Furniture Design’s Brave New Present

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An installation view of “Joris Laarman Lab: Design in the Digital Age,” at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Chairs rely on different digital fabrication techniques, including 3-D-printed resin, and are then assembled by hand.

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Matt Flynn/Smithsonian Institution

If nature needed to grow a chair from the ground up, Joris Laarman thinks he knows how it would look. This 38-year-old Dutch designer snatched an algorithm about bone growth and fed it into a computer that digitally printed a ceramic mold for a chair that is now sitting innocently — as though it were no big deal — in “Joris Laarman Lab: Design in the Digital Age at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. The designer didn’t sculpt its forms to look organic. Generated with nature’s own codes for growth, it is organic. Mr. Laarman, actually, was only the midwife.

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The Aluminum Bone Chair, 2006.

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Joris Laarman Lab

But the cast-aluminum Bone Chair is a big deal. Remember when Dolly the sheep was cloned in Scotland back in 1996?

With a seat and backrest supported by what looks like antlers morphing into chewing gum, the chair is the Dolly of furniture design: a breakthrough generated by new technology, in this case the marriage of biological algorithms and smart software. Skeletal, almost pigeon-toed in its awkwardness, it looks unassuming, but in 2006 its introduction was a design achievement.

Such technological breakthroughs have occurred before: In the 1940s, Charles and Ray Eames’s experiments in molded plywood made possible their “potato chip” chair (the DCM), which defined midcentury Modernism and endures today as a classic.

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Joris Laarman Lab’s Bone Chair is molded from marble and porcelain mixed with resin, and composed using an algorithm that mimics the structure of bird bones.

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Matt Flynn/Smithsonian Institution

What distinguishes Mr. Laarman and his curious, provocative chairs and tables from the Eameses and other Modernists is that he is operating in the paradigm shift from industrial to digital design, from the mass production of standardized parts and objects to their mass individuation. Computers armed with smart software…

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