It’s like something out of a middle-school nightmare: you’re asked to sit down in front of hundreds of your peers. In front of you, a heat map appears, showing the stress you’re foisting upon the structural members of that poor chair beneath you. A machine records the data for posterity.
This scenario played out for thousands of people at this year’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan, as part of a project that advances the state of computational design (rather than bullying).
Working with Audi, German designers Kram/Weisshaar connected hundreds of stress analysis monitors to the seat, back, and legs of their carbon fiber and aluminum R18 Ultra Chair . They installed the chair on a platform in the middle of an 18th-century Milanese palazzo, inviting thousands of passersby to take a load off for a few moments. Each time someone sat down, the industrial monitors recorded the stress data, processing it with a custom algorithm that determines the most structurally efficient version of the chair (the final version will be revealed at Design Miami later this year).
The idea behind such rigorous testing is to determine just how light a chair can be before it becomes structurally unsound. Audi originally developed the stress analysis technology for its series of carbon fiber race cars. In racing, every gram of weight equals seconds on the clock, but structural stability under high stress is key. It makes sense that the same analysis techniques could be used on furniture, and for that matter, on buildings.
The designers brilliantly cataloged each test, and over on their website, you can watch design luminaries (including MoMA curator Paola Antonelli) trying out the chair. This isn’t Kram/Wiesshaar’s first collaboration with Audi; last year they installed eight robotic arms that allowed visitors to London Design Week to write light messages in the sky over Trafalgar Square.