Last June, Clemens Weisshaar and Reed Kram, the designers behind the Stockholm-based design firm Kram/Weisshaar, found themselves just outside of the production town of Modena, in central Italy, in a valley full of tile factories. They were brought there by Ceramica, one of the region's largest and oldest factories, to think about what the future of the tile might be.
"They had reached the point where they can produce massive tiles and make them really, really thin," says Weisshaar, describing slabs nine feet long and half a centimeter thin. "We thought, why don’t we look into integrating circuitry into the tiles? Almost treating them like a big circuit board, or like a sort of substrate to add technology to it."
Ten months later, and Weisshaar and Kram were at Milan Design Week presenting SmartSlab, a table that integrates heating and cooling technology into its razor thin ceramic tile surface. To demonstrate how the technology works, they invited 50 guests for a meal around the ten-by-two-foot tables (each seats six). Using the inductive heating built into the table, acclaimed Italian chef Massimo Bottura cooked their meals in front of the guests, directly on the tabletop. Heating and cooling elements built into the surface kept meals heated at a perfect 108 degrees and the champagne perfectly chilled throughout the meal.
Weisshaar and Kram made the table out of Ceramica's SapienStone, a ceramic material that can withstand high heat and frost and doesn't scratch easily. They built an LED-lit touch interface into the .5-centimeter-thick slab (Weisshaar describes it as so thin it's almost translucent) so that you can chose heating and cooling settings by tapping and swiping the surface. Underneath the ceramic top, there's a foam core, an aluminum spine and an underbelly made from recycled PET bottles that have been fiber-reinforced and hot-formed in a giant press. Sandwiched in between plastic underbelly and the ceramic top, electrical wiring provides the current for inductive heating and heat-transferring, a process used for cooling.
The entire tabletop is just under two inches thick. Meanwhile, the table legs are made from carbon fiber produced by car manufacturers, a touch inspired by the location of the factory. "If you stand outside the factory and look out onto the horizon, you can actually see the Formula One cars out in Maranello because that's where Ferrari is," says Weisshaar. "So it became kind of obvious to engage that local industry."
Using a car industry analogy, he describes the table as a kind of "pace car"—an initial demonstration of what can be done when you integrate intelligent materials into furniture and architecture. The next step, he says, is to create kitchen counter tops that incorporate heating and cooling technology that is invisible when not in use, eradicating the need for a separate stove top. They're also developing an app that would allow users to configure their own kitchen tops and order them to be installed.
But the larger, still-evolving goal is to look into how smart technology could be integrated into tiles for ceilings, walls, and floors. Weisshaar envisions being able to integrate security measures—cameras, sound-proofing, etc.—into the walls of a room, for instance. Or integrating touch sensors into your bathroom tiles so you can switch on and off the shower or lights by touching the walls.
For now, he sees the SmartSlab table as the first step in creating a kitchen that matches our current behavior. Gone are the days when a kitchen staff cooks for guests in the kitchen, then serves them at the dining room table.
"Now when I go to someone's house and they are cooking, we're going to hang out in the kitchen and drink red wine," says Weisshaar. "That application is not really built into the kitchen. Bringing together the preparation to where you are eating is really exciting."