Technology is a discourse between techno (making) and logos (thinking about the making). The art and science of fabrication guides how something is made. Regardless of the scale or scope of the project, the thesis reflects upon the correlations between the process of making and the completed furniture design. Within the process of furniture fabrication there is a vast body of empirical and scientific knowledge that links art with science, craft with theory, and workmanship of risk (craft) with workmanship of certainty (machine production). Design is never independent of technology. Design is often shaped by technology rather than the other way around.
Architect Frank O. Gehry initially relied upon CATIA, a computer program used in the aircraft industry, to model and fabricate unusual architectural designs utilizing compound curves. Following his early work with corrugated cardboard, Gehry’s team has explored and produced woven, laminated maple chairs and a series of roto-molded polymer outdoor furnishings. Their work inspired many firms and designers to adopt similar computer-modeling programs in design.
Technology is the causeway of design, and its influence on design is critical. Ernest Joyce’s book The Encyclopedia of Furniture Making is a useful resource that focuses on wood and woodworking techniques. Form and aesthetics depend on technology. Change the way something is made, and it will affect the way it looks and works. Change the tools that one uses to design, and design will change as well.
Fabrication and production processes of contemporary furniture designs reveal a broad spectrum of technologies in use for designers, fabricators, and clients. This spectrum ranges from craft-based technologies (i. e., art, human skill, hand-made arts and crafts) to industrial – based technologies (i. e., industrial production, CNC machinery, axis mill machines, applied science). Furniture design, though, is still directly associated with social, cultural, and economic conditions, as well as with individual and collaborative fabrication efforts.
Consider the economic downturns that once prominent furniture production epicenters such as Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan; Buffalo, New York; and Meda, Italy, have experienced. This is one result of growing technological innovations. While these industrial centers experienced a dramatic decline in the number of human laborers used to produce furniture, CNC devices produce more furniture with greater precision in less time, with less cost to the consumer, and have had enormous social and economic impacts on traditional fabrication methods.
Fabrication can be classified into two types of workmanship. Objects made by handcraft technologies (workmanship of risk) involve processes that are considered an art (ars, empirical knowledge). These processes can be thought of as distinct from industrial means of production (workmanship of certainty), often employing high-end manufacturing technologies such as CNC devices and robotic assemblages. The many processes of fabrication reveal a broad range of technologies from relatively low (craft-based) to relatively high (machine – based). One is not better than the other. Each has its strengths and weaknesses.
The technologies employed in making furniture at the industrial level tend to rely heavily on industrial production, synthetic materials, expensive tooling, complex machinery, and carefully organized assembly processes. Companies such as Acerbis, Fiam, and Lowenstein are renowned for the technology they employ in the production of furniture. Acerbis is almost completely organized by CNC and robotic machines producing beautiful wood furnishings, including Mario Bellini’s Onda Quandra (1988). Fiam uses a CNC device and robotic production processes to cut, form, and bevel glass furnishings such as the Ghost chair.
Figure 8.57 Pier Luigi Ghianda and artigani in bottega di Ghianda, Meda, Italy. Photography by Jim Postell, 1990.
Lowenstein, based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, experienced enormous growth in the 1990s due to their decision to invest in and integrate with the newest finish technologies, which allow them to apply a final finish coat to their products and have it cure in less than 20 seconds. Lowenstein was able to finish furniture faster and with less cost than any comparable furniture company offering a similar product at the time. The technology enabled the product to get to market faster, with less cost, which helped the company increase its share of the institutional furniture market.
Smaller companies, prototypers, and craft shops tend to rely more upon human skill in the production of furniture. Small craft shops like Pierluigi Ghianda’s custom woodworking studio in Meda, Italy (Figure 8.57), and the Nakashima home studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania, are examples of small custom shops that rely on a balance between human skill and power woodworking tools to make furniture. The vast majority of furniture fabrication shops are somewhere between the craft shop and the automated factory.