Design brands must integrate tech into their furniture or disappear, says Greg Lynn
Milan 2016: furniture brands are slow to embrace technology and could go out of business as a result, according to American architect and designer Greg Lynn (+ interview).
Lynn, who has designed a high-tech chair for sports brand Nike, said that consumers were increasingly expecting better performance from their furniture, but design-led companies were failing to act.
"I think probably the furniture industry is slow to engage technology," he told Dezeen. "It'll either happen or they'll disappear."
Lynn was speaking to Dezeen at the opening of Nike's The Nature of Motion exhibition in Milan, where he presented his microclimate chair designed for basketball players as they rest on the sidelines between game play.
The chair has integrated heat and weight sensors so it can cool and heat athletes between periods of inactivity, as well as monitor the amount of fluid lost.
"If you gave say five of these to an NBA team, they would have a big competitive advantage over anybody they play," said Lynn, referring to teams in the USA's leading professional basketball league, the National Basketball Association.
"We can bring the core temperature of an athlete down by cooling their spine and stop them from cramping up by heating their calves and thighs," he added. "That is why Nike is interesting, not because it is a bad idea to make a chair, but I think it is more interesting to make a piece of technology."
Lynn explained that people now expect more from their furniture technically but that rather than furniture brands, it is companies like Nike that are developing and commissioning high-tech products such as his chair.
"It is pretty amazing that the pressure is going to come from outside the industry rather than inside," said Lynn.
Lynn suggested that more accessible brands such as La-Z-Boy – a popular brand of cosy American furniture – were likely to integrate tech before design-led brands.
"Unfortunately I think it will be companies like that that will do these things before people like Moroso or Vitra," he added. "It is a shame."
"There is always going to be a market for designer furniture but I think people expect more from their furniture technically than they did five years ago."
Lynn runs a studio called Greg Lynn Form in Venice, California, and is known for his pioneering use of materials and technologies for design and fabrication.
The designer is at the forefront of developing new methods of building, which could soon see skyscrapers held together with glue.
Other previous projects include a prototype for a motorised compact-living cocoon, and a modular lightweight wall system called Blobwall. In 2008 he won a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for an installation of furniture made from recycled childrens' toys.
Read an edited transcript from our interview with Greg Lynn:
Olivia Mull: Can you explain the concept behind the chair you've made for Nike?
Greg Lynn: For me, the collaboration was not so much taking Nike materials, but taking Nike intelligence about athletes. It was John Hoke that provoked me and said that an NBA player sits on a folding chair on the sidelines so let's try to make something that is more intelligent about that dynamic of a player in a game.
I started with the idea of making an object that was like the shoes – very, very light with minimal materials, and I brought this carbon, which is kind of rigid and then it becomes flexible. It is honestly the first time anyone has made a carbon object that has flexibility and rigidity in the same sheet.
So those were the two things we started with; I brought the material and John brought this problem.
We met with Nike biologists, Nike trainers, even talked to athletes and found out what the key issues were. One is how much fluid they lose, so there is a weight sensor in three corners so if someone is in a game, they get weighed at the start and then every time they come in and out of the game we can record their weight, so we know how much fluid they lost. The other thing is there are temperature sensors at the back of their legs and arms where there is no uniform, so we can take their skin temperature.
Then all these heat things are related to Peltier clusters which we can put electricity through and selectively heat and cool, so we can bring the core temperature of an athlete down by cooling their spine and stop them from cramping up by heating their calves and thighs.
So the whole chair becomes a heating and cooling surface, that takes away moisture and cools them down, then the whole perimeter is an air diffuser that has pumped air in so it is like this environment, or incubator.
Olivia Mull: Do you think there is the possibility for it to be produced commercially?
Greg Lynn: For sure. If you gave say five of these to an NBA team, they would have a big competitive advantage over anybody they play.
Olivia Mull: Have you been in conversation with the NBA?
