In 1859, a French furniture maker named Michael Thonet introduced a marvelous new chair. The curvaceous No. 14 Chair was made from six pieces of wood, bent into unimaginable shapes, thanks to an innovative industrial technique in which workers super-heated wood until it was flexible enough to be deformed into unnatural shapes. Le Corbusier, who was born decades later, said that "never was a better and more elegant design and a more precisely crafted and practical item created." Decades after that, Finnish architect Alvar Aalto applied the same process to his own now-classic chairs.
The fabrication technique is still captivating designers in 2012. Staffan Holm, a 35-year-old designer based in Sweden, introduced his sophisticated Branch Chair at Milan Design Week in April—which makes him, what, the fifth generation of designer to use the process?
Branch Chair is a study in reduction. Holm has distilled the chair to its most essential parts. There’s zero cross bracing, and the diameter of the legs seems dangerously small. "Don’t be lured by the simple expression of Branch chair," he says. "This is one of the most technically challenging wood chairs ever made."
What makes the chair so technically unusual? One of the main manufacturing challenges behind traditional bent wood is that workers only have a few minutes to bend the heated wood into the shape they want. Holm’s partners in the project, Compwood, have solved that problem by using a hydraulic press to compress layers of hardwood cut lengthwise to "crossfold" the axial fiber cells of the material. That renders its easily bendable and incredibly strong, without heat. In his making-of video, Holm demonstrates how a long piece of Compwood can be bent by hand, almost in half, without snapping.
The strength of the wood means that far less material is needed to make the Branch Chair structurally sound. Looking at the images, it is hard to believe it’s stable—I wonder if Parisians of the 1860s thought the same thing about Chair No. 14.