Skip to Content
Giving Reason to Form

Joris Laarman’s designs sometimes seem decorative and baroque. In fact, they are variations—enabled by high-tech production processes—of the classic design dictum “form follows function.” Thomas Edelmann explains why.

Some designs arrive at precisely the right moment, becoming emblems of their times. A designer plays around with new forms, technologies, and materials, and suddenly, everything that has been said about the interplay between form and function appears in a new light. That was true, for example, of the Memphis Group furniture coming out of Italy in the 1980s, which questioned the conventions of furniture design, providing images that not only matched a changing zeitgeist, but significantly shaped it.

Bone Chair, Chair, 2006.
Courtesy: Joris Laarman Lab

A more contemporary example can be found in Dutch designer Joris Laarman, whose designs have attracted international attention more than once. So far, his best-known work is the Bone Chair, which belongs to a larger family of Bone furniture developed from 2006 onwards. Already in 2003, the then 24-year-old designer was heating things up with his graduation project at the Design Academy Eindhoven, the Heatwave radiator. Laarman approaches his projects with a special mixture of lightheartedness, prior knowledge, and an appetite for risk—an attitude he shares with many other designers who studied in the Netherlands. At times, the Design Academy seemed to specialize in producing clever troublemakers eager to break with customs and try new things. Experimental designers with a self-imposed agenda like Maarten Baas, Jurgen Bey, Hella Jongerius, and Marije Vogelzang all studied there. Today, Joris Laarman is mentioned in the same breath.

Bone Rocking Chair, Rocker, 2006.
Courtesy: Joris Laarman Lab

Forms Both Decorative and Useful

It once seemed totally clear what a radiator was and how narrow the limits of its design potential were. Then Laarman showed that such limits could be transcended—at least in a world increasingly questioning and liberating itself from the production logic of industry. Looking back, he remembers seeking a decorative but still useful form. He wanted to show that modern functionality and postmodern exuberance were not mutually exclusive.

What he came up with is an object made of concrete and manufactured in modules that can be placed alongside one another to spread across a wall and even around corners. He also succeeded in creating a pleasant atmosphere, surprising given that concrete is normally considered a raw, rough material for large architectural projects. These days, however, it’s increasingly popular with young designers. It was exactly this cool, gray material that Laarman combined with decorative, Rococo-like floral ornamentation for his radiator. “Modern man,” claimed architect and cultural critic Adolf Loos more than a century ago, “uses the ornament of past and foreign cultures at his discretion. His own inventions are concentrated on other things.”1 While Loos saw ornament as a sign of immaturity and lack of culture, design has long been marked by a vaguely perceptible new appetite for patterns and ornamental structures.

The Dutch platform Droog Design—which encourages experimentation, exhibits it, and, if appropriate, sells it in small production runs—presented Heatwave at furniture fairs and art museums. Although Laarman understood his wall-mounted heater as thoroughly ironic, it immediately caused a sensation among aficionados across the world. A manufacturer was soon found in the Belgian company Jaga, which developed the unusual heater for mass production. A university graduation project had become first a widely publicized image, then a real product. Something that remains a dream for many young designers came true for Joris Laarman.

Of course, he could have followed this early success with a diligent career in design, developing many products with leading manufacturers. But he had other ideas. For Laarman, ornament is not an end in itself, not a personal trademark. He sees design today as characterized by “arbitrariness and opportunism.”2 He, by contrast, is interested in giving reason to form. For that, he begins by digging into current. How innovative forms can be developed from new methods and scientific discoveries is a question that occupies him to this day. 

 

 

Courtesy: Joost van Brug

 

1 Adolf Loos, “Ornament und Verbrechen,” in Ulrich Conrads, ed., Programme und Manifeste zur Architektur des 20. Jahrhunderts (Braunschweig, 1975), p. 21.

 

2 Joris Laarman in 2006, in conversation with the author.

 
For Laarman, ornament is not an end in itself, not a personal trademark.

