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October 1, 2004

14 Min Read
Furniture: 1950s styles bear the look of the future

When thinking of furniture that''s not out on your patio, plastics don''t necessarily leap to mind-unless, of course, you''re a designer, afficionado or processor.

A number of factors are driving an increasing use of plastics in furniture, not the least of which is the rising price of wood. Even low-grade boards and plywood have increased as much as 24% in price since June 2003. This increase is itself the result of several factors, including a building boom in China that is sucking in imports, a 27% tariff the U.S. slapped on imports of lumber from Canada (which supplies 30% of U.S. demand), and a weaker U.S. dollar.

Not that plastic is doesn''t have its own pricing issues. But plastic''s use in the furniture market is coming into its own, and not just in the outdoor furniture segment. Plastic furniture is now proudly displayed indoors, and is being marketed and sold in "fine" furniture stores worldwide, led by a renewed interest in the retro look of the 1950s-when plastic furniture was the "in" thing for upscale homes-that speaks to an affinity for the clean lines and simplicity that designs incorporating plastics can offer.

According to German television''s home decorating program "Ricks Wohnwelten," the retro look was one of the key trends seen at this year''s International Furniture Fair (IMM) in Cologne. And style magazine Haus+Garten/Wohnen&Leben says designers are inspired to produce "back to the past" designs in plastics. Demand for molds for retro-look elements such as lighting, cabinets, and chairs started to develop around 1996, and that demand continues says Sushil Patne, marketing manager for tooling at Precision Dies & Tools (Dubai, U.A.E.). Customers generally come to the company with drawings or samples seeking molds for these trendy items.

Molds for retro-look furniture are in short supply, notes Frédéric Lutz, managing director of FairMoulds.net, an Offenback, Germany-based Internet platform that joins sellers with buyers of used molds. "The retro look is of very great importance for our company and the requests for well-maintained tooling for furniture, toys, and household products is increasing continually," Lutz says. However, there''s a catch, he adds. Few molds from the period starting in the 1950s exist or have been well-stored, making those that are available even more valuable.

Contemporary design is also taking shape in plastic furniture. High-end barstools and bar chairs, for example, molded from ABS with a chrome base, from Zhejiang Dakang Furniture Co. Ltd. in China, are popular alternatives to wood and wood/upholstered stools and chairs. Ease of maintenance and cleaning are cited as factors in the popularity of these products.

Plastics suppliers get bragging rights

Although the furniture industry is not among the largest consumers of plastics, it is a solid market that brings with it some bragging rights for plastics suppliers. For instance, engineering thermoplastics supplier DSM (Sittard, Netherlands) is pleased as punch that its Akulon Ultraflow 40% glass-fiber-reinforced nylon was chosen by renowned furniture maker Herman Miller Inc. (Zeeland, MI) for that firm''s line of Equa chairs. The material is injection molded for the chair''s one-piece seat and back. DSM cites its material''s melt flow as key to capturing designers'' eyes, as the fast-flowing material gives products a top surface finish even when high-reinforcement loading grades are used.

In the case of Herman Miller chairs, DSM scored a coup over another plastic, polyethylene terephthalate, that had been used for the seat. By replacing PET with PA "we were able to significantly increase the fatigue performance of the chair shell, which will increase the expected life of the chair and reduce warranty costs," says Andy Hector, senior product engineer at the furniture maker.

Another supplier aggressively pursuing furniture designers is Eastman Chemical (Kingsport, TN), with its various copolyester grades. One, Durastar copolyester, was used by ICF Co. (Vigante, Italy) to injection mold that firm''s ProActive chair. The chair earned Most Innovative Product recognition at last year''s NeoCon Chicago furniture exhibition. Billed as a "technically advanced office chair," Eastman''s material enabled molding of transparent frames for the seat and back.

According to the manufacturer, it passed on both polycarbonate and ABS; the first did not meet the mechanical strength and chemical resistance (from cleaning solvents) requirements, and the latter didn''t offer the required surface finish. The Eastman grade chosen, Durastar DS 2110 UVI, includes an ultraviolet light stabilizer to ensure colors don''t fade under fluorescent lights.

Eastman in July publicized use of its Spectar copolyester sheet material used in a Brazilian designer''s new chair. The Giro chair''s shell is cut and formed of the sheet, then attached to a metal base with four screws. Plastics meet the designers'' goal of affordable luxury. "In order to conceive a quality product with attractive design, it is not simply enough to be creative. It is necessary to look for and to explore innovative materials that may reach consumers with lower prices," says designer Lars Diederichsen, who runs Terra Design in Sao Paulo. He says Spectar offered an alternative to acrylics, and was significantly less expensive than polycarbonate, the other material he considered. The sheet is formed by a small Brazilian furniture manufacturer; he is looking for international companies interested in making them. The Giro chair is one of only 300 products listed in last year''s Design Yearbook.

