Ten years ago, Jonas Hauptman designed a chair with 380 sides. Intended to be a promotional piece for his furniture company, but also an experiment in form and a critique of overconsumption, the chaise was cut and folded from three sheets of cardboard. But when Hauptman set out to gather bids from toolmakers for the dies that could manufacture a small production of the piece, nobody would bid on the project. “They thought it was crazy,” Hauptman, 40, says.
While Hauptman’s chair never made it past the prototype stage, in many ways it was a precursor to the company he helped form 10 years later. Minneapolis-based Seeyond Architectural Solutions combines parametric design with digital fabrication to offer custom interior features that can be easily designed, individually specified, and reliably manufactured. The company combines Hauptman’s enduring interest in complex folding with the important lessons he learned about the connections between design, computation, and dependable factory manufacturing to make Hauptman and his team innovators in the field of digital fabrication.
Popularized by architectural pioneers such as Frank Gehry, FAIA, digital fabrication is a form-making strategy that allows designers to create special, complex structures out of components designed on a computer and then manufactured with computer-controlled machinery. As more designers began imagining and creating these forms over the last decade, though, Hauptman identified flaws in the process. Architects had to conduct complex engineering analysis—and often use a fair amount of guesswork—to determine whether these structures would come together.
Even after architects designed the form, as with Hauptman’s folding chair, they found it a challenge to locate a fabricator. “What I felt emerging five or six years ago was that none of these things [designs] were leading to predictable products,” Hauptman says. “And I went to look for a manufacturer, and I still didn’t see the integration of all the magic that people were making with computation, or any of the kind of predictable quality that would come out of the responsible ownership of that process by a manufacturer.”
Seeyond’s solution is Tess, a specification tool that allows designers to create a three-dimensional visual model of a unique architectural feature, such as a freestanding wall or a ceiling cloud, by selecting the feature type and modifying its size, form, tessellation, and visual effects. The application then provides feedback on material and manufacturing requirements. Tess employs parametric modeling: When a user makes a change to the design, the tool automatically modifies the relationships between all the variables in the design using a set of rules or parameters.
The company’s approach is influenced by Hauptman’s partners in Prohject, the consultancy that launched Seeyond in 2011. Hauptman met Walter Zesk, a computational designer who helped develop the math that went into Tess, in a course that Hauptman taught at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2008. His other partner, Paul James, a seasoned product designer with experience at several furnishing brands, helped connect Hauptman with Liberty Diversified International (LDI), a manufacturing conglomerate with an expiring patent on U.S. Mail totes that became Seeyond’s corporate owner.
In Seeyond, Hauptman had a new outlet for LDI’s corrugated plastics business. Seeyond builds a designer’s structure from individual boxes made of sheets of polyethylene or polypropylene cellular resin, which are cut, twisted, folded, and fastened together, using magnets or cables, to make a tessellated structure. Hauptman says that the process is environmentally responsible. The recyclable material can be ground up and re-extruded, so that very little manufacturing waste is produced. And because the structures are self-supporting, no resource-intensive support structure is required. The company is set to launch aluminum composite and solid plastic material options in June.
Connecting material innovation and computation with an approachable interface, Hauptman says, will not just make architects faster and more creative, but also allow them to have more fun. “By giving architects access to these tools, we train the field to keep making beautiful and fun form for the sake of the occupants—but also for the sake of the architect,” he says.
The ceiling of the main gaming floor at the Osage Casino in Sand Springs, Okla., for instance, looks like a 3D-movie special effect come to life. Designed in collaboration with Hauptman by Ed Wilms, AIA, client leader and senior associate in the Minneapolis office of DLR Group and lead designer for the casino, the ceiling feature has a color-shifting, geometric pattern that curves from an arched dome at one end to a bursting projection at the other. A designer could have made such a structure in the past, Hauptman says, but it would have been time-consuming, expensive, and wasteful, requiring fiberglass or plaster molds. Using Seeyond’s technology, the ceiling design was modeled in a matter of hours, manufactured in several weeks, and assembled in four days.
“Because it’s so customizable, you’re able to create shapes and forms very easily—things that [in the past] may have been only the purview of star architects with enormous budgets,” Wilms says.
After installing the Osage Casino, Wilms is pursuing two more projects. For one, a casino in California, he envisioned a 25-foot-tall, stylized tree form that will grow from a 4-foot radius on the floor to a 20-foot radius on the ceiling, spreading canopy-like over the bar area.
“In the hospitality industry, our clients are always looking for the next, best, and greatest that’s going to set them apart from the competition,” Wilms says. Having a portfolio with projects such as the Osage Casino lets clients know he has a creative arsenal to help make their projects unique. “It’s up to the designer to be creative and offer something that’s different and new. The shapes and the tools that we’re using are really liberating.”
For now, Hauptman sees the bulk of his audience as “inspired interior architects.” But he sees applications of the technology for graphic designers, interior designers, and even cartographers. The challenge is creating a common tool that meets the comfort level of designers with different degrees of design skill and computational expertise. While some architecture firms with computational designers would already be well-versed in the basic software, others may just need the ability to change the size of the feature or pick the tessellation. Architects and designers currently use Tess in concert with a Seeyond project consultant.
Hauptman ultimately sees computational modeling spreading far beyond individual architectural features to govern whole buildings, so that the model decides where every brick in a building goes, the size and shape of the brick, and even how the brick is manufactured. As more designers gain access to rapid production methods such as 3D printing, the line that distinguishes prototyping from production will become blurrier, Hauptman says. Companies such as Seeyond, he says, must provide them with tools to elegantly control what they create.
“Instead of just giving somebody a CAD seat and saying, ‘Design with it,’ we’re saying, ‘Here’s a joystick. It controls this computer screen, which controls the factory out there. Make whatever you want. We’re going to help.’ ”