“Innovation is a dangerous term,” says the Los Angeles–based designer Jonathan Olivares. “It’s often mistaken for what’s new. Charles Eames said, ‘Innovate as a last resort.’ I hope what we’re doing here isn’t in the innovation category as much as adaptation or appropriation.”
At Volume Gallery, in Chicago, Olivares launched a new bench he designed with Zahner, an architectural fabrication company that specializes in mind-bendingly complex, digitally designed metal components, like the torqued facade of the Cooper Union, in New York City, by Morphosis and the perforated screen enveloping the de Young Museum, in San Francisco, by Herzog and de Meuron. After reading an article Olivares wrote about the untapped potential of applying architectural manufacturing to the furniture industry, Zahner invited the designer to visit its Kansas City, Missouri, factory and have an open-ended meeting about what they could do. “We took [technical] knowledge that Zahner had developed for the last decade to new applications,” Olivares says. “It’s important to cross-pollinate.”
A year and a half later, enter the Aluminum Bench.
“The bench comes out of a point of view that says the web enables designers, architects, and people to adapt things to their own needs,” Olivares says. Using ShopFloor, a web-based software platform Zahner developed, people can design their own version of the bench in 3-D and price it out, in real time. The tool solves a couple problems present in the contract furniture market: flexibility, price transparency, ease of use, and accessibility. Professional designers can use the tool to create seating that meets the exact specifications of a project and all safety and durability requirements—for example finding a bench for an oddly shaped space—and non-professionals can have the exact same access.
The online design tools are based on arcs and lines. Olivares set minimum parameters for the bench’s height, width, and curve radius, and lets the user configure the rest. “Designers work on systems and there’s a lot of legwork that does into customizing those systems,” he says. “We’ve developed a system that customizes itself. The designer becomes about conceiving and editing parameters.”
To show the myriad possibilities, Olivares worked with a typographer to create an “alphabet” of shapes to show just how creative you can get with the software.
“I’m the designer of the bench but I don’t want to be the designer of the bench’s shape,” he says. “With the program, you could be the designer.”
The finished design is powder-coated and made from cast-aluminum legs with an aluminum honeycomb seat. The profiled edge is made from an extrusion Zahner developed for building facades. Everything is manufactured in the United States. “I do like to think about the bench in terms of creating social spaces,” he says, when we asked how the bench might be used in, say, an office. “One chair allows people to sit down, two chairs allows a conversation. There’s a real social dimension to the bench. Anytime I look at a bench, or a semi circular bench, you have people looking at each other or sometimes not at each other. People create their own social spaces.”