Organic Growth as a Model for Industrial Design

How can design give form to scientific findings? In 2004, in search of stimulation, Laarman saw a video about Claus Mattheck of the Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology), a physicist, biomechanic, and professor of damage analysis. What Laarman saw provided the initial spark for the Bone Chair. The designer was immediately impressed by the “efficiency, beauty, and precision” that resulted from Mattheck’s observations.3 Mattheck is one of the principal proponents of bionics, a relatively young science that tries “to abstract principles” from the breadth of constructive solutions available in nature and “implement them technologically,” as Werner Nachtigall puts it.4 Nachtigall, professor emeritus at the University of Saarbrücken, is one of the founders of the field, a strong advocate of “structured invention.”5 

Findings from the molecular field—like, for example, the lotus effect of self-cleaning or the adhesive strength of foot hairs on geckoes—have already led to industrially exploitable projects. But pure reconstruction of nature is nonsense, says Nachtigall; instead, one must infer something general from observations. Only then can they be used in a new context. With his 2005 book Biologisches Design (Biological Design), he presented a “systematic catalogue for bionic design” that offers suggestions with the help of simply annotated image examples. 

Mattheck’s approach is different. He looks for universal principles of nature on a biomechanical level—that is, for design laws. He’s especially interested in the “biological growth rule,” according to which nature must “accumulate material at points of high stress” and “remove material at points of low stress.”6 In nature, too, form follows function. Mattheck and his research team collected data from about 10,000 trees and found that they always grow new wood in a way that uniformly distributes stress over their entire surface. This finding allowed Mattheck to identify weaknesses in man made building components and help systematically avoid them during design. “Component failure” can occur when so-called notch stress develops at particularly stressed elements—certain ninety-degree angles, for example. To avoid this, Mattheck recommends “allowing the structure to grow” by using tension triangles, a combination of several flattened triangles like those found, for example, in tree forks.7 

Mattheck is an expert in evaluating trees. He developed the so-called Visual Tree Assessment (VTA) method, which can be used to predict stability and fracture resistance, and named one of his books Design in der Natur—Der Baum als Lehrmeister (Design in Nature—The Tree as Teacher). His findings on “structural-mechanical optimization of technical components” is summarized by the Verein Deutscher Ingenieure (Association of German Engineers) in its guidelines to Bionische Optimierung (Bionic Optimization). Even the ISO 18459 standard, Biomimetic structural optimization, stems from Mattheck’s research.8


Heatwave, Radiator, 2003.
Courtesy: Joris Laarman Lab

With his Prince Valiant haircut and short concise sentences, Mattheck hardly conforms to the usual image of a scientist. Indeed, Laarman says that Mattheck reminds him of the musician Ozzy Osbourne. But Mattheck is a pop star of a different variety. He performs fundamental work and likes to share his observations in videos. For his books, which are geared towards engineers, he has developed an affectionately ironic picture-book style with which he makes complex connections understandable.

Nor has Mattheck limited his examinations to trees, those “silent giants whose mechanical body language proclaims a voiceless truth.”9 He has also turned his eye to bone structures. Unlike trees, bones can not only accumulate matter, but also shrink it. Bones carry loads in animal organisms and are thus as light as possible. Their under-loaded areas, as Mattheck puts it, are “nibbled away” by scavenger cells , called osteoclasts.10

 
 

3 Joris Laarman, Project Information Bone Furniture, www.jorislaarman.com (accessed September 4, 2015).

 

4 Werner Nachtigall, Kofferfisch wird Mercedes – Bionik bringt Natur und Technik zusammen, video from 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzdRfcv9mF8, 33:01 min. (accessed September 4, 2015).

5 Ibid., 31:45.

 

6 https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biologische_Wachstumsregel

(mit weiteren Nachweisen) (accessed September 4, 2015).

