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Digital Steam-Bending

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Project Name

Digital Steam-Bending

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  • Structural Engineer: Peter Van Bulow





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Project Description

Thonet, Aalto, Eames—these are some of the names that come to mind if you think of bending wood into complex forms through the application of steam. A research group at the University of Michigan decided to revisit this 19th century technique with 21st century digital tools. Using parametric modeling coupled with CNC technology, the group pushed the material to its limits, using a series of failure points as the basis for generating form. The group designed and tested two structural systems, one based on Michael Thonet’s iconic No. 14 bistro chair, and another based on a wishbone pattern found in the canoe construction techniques of the Great Lakes region. This wishbone system, now being considered for movable pavilion structures, has been built through to full-scale prototypes.

The research process impressed the jury, especially Jenny Wu: “There’s something nice in taking a known process and developing it and understanding it as a geometrical construct.” And the group did so using a combination of new and old technologies, discovering that the failures of the physical prototypes informed the parametic models, which improved the next physical models, and so on, until the final form was achieved.

More than just the formal research, the jury appreciated the team’s willingness to push the material as far as (or farther than) it can go, only to use those failures to inform the final design of the curvaceous structural members. Each wishbone is made from a piece of white oak that is formed over a barrel-shaped mold without a steel strap or additional supports. “You know, wood doesn’t like to do that,” Wu said. “And I think the detail is pretty elegant.” The team determined that each piece can be bent to a radius of 1.6 meters before failure. At that point, the arches are joined together to form a vaulted structure. The prototypes were analyzed with structural modeling software to determine if they can withstand both dead and live loads, and a skin is now in development.

Juror Frank Barkow liked the idea of using current technology to dialogue with the past: “The idea is interesting: digitally being able to revisit the … [Thonet] project, in a way, of how to modify plywood or wood.”
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