Balsa is a soft, lightweight wood that’s perfectly suited to whittling but not a whole lot else. Which is a shame, according to Kihyun Kim, because it’s a relatively sustainable, fast-growing resource that could be adapted to wider applications such as product design and architecture. To prove his point, for his master’s project at Royal College of Art, he used balsa to build an elegantly understated bistro chair that weighs in at 1.3 kilograms, or 2.9 pounds—lighter than Gio Ponti’s 1957 Superleggera.
To clarify, Kim’s 1.3 chair is made of compressed, molded balsa that is then covered in a hardwood veneer, which lends durability and structural integrity while adding little weight. The South Korean–born, U.K.-based designer says he was inspired by Britain’s de Havilland Mosquito combat aircraft used in World War II. Constructed almost entirely of wood, the Mosquito (nicknamed the "Wooden Wonder") was one of the fastest—if not the lightest—aircraft in the world. "In starting to design a wooden chair, I looked at the properties of woods," Kim tells Co.Design. "What intrigued me most was balsa wood: It grows fast, is light in colour, with a very soft, warm texture and the lightest of all woods. It has never been used to make furniture before because it is considered too soft."
In an ironic twist, Zeitraum, a German manufacturer, has decided to produce the chair (along with matching stools and barstools) in solid oak, ash, and American walnut—that is, not in balsa. But Kim hasn’t given up on his material of choice: "Now I have many ideas to improve the balsa structures and to simplify the production process with its own beauty. The balsa wood could bring great benefits if used in real industry."