Q&A with Jan Habraken

Designers Attempt to Breed the Perfect Chair

How do you design the perfect chair? Jan Habraken and the designers at FormNation decided to quit the search for a perfect form and investigate the idea that it might be out there already. Chairgenics, Habraken’s exercise of  ‘breeding chairs’ according to a system of best attributes, aims to let the process of evolution do the hard work – and the ultimate chair to emerge victorious.

Where did this extraordinary idea come from?
Jan Habraken: My personal approach to design is quite Darwinistic, as I believe that when you design a new product it should make the previous ‘species’ obsolete. This thought combined with every designer's urge to design a chair caused me to start thinking about whether you could use the breeding process to create a perfect chair. Strictly speaking, breeding the chairs is impossible, so the closest thing I could find is morphing the chairs digitally ... which was easier said than done.

How did you choose which iconic chairs to breed from?
I started by using Google and Yahoo Exact, in searching for images of chairs. I was given the amount of correct hits on the first page (for example, if you Google Pantone chair you will be presented with the correct chair 90% of the time). I then multiplied correct hits with the amount of found images to create a list of the popularity of chairs.

Can you explain the process of assigning values?
Next to the aesthetic value being ‘chosen’ through popular opinion, in this case Google popularity, I judged the other values with my design hat on. I judged ergonomics by comfort (upholstered wins over a hard wooden chair) and shape, durability, mostly materiality (wood decays sooner than plastic). I judged construction on how long a chair would last. For example, the typical plastic garden chair does not last as long as a Panton chair even though they are both made from the same material. Something else I considered is costs, and a simple Google for the price of materials determined an average price.

How scientific was the exercise? Can you really quantify aesthetic value?
I tried to keep myself out of the equation, and mimic nature's course by adjusting the software to mimic natural behaviour as much as possible. Two supermodels will not necessarily make a beautiful offspring, and this was the same case with the chairs. While two weird exotic mixes would create interesting creatures, we weren't able to quantify beauty. In my search beauty was equal in priority as things like cost and construction.

To me, the result looks pretty much like a Thonet Chair 14. Were you surprised?
If you look closely, you'll be able to see traits of several chairs in my final product. The chair actually consists out of 5% archetypical, 40% bertoia (which is very visible with the thick mesh structure), 5% mono block, 10% Eames, and 40% Thonet. Similar to human breeding, people see different parts of the parents in their offspring and even older generations like grandparents. The chosen chair was one of many I could have selected to manufacture, others looking a lot less like known chairs, but cost is always a determining factor once you materialize the digital.

Could this project have been done without 3D printing technology?
We could also have created this project with 5 axis CNC. However, 3D printing made the project affordable, and was a means to materialize the project concept. Because we can now build anything with 3D printing, the limit to projects will be our imagination. With Chairgenics, I wanted to go beyond our imagination and use artificial intelligence to dream up what I could never build myself.

Full scale models from the Chairgenics project are on show at the MAD Museum, New York until 1 June 2014 as part of Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital. 

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