Greg Lynn: Well I think Nike is in conversation with the NBA. It is meant for basketball but you could do different stuff for different sports, but basketball is amazing because they are in and out a lot, it isn't like football where they are out for a while. It is really meant to regulate their performance.
Olivia Mull: Why were you interested in collaborating with Nike?
Greg Lynn: I have known Nike for a while and been involved a lot informally talking to them about digital design and technology. I love that they are digital but they are also a commercial, global company. They think about the logistics of manufacturing digitally, like with their Nike ID.
I did this embryological house project almost 20 years ago where I thought, let's have a house you could reconfigure and we built a little website, and now Nike ID is exactly what I was thinking about but in a market.
Olivia Mull: So what can we expect to see emerge in digital design next?
Greg Lynn: Well for me, I am really interested in building intelligence into objects. I've always been about performance. In the 1990s, if you did something that was digital, everybody looked at it as shape and style, but for me it was always about performance and high performance and now I feel like the time is right to actually have people understand that.
You are going to see more and more is digital shapes but with digital intelligence, and lots of feedback, and personalisation – not so much as this is a shape for you, but rooms and environments are going to know who is in them, and what is going on, and they'll be able to do things that you would expect from your phone, but just now, in your building.
I wanted to make a piece of technology, there are enough chairs at the moment in Milan furniture fair, I wanted to make a piece of equipment. And that is why Nike is interesting, not because it is a bad idea to make a chair, but I think it is more interesting to make a piece of technology.
Olivia Mull: Do you think the design industry is catching on and ready for these ideas and this technology?
Greg Lynn: When you say the design industry, I would say no, but I think the world has! Also at some future point, when I can, it would be good to talk about this company we started, Piaggio Fast Forward, but it is all about furniture in buildings that is moving and dynamic.
I went to work with scooter company Piaggio to make things for physical environments that are mobile and intelligent. I tried to do that with the three major furniture manufacturers but there was no appetite, but when I went to the scooter manufacturer, they said this is our future. So I think probably the furniture industry is slow to engage technology.
Olivia Mull: Do you think they will engage with technology and will it happen soon?
Greg Lynn: It'll either happen or they'll disappear. There is always going to be a market for designer furniture but I think people expect more from their furniture technically than they did five years ago, and you are starting to see with companies like Nest and things like that. People are getting in touch with that technology to change their environments and I think it belongs in a Vitra or a Moroso more than in a La-Z-Boy sofa, but unfortunately I think it will be companies like that that will do these things before people like Moroso or Vitra. It is a shame. What is cool though, is that Nike is interested.
Olivia Mull: And what are the possibilities for this rigid and flexible carbon fibre you have used in your chair?
Greg Lynn: For me, it is just the coolest material I know. It really bridges the gap from apparel to structure. And so, we did one chair that was a hanging chair, that was 100 per cent this stuff, I had it hanging in my house for a couple of years but to do something which supports itself and has flexibility in it, it just means different kind of comfort and ergonomics. I would use this in a house or in an office, I mean it as part of a permanent part of the architecture.
Olivia Mull: And what do you think is next for architecture? Do you think we're moving towards autonomy in architecture and construction?
Greg Lynn: I think a lot of great minds are putting a lot of time into fabrication and I think we'll see advances, but I think the major advances we've already seen. It is more in terms of mobility and moving building scale elements, we'll see much more of it. I mean because also Rem [Koolhaas] and Liz Diller are looking at motion in building now, and I think that's is a real growth area there.
Olivia Mull: What exactly do you mean when you say "motion in architecture"?
Greg Lynn: Everything from say the scale of, let's say at Hudson Yards, Liz's culture shed, which is literally a building that moves, down to theatre seating which is intelligent and reconfigurable. That is a really big space and more and more people are going there.
Also big companies like Google have teams of people working on all that stuff, as well as fabrication. It is pretty amazing that the pressure is going to come from outside the industry rather than inside, which is why I am here with Nike and not a furniture company!