Prolific awards and environmental sensibility

Plastics'' use in office and institutional furniture and stadium and theater seating is growing. Steelcase Inc.''s family of companies received a total of seven Best of NeoCon 2004 awards, including the Best of Competition award and an Editor''s Choice award. Products recognized ranged from a flexible furniture system and occasional tables to a variety of task and stackable seating. NeoCon 2004 World''s Trade Fair for Interior Design was held in Chicago.

When it comes to environmentally sensitive furniture, Europe tends to lead the pack in attention to design and materials and end-of-life issues. So it was a natural that Steelcase worked with the Institute of Product Development in Copenhagen, Denmark on its newest product, the Think chair, introduced in June. The Think chair contains 99% recyclable content and it can be made of up to 41% recycled material. The Think chair, which can be disassembled for recycling with common hand tools in five minutes, addresses the growing need for mid-priced ergonomic seating with a breakthrough for "green" issues, raising the bar in cradle-to-cradle design and lifecycle thinking, conforming to the highest environmental standards.

Similarly, the Turnstone division of Steelcase introduced its PET Lounge seating, melding contemporary design with environmentally friendly material that is new to the contract furniture market-recycled PET bottles. The Turnstone PET Lounge keeps the equivalent of up to 35 1-liter soda bottles out of the landfill, making it a great option for design-savvy and environmentally sensitive companies.

Kurt Heidmann, chief engineer, and Bruce Smith, design manager for Steelcase, head-quartered in Grand Rapids, MI, note that plastics has allowed extremely innovative ideas to be brought to life. "It''s phenomenal what''s happening in terms of [plastic] materials," says Smith. "The flexibility and strength required, even the aesthetics and ergonomics and shapes that are required for these innovative chairs are solved very well by plastic materials."

Heidmann adds that plastic is a very "human" material in that it exhibits the same flexibility of the human body, which has allowed innovations like the Leap chair, which moves as the user moves. "This wouldn''t be possible-even from a cost standpoint-to do this out of any other material," Heidmann says. "The higher performance and more degrees of freedom and flexibility allows these innovations in our heads to come to life in a well-built and beautiful product."

Smith points out that the Think chair is produced from short-strand glass-filled nylon, a choice made early on in the chair''s design process. The earlier Leap chair was molded of long-strand glass-filled nylon, one of Steelcase''s first forays into structural engineered plastics in a critical part. Moving from the long-strand GF nylon to the short-strand GF nylon in the Think chair gave Steelcase a more aesthetically pleasing part and better recyclability to address end-of-life issues.

"We began this project with some clear desires from an environmental standpoint and designed one of the most optimized seating products I''ve ever seen," Smith adds. "The decision to go with short-strand glass was a very good one."

Herman Miller''s popular Mirra Chair received a Silver in this year''s Industrial Design Excellence Awards (IDEA), an International competition sponsored by the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) and BusinessWeek magazine. The Mirra chair is a high-performing, environmentally advanced work chair designed to provide a new reference point for ergonomic comfort, performance, aesthetics, sustainability, and value. A unique blend of passive and active adjustments allow the Mirra to automatically shape itself to each user; a few simple adjustments fine-tune the fit and feel. Herman Miller teamed with German design firm Studio 7.5 to create Mirra.

"We feel that the Mirra chair, much like the similarly recognized Resolve system and the Aeron chair, represents a breakthrough in user performance, ergonomics, and environmentally sustainable design," says Andy Otteman, director, seating, at Herman Miller. "We are pleased that the IDSA likewise acknowledges Mirra as a standout achievement in design."

John Aldrich, director of seating product development, notes that plastics will continue to play an increasing role in the innovative development of Herman Miller''s products. "Our consumption of plastic will go up as we continue to proliferate its use in our products," says Aldrich, adding that several significant criteria are beginning to play a role in new designs, including recyclability and other green imperatives, and looking at advanced colorants in plastics as a means of using colorant technology to improve aesthetics and replace the use of cast aluminum and painting.

>From a seating perspective, Herman Miller looks at two types of commodities: structural plastics in the continued use of composite-reinforced plastic to replace steel and aluminum; and elastomers, including TPEs, TPPEs, and so forth, notes Aldrich.

Office space

In the office systems products arena, the big focus is recyclability and cost. The products here typically employ large sheets of materials, meaning it''s usually costly and difficult to get rid of them at the end of life. Herman Miller is bringing a lot of focus to this aspect. "Consumers will be seeing plastics, whereas you might have seen glass, wood, steel, or aluminum in previous products," Aldrich explains.

Allsteel Inc. (Muscatine, IA) has garnered its share of awards this year as well. In March, Allsteel''s Get Set chair received First Place in the Society of the Plastics Industry''s Structural Plastics New Product design competition in the furniture category for innovation in unique and creative applications. The Get Set, made for institutional settings, offers the comfort of a task chair and the utility of a stacking chair. Custom molder Innovative Injection Technologies (i2 Tech; West Des Moines, IA) molds the Get Set chair assembly. Moldmakers R&R Tool and Mold Inc. (LaSalle, ON, Canada) and Iowa Mold and Engineering (Belle Plaine, IA) produced the tooling.

