has never been,” says Olivares. “But its the component behind Gehry’s Millennium Park Pavilion, behind Morphosis’s Emerson College, behind Cooper Union in New York.”

The "thing" in question – this bastion of parametric design – is the DT extrusion, an aluminium building component produced by Zahner, a metal fabrication shop in Kansas City. “It’s their house extrusion and internally they call it the DT because it basically looks like those shapes combined,” says Olivares. This aluminium form, which Zahner produces to any length, is typically rolled to create the underlying frameworks for architectural claddings.

The Aluminium Bench adopts this rolling process and subverts the traditional purpose of the DT extrusion; Olivares moves the extrusion from supporting cast to the main attraction. Rather than form an underlying structure, the extrusion becomes centre stage as the basis of a bench. Paired with a cast aluminium leg unit and accompanying end caps, the DT extrusion becomes a piece of functioning furniture. It's a first for Zahner, which typically produces construction elements for architects and large-scale sculptures for artists.

Olivares, who is based in Los Angeles, speaks of the bench’s origins as a kind of truth to the extrusion's form as well as a truth to Zahner’s identity as a company. “The factory floor itself at Zahner a pretty exciting place,” he says. “At any given time there are building components being made, a chunk of full-scale Herzog & de Meuron mockup for instance. They’d considered creating furniture before, but never looked at it seriously.

“When I visited, there were a bunch of these scrap extrusions sticking out of a bucket. That was the image that in subsequent months made me think about what we could do for them. These extrusions are so particular and are in production every day at that factory. They’re rolling pretty much non-stop, so it was a total no-questions situation. We absolutely had to do something with this technique.”

It is curious that something as manual as extrusions in a bucket should result in a product with strong digital leanings. The Aluminium Bench can be made in a straight line or can be bent in any number of soft curves and arcs. The radii of these curves is specified by the customer using ShopFloor, an online design platform created by Zahner to allow customers to quickly develop bespoke architectural components. It's down to the customer, with help from various presets, to design what shape bench they want

“Zahner really believes that ShopFloor is the future for architectural manufacture," says Olivares. "Not perhaps in terms of the Frank Gehrys and Thom Maynes of this world, but in terms of 80 per cent of architecture.” This bespoke quality both transforms the Aluminium Bench from a single product into a flexible system, as well as tying the product to a wider design movement for industrial customisation (think NIKEiD custom trainers and Vitra’s ID Chair Concept). Yet while such customisation often descends into relative gimmickry (a name etched on the back of an iPad), the Aluminium Bench manages to retain a design credibility through a fidelity to its production process and original DT extrusion component.

“You can’t roll aluminium too tightly,” says founder Jonathan Olivares, “so the parameter becomes how the bench is generated. You can’t have abrupt curves, only slow contours. It becomes an operation where you’re not just thinking about a finished, fixed thing, but about how things operate in flux with one another. One of the things I was looking for were precedents for things that move in curves and arcs to form an overall composition. The references we found while generating the parameters for the web tool were zen gardens. What are the tools involved in making a zen garden? A rake about the width of our bench and a person. In our bench we have a person curving something and the tool, like the rake in a zen garden, that can’t curve too quickly.”

Olivares’s bench does an admirable job of not losing sight of what made his unsung hero a hero in the first place. The extrusion's flexibility is exploited to produce an adaptable system, yet its constraints still set the rules of the game. “What you’re really doing in projects like this is designing parameters,” says Olivares. “And that’s a very exciting and challenging thing to do.”