Imagine using computers to bring countless generations of chairs to life, then forcing them to mate with one another in an orgiastic rut of successive DNA pairings until you finally have the uberstuhl: a perfectly designed chair. It's not exactly a conventional approach, but that's what FormNation is doing with Chairgenics, a program to "breed" the ultimate chair thanks to a little help from eugenics and evolutionary theory.
"Every designer I've ever met wants to design a chair in [his or her] lifetime, but when we were thinking of doing one, we questioned what we could do that hadn't been done before," FormNation's founder Jan Habraken tells Co.Design in an email. Favoring a Darwinist approach to design, Habraken and his team began looking to the world of evolutionary theory for a fresh approach. Habraken was inspired by Plato's famous diatribe about controlled breeding in a chapter of Republic and started wondering if the principles of eugenics could be applied to chairs. The result was Chairgenics, FormNation's five-year chair breeding program.
Starting from a pool of about 10 chair "thoroughbreds," FormNation applied numeric values to each chair according to criteria such as durability, construction, cost and aesthetics, as well as the shape of various chair parts. "If you look at almost any iconic chair—the Pantone Chair, The Zig-Zag Chair, Bertoia's Wire Mesh Chair, and so on—you'll see that at the time of its origin, there was a technological breakthrough that allowed it to come into being," Habraken says. This is why, for the Chairgenics base stock, FormNation chose iconic chairs that contained a certain "X" factor in their DNA. Bred together, their offspring were examined for chromosomal deficiencies—missing ergonomic values, for example, or lopsided durability-cost pairings—and then bred with even more Chairgenics chairs to improve their stock.
Short of pheromone bombing the MoMA, how do you convince two chairs to breed together? The answer, of course, lies in digital modeling. "The closest you can get to "breeding" with a computer is really morphing," says Habraken. The app they used to pursue their Chairgenics was called Symvol, a volume-based tool from Norwegian startup Uformia that can compare two objects and then create a morph based upon them according to their mathematical middle. FormNation modified the software to escape some logical problems that could arise from modeling breeding as the average between two different parts. Recessive genes, for example, are modeled by allowing Chairgenics chairs to inherit traits not only from their parents, but their ancestors as well.
Of course, mutant chairs do come up, but as a whole, FormNation tends to look upon these as happy (and fascinating) design accidents. "There are a sea of freak chairs coming out of the program right now, and my feeling is that we have reached just the tip of the iceberg," Habraken remarks. "We have even started wondering if we could begin an interspecies Chairgenics program, coming up with entirely new pieces of furniture through breeding." For example, a chair and table could be bred together to make the ligers and tigrons of the furniture world: chables and tairs.
Right now, the Chairgenics program does not take into account ergonomics, so even the best Chairgenics chairs tend to be for looking, not for sitting. Nonetheless, the first Chairgenics chairs are now being 3D printed non-commercially by Materialise, and FormNation hopes to follow up this prototyping with a full-scale aluminum reconstruction of one of the Chairgenics' program's uberstuhls, at a date and price to be determined.
While many Chairgenics chairs may be unviable designs at the end of the day, Habraken thinks that his company's experiments breeding chairs together have been worthwhile. "Chairs are one of the world's most designed objects," says Habraken. "To make leaps in design, you have to think outside the box."
FormNation's Chairgenics will be on display in New York City from October 14 to July 6, 2014, as part of the MAD Museum’s Out Of Hand: Materializing The Postdigital exhibit.