 

7 Claus Mattheck, Denkwerkzeuge nach der Natur (Karlsruhe, 2010), p. 57.

 

8 ISO 18459:2015, https://www.iso.org/obp/ui/#iso:std:iso:18459:ed-1:v1:en, (accessed September 4, 2015).

 

9 Claus Mattheck, Design in der Natur. Der Baum als Lehrmeister, 4th Edition (Freiburg/ Berlin, 2006), p. 5.

10 Claus Mattheck, Denkwerkzeuge nach der Natur (Karlsruhe, 2010), p. 22.

Unlike trees, bones can not only accumulate matter, but also shrink it.

Software Simulates Bone Growth

Morrison’s love of the normal has inspired him to collect and exhibit well-designed everyday objects. He’s even set up a shop in his London studio where he sells these simple, “super normal” everyday commodities. There, you’ll find ordinary paper clips, thermometers, potato peelers, wrenches, and even a simple plastic pail retailing for just 1.50 euros. Morrison or other well-known designers created some of the objects, and in some cases, the name of the designer is unknown. In all cases it’s unimportant. Morrison stands for a type of design that seeks calm in an age of chaos and prefers the normal over the unusual. In a world where things are getting ever more complicated, his return to simplicity is, for many, a liberation.

Does Computer-based Simulation Replace the Design Process?

Laarman first built the prototype for his Bone Chair out of paper. In collaboration with Mattheck and Harzheim, he then created and analyzed a digital 3D model at the ITEZ in Rüsselsheim. This process determined the form of the seat and backrest as well as the contact points of the chair legs, but not their material thickness. Harzheim writes about the project in his book on structural optimization.11 The biophysicists, he explains, used software to simulate a total of nine “load conditions” produced by “sitting” and “leaning” on the chair, including “misuse load conditions”—that is, inclined sitting, slouching, and other ways of using a chair in everyday life. The SKO process yielded a distinctly more delicate structure than could have been expected based on Laarman’s first prototype.

It would be easy to misunderstand this design process. Did the computer take over the primary role in creating form? Was the designer nothing more than a silent witness? Artist and author Louise Schouwenberg, who wrote about the project in 2007, would say no; Laarman, she shows, maintained control over the overall process. The designer, in other words, still specifies parameters and is responsible as author—just no longer all on his or her own. As Laarman himself says, it’s about a “rationalized beauty” that modifies its shape.12 Organic forms have frequently played an important role in architecture and design, from Art Nouveau and Jugendstil to streamlining to the organic design of the 1960s. “Our digital age makes it possible to use nature as more than just a stylistic reference,” rejoices Laarman. “Today, we can use its fundamental principles to create forms.”13

Indeed, finding and optimizing the form of the Bone Chair was a largely digital process. No generative production methods were used in this project. But traditional craftwork was needed, in combination with the computer, for the chair to be standing before us in all its unique elegance. A ceramic mold was created from the optimized data, then used to cast the entire chair in aluminum. The other pieces in the series—the chaise of transparent polyurethane, the armchair of a porcelain-marble mixture, the rocking chair, the table, and the bronze bookshelf—have their own casting molds. These objects, too, are based on the principle of accumulating material where it is needed and reducing it where it is superfluous. The soft kill process, after all, can “be used at every scale, all the way up to large architectural forms, and for every material property,” says Laarman. The result is furniture created not for retailers, but for museums and galleries.

 
 

11 Lothar Harzheim, Strukturoptimierung. Grundlagen und Anwendungen (Frankfurt am Main 2007), p. 264.

 

12 Louise Schouwenberg, “Digital déco. The signs of a new digital creativity in the new sculpture-chairs by Joris Laarman,”in domus, 900, February 2007, p. 23.
 

 
13 Joris Laarman, Project Information Bone Furniture,  www.jorislaarman.com, (accessed September 4, 2015).

 

Who knows where Laarman’s lab will lead us?

