From the vacuum-molded studies produced by students using laminated veneers (Figure 7.3) to the translucent polymer tables industrially produced in polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) by Kartell (Figure 7.4), materials matter. Some designers utilize new materials in traditional ways, and some designers seek unique ways of utilizing conventional materials. In either case, material is a significant determinant of form and function. At the fringe of material research are the working prototypes made from new polymers, new alloys, aerogels, new composite wood products, and biodegradable green materials. Before we seek to understand the appropriate uses and applications of materials encountered in contemporary furniture, we should look at the discoveries and inventions made during the past 7,000 years. Consider how the methods of fabrication and the physical characteristics
of furniture have evolved in tandem with the chronology of the discovery and use of materials:
Urushiol-based lacquers were used in China to produce hard, durable finishes.
Copper was used for cutting implements and edges of tools.
The Egyptians used bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, in the ratio of nine parts copper to one part tin for offering tables and small items.
The Egyptians invented glass (i. e., enamel).
The Bronze Age began in Britain.
The Hittites developed a crude form of iron extracted from iron ore.
The Iron Age began in the Near East.
Surviving Etruscan bronze furniture included thrones, chests, tables, couches, and circular barrel chairs.
Brass, an alloy of zinc and copper, was widely used by the Romans.
The Phoenicians developed glassblowing techniques.
The Chinese court official Ts’ai Lun invented papermaking from textile waste using rags. Later, Chinese papermakers developed sized, coated, and dyed paper.
Porcelain was first used by the Chinese.
Horners Company established an early plastics trade association.
The Gutenberg Bible was printed, marking the first use of movable metal type.
Peter of Anghiera (from Spain) provided the first printed mention of rubber (gummi optima).
The use of bronze returned to furniture making in the cast supports and furniture mounts for tables. These were often gilded and in France were known as bronze dore.
James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny for cotton products (cotton is a natural fiber derived from the cotton plant).
The power loom was invented by Edmund Cartwright to speed cloth production.
Samuel Peal patented the waterproofing of fabrics with a rubber solution.
Luigi Brugnatelli invented modern electroplating.
Michael Faraday established a formula for natural rubber known as C5H8.
Justus von Liebig developed melamine.
Charles Goodyear and Thomas Hancock individually applied for rubber vulcanization patents.
A process for thermosetting ebonite material was patented by Goodyear for pens, etc.
Henry Bessemer developed the Bessemer converter to produce steel.
The reissue of a patent by John K. Mayo described a cross-laminated sheet product as a precursor to plywood.
Glass fibers, woven into cloth (the precursor to fiberglass), were made by Jules de Brunfaut.
Hilaire de Chardonnet synthesized the first artificial textile.
Invention of plywood, a sheet material made from built-up layers of wood veneer.
Bakelite, the first totally synthetic thermosetting plastic, was derived from the reaction of phenol-formaldehyde that sets solid when heated.
Dr. Leo Hendrik Baekeland received a "heat and pressure” patent for phenolic resins.
Daniel J. O’Connor and Herbert A. Faber invented Formica.
Russian scientist Ivan Ostromislensky patented the use of plasticizers and developed polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
Stainless steel was invented by Harry Brearley in Sheffield,
Quick-drying, solvent-based lacquers that contain nitrocellulose were developed in the early 1920s by scientists at Dupont in the United States.
Hermann Staudinger synthesized rubber.
First commercial applications of urea-formaldehyde and PVC.
Neoprene and polystyrene were invented.
A forerunner of Plexiglas (polyvinyl methacrylate) was created by pressing two sheets of polymethyl acrylate between two sheets of glass.
Wallace Carothers invented nylon, which is strong, resists water and mildew, and is a malleable plastic.
First patent issued for epoxy.
Invention of polyurethane, an important synthetic plastic used in furniture, which can be flexible, rigid, structural, or supplied as a textile coating.
George de Mestral invented Velcro.
Guilio Natta invented polypropylene, a plastic commonly used in injection – molded furniture.
The Scotchgard fabric and material protector was developed by Patsy Sherman.
Invention of polycarbonate.
The float glass process was patented by Pilkington Brothers.
Medium-density fiberboard (MDF) was developed in the United States.
This man-made, wood-based sheet material consists of fine fibers of timber mixed with urea-formaldehyde resin and additives to form a felted material. The material is then subjected to heat and pressure to create rigid boards and panels.
British engineer Leslie Phillips developed carbon fibers by heat-treating acrylonitrile fibers. This resulted in fibers twice as strong as steel.
Kevlar, a fiber five times stronger than steel, was invented.
1975 Invention and patent for continuously anodizing aluminum by Howard
1981 K. Eric Drexler promoted the idea of molecular manufacturing
1986 Materials scientists developed synthetic skin.
1990 Two new biodegradable plastics, Novon and Biopol, were
1993 The first international conference on "Green Goods” was held at the Hague,
the Netherlands, from September 30 to October 1.
2000 New materials made with corn proteins became available.
2006 The technology for making thin film nanotubes by evaporation was
The chronology of material invention and use parallels the evolution of concepts and design inquiry in the history of furniture design.1 New materials are often used to overcome the limitations of existing materials. It often takes years to generate fresh ideas about form and function based upon the physical properties of new materials. Cast iron lampposts were initially manufactured to look like carved stone. Plastic laminate tables were initially fabricated to look like finished wood tables. It is difficult to go beyond conventional thinking about materials, but innovative design can result by doing so (Figure 7.5).
Besides having economic value, materials have social and cultural value. Thus, when case goods are made from wood, typically expensive case goods are made from select woods such as Honduran mahogany (Figure 7.6) or materials that simulate select woods. Woods such as rosewood, walnut, cherry, and Swiss pear are valued for their associative meanings more than their material properties.
During World War II, Danish designers such as Kaare Klint began to use locally grown white oak in many of their furniture designs because imported rosewood and mahoganies (which were preferred and widely used at the time) were unavailable. Light oak in furniture was used out of necessity, and it contributed to a Scandinavian aesthetic that emerged in the 1950s.
The study of materials sheds light on important health-related issues. Fibrous asbestos in acoustical ceiling tile, wiring insulation, and thermal insulation were concerns in the 1980s. Formaldehyde in MDF and composite woods, the carcinogenic fumes that result from metal plating processes, the arsenic in pressure-treated lumber, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released from PVC polymers, glues, and finishes also are of concern (Figure 7.7). Thoughtful selection and use of materials along with their finishes will contribute to the health, welfare, and safety of the public.
Many designers consider and utilize materials with specific physical characteristics and structural properties. Reflecting upon material as a structural element requires a willingness to suspend preconceptions and traditions about aesthetics in order to explore new correlations between form and function and materials technology. The CO6 chair, designed by Pol Quadens (Figure 7.8), made from resin and polycarbon fiber, illustrates such thinking in getting the most out of the least material. It weighs just 990 grams. In short, consider the
Figure 7.8 Digital rendering of the CO6 chair, designed by Pol Quadens (1995). 80 cm high, 38 cm deep, 45 cm long. Digital rendered image courtesy of Pol Quadens.
basic properties and characteristics of material, and allow that information to guide your thinking about design.