The role of architects in furniture design is often brought into question at Milan’s annual Salone del Mobile. Starchitects are often tapped to design prototypes, installations, and one-offs that sometimes can be dismissed as marketing.
But striking a more studious tone this year was “Elements,” an exhibition by Grimshaw Architects in partnership with Italian manufacturer Poltrona Frau. Held at the rustic Fonderia Napoleanica Eugenia building, a former bronze foundry, three new industrial design projects in progress with Poltrona Frau and its sister brands were on display in the greater context of the firm’s history of industrial design activities.
According to Grimshaw’s head of industrial design Casimir Zdanius, while the firm has a history of industrial design work in London, it has a new impetus to explore the development of its own products in the U.S. “We’re amplifying in New York the amount of product design we apply to architecture,” he says, in order to “gain scope from our own buildings, but also to add value to our buildings through industrial design.”
Three new works were displayed at “Elements,” the first being a chair designed for the 250-seat planetarium inside the upcoming Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science in Miami, set to be completed next year. Meant to take a beating from tourists and schoolchildren, it has a slender steel frame, a high back for easy viewing, and upholstery in an easy-to-clean, sustainable, leather-like material called Skinflex Polaris. At approximately $600 per seat, it also has a lean price.
Grimshaw’s other two prototypes have the potential to go into production. The Spine seating concept, designed for public use, disperses loads over a larger area than similar systems, uses both custom and off-the-shelf parts, and can be configured with as many seats as needed. It’s a cost-conscious approach that uses as few molds as possible. Zdanius describes it as “an elegant way of looking at concourse seating. It uses the most rudimentary manufacturing techniques—self-finished materials such as durable stainless steel and aluminum. We wanted to keep the materials simple.”
But the true darling of the show, and probably the most appropriate to the Salone, was the exhibition’s namesake, the Elements table. It uses four laser-cut metal frame elements, fastened together with custom universal fasteners. The prototype sports a glass top, meant to flaunt the construction of the frame. Zdanius likens the elegant design to Saarinen’s famed Pedestal tables, whose basic shape can be customized to various sizes in both round and elliptical versions. Grimshaw is in discussions with Poltrona’s sister brand Cassina to put the Elements table into production.
While the Elements table has residential and workspace aspirations, and the exhibition plans to travel to the Wanted Design show in New York next month during ICFF, don’t look for Grimshaw to start designing beds and sofas just yet. “We’re not trying to create forms and think about how they’re made afterwards,” he says. “We’re thinking about the innovations and manufacturing technologies that are available now—and with an eye on the future—and how they inform our work. We don’t want to be a company that follows what manufacturers are doing. It’s industrial design for construction, not just industrial design for the furniture industry.”