From Standard Product to Individual Digital Designs

The Bone furniture project was sponsored by Droog Design and the New York art and antiques dealer Barry Friedman. Famous for his silk ties, the collector opened his first antique store on 53rd Street in 1969. His gallery, Friedman Benda, specializes in contemporary designers and represents, among others, Shiro Kuramata from Japan, Laarman and his compatriot Marcel Wanders, the Campana brothers from Brazil, and Andrea Branzi and Ettore Sottsass from Italy, all established names. In December 2006, Friedman and Droog jointly presented Laarman’s digitally optimized chairs in the Smart Deco exhibition at Art Basel Miami, where the international collector avant-garde meets innovative real estate investors and design-loving celebrities like Brad Pitt—many of them extremely knowledgeable and passionate about current trends.

Events like that prepared the way for the breakthrough. For Laarman, it came in 2008, when the Museum of Modern Art included the Bone Chair (along with an engine mount also optimized using Opel software) in its Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition. The show explored the shift from standard industrial products toward new, individually shaped digital designs, applications, and production techniques. And as though that weren’t enough, the MoMA subsequently incorporated the chair into its permanent collection—an unusual distinction for a young designer like Laarman, tantamount to being knighted.


Statically efficient: the air root of a strengler fig.
© Konrad Wothe/Imagebroker RM/F1online

Today, his designs can be found in major museums and private collections around the world. His work is represented by the Kukje Gallery in Seoul, Friedman Benda in New York, and the Carpenters Workshop Gallery in London and Paris. Laarman is especially interesting for the art market because he conducts experiments whose results seem relatively sound and lead to objects produced in very small quantities. At the same time, he applies techniques that—especially in the newer projects—provide almost theatrical qualities.

Laarman is especially interesting for the art market because he conducts experiments whose results seem relatively sound.

Today, High-tech Enables Elegant Forms

“To a certain extent, we copied the way evolution designs,” says Laarman of his breakthrough project.14 It’s all been done before? One now looks with new eyes on the structures created by architects like Antoni Gaudí or Carlo Mollino decades before Laarman, whose first furniture pieces sometimes drew comparisons to their obsessive formal worlds. Gaudí, too, drew upon sophisticated simulation techniques. To this day, his four-meter-high hanging model for the Church of Colònia Güell in Barcelona continues to fascinate both engineers and architects. Using a string netting loaded with little sacks of birdshot, he studied the ideal catenary curves and thus the ideal load distribution for the complex brick building whose construction was stopped in 1914 due to financial difficulties. The hanging model has survived only in historical photographs. With floorplans for the crypt, the only part of the structure actually completed, it was used in 2008 to reconstruct the church using 3D software. 15

Not until we look at Mollino’s organically shaped furniture with the knowledge we’ve gained from Claus Mattheck do we realize that Mollino avoided notch stress by using de-stressing tension triangles in both architecture and design. The work of the two old individualists is still inspiring and exhilarating, whereas the work of Joris Laarman is only just beginning. “We might not have created the most perfect chair of future worlds,” says the designer, “but we used a high-tech tool to create elegant forms with a certain legitimacy.”16 Who knows where Laarman’s lab will lead us? What we do know is this: in design, the development of standards was long considered the goal of all efforts. Today, the individual is the standard.

 

14 Ibid.

 
 

15 Klaus Hanke and Michael Moser, “Digital 3D Reconstruction of Antonio Gaudí’s Lost Design,” XXI CIPA- Symposium, Athens 2007,
http://cipa.icomos.org/fileadmin/template/doc/ATHENS /FP102.pdf (accessed September 4, 2015).

 


16 Louise Schouwenberg, “Digital déco. The signs of a new digital creativity in the new sculpture-chairs by Joris Laarman,” in domus, 900, February 2007, p. 23.

Thomas Edelmann, born in 1963, is a design critic and freelance journalist who has been writing about design and architecture since the mid-1980s. He was editor-in-chief of the trade journal Design Report, and from 2007 to 2012, served on the Board of International Research in Design. His articles and essays always inspire debate.