In August, Allsteel introduced the new Nimble, a stylish and versatile high-density stacking chair with a generous seat for exceptional comfort that weighs less than 15 lb and can stack up to 36 chairs high. The 100% recyclable polypropylene shell fits users of all shapes and sizes and the contoured back and seat with waterfall edges reduce fatigue.

Chic and cheap for urbanites

Few large retail chains are as environmentally, aesthetically, and socially sensitive as Swedish furniture manufacturer IKEA. The chain is also wildly popular, expanding around the globe and growing from two outlets in 1962 to nearly 210 by year''s end. The 200th opened in July in New Haven, CT.

Plastics processors eager to add IKEA to their customer list need to consult with the firm to ensure their companies are IKEA-compliant. For most processors, this should not be a problem; IKEA forbids child labor and unpaid overtime, and requires that suppliers pay at least a locally acceptable minimum wage. Break those rules in many countries and a processor could spend time in jail, but IKEA says it works hard to expand its supplier base to countries and regions where such social mores are not always in effect.

As part of its environmental awareness programs, IKEA asks that suppliers work with it to develop an environmental action plan. In most cases this encourages them to recycle, maximize material use, and reduce energy use-all goals that also can put more money in a processor''s pocket.

One processor who passed IKEA''s muster is Slovenian molder Plastika Skaza (Velenje). The firm has 41 presses-35 Battenfelds, the rest Demag Ergotechs-and already is planning addition of a second production hall. The custom molding company spreads its business across a range of industries including automotive and white goods, but has a substantial foot in the furniture industry. It counts IKEA among its largest customers, molding parts for chairs and other furniture.

Terra Design''s Diederichsen says that while plastics remain an important material for furniture designers, he would like to see closer work between suppliers and the design community on improvement of product lifecycle management to ensure that recycling options are available, especially "in the so-called Third World countries."

The Panton chair

Another prime example of the retro look in furniture is the Panton chair, a one-piece symbol of the ''60s, that hasn''t seen diminished demand since it was first created. This stackable plastic chair was designed by Danish architect Verner Panton in 1962, but didn''t go into production until 1967 because polymers were unable to meet the required mechanical stresses. The solution that provided the right stiffness and low weight was found in reaction injection molding (RIM) the unit in Baydur 60, a polyurethane (PUR) from Bayer (Leverkusen, Germany). The chair''s surface was then lacquered with DD-Lack to provide scratch- and wear-resistance.

 Panton chairs made during later production periods were, however, made of glass-reinforced polyester, a material which proved unable to withstand prolonged use, causing many chairs from the 1970s to break. Since the German design house Vitra (Weil am Rhein) took over production of the chain in the 1980s-production is actually done by Emaform (Gontenschwil, Switzerland)-the company has returned to RIM molding the unit in PUR.

Robert Colvin

Plastic''s not so fantastic

Plastic has long been a popular alternative in outdoor furniture, particularly for stackable chairs used in patio settings. But officials in at least one city don''t think plastic is so fantastic when it comes to outdoor furniture. An article in the June 30, 2004 Los Altos, CA Town Crier says that officials of that city "OK''d sidewalk restaurant enclosures in the downtown triangle, "but placed a prohibition on plastic outdoor furniture in an effort to create a more uniform streetscape." It was the first time the city had applied design guidelines to street furniture. Restaurants with outdoor eating space must now use metal or wood tables and chairs. Business owners have six months to phase out plastic tables, chairs, signs, "and other plastic streetside furniture or risk losing their right to use the sidewalk in front of their storefronts."

Polyurethanes preserve classics

Polyurethanes are good for more than bits of cushioning. Designers like Verner Panton and Gaetano Pesce had a field day in the 1960s breaking the rules of furniture design with the help of polyurethanes. Such was the impact of those designs that some of them, such as Pesce''s Up Series and the Panton Chair-completely different in style but both making maximum use of the properties of polyurethanes-are still available today.

(Gaetano had his practical side too: with furniture maker B&B Italia, he designed a system for removing the air from foam furniture and vacuum-packing it such that the volume to be shipped was a mere fraction of the volume to be used. When the chairs are unpacked, they resume their original shape.)

At the same time, art historians and material scientists are coming together to restore the originals. For the past year, art experts have been working together under the umbrella of the Axa Art Conservation Project-a cooperation between Axa Art Versicherung AG and the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein-to find the best way to preserve designer furniture made from polyurethane.

Proposals for storage methods that help meet the requirements of sensitive plastics exhibits have been drawn up. Engineers from Konica Minolta Photo Imaging Europe GmbH have also developed a 3-D scanning procedure which can preserve the shape of a polyurethane work of art in digital form. Polyurethanes raw material supplier Bayer (Leverkusen, Germany) is also involved. Peter Mapleston

Clare Goldsberry [email protected], Robert Colvin [email protected], and Matt Defosse [email protected]

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