A digital age chair for a historic landmark

Building a chair for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Affleck House—celebrated this month in a 70th Anniversary Exhibition at the UTLC Gallery and Architecture Gallery, Lawrence Technological University, opening April 20, 2011—is no small task; although, a small team of graduate students from LTU’s makeLab are taking it on. Under Professor Jim Steven’s guidance, Ali Alwayel and Shawn Calvin are designing a new chair, influenced by Wright’s Usonian design, to be digitally fabricated.

            Its historic context and the fact that the house was designed by the most significant American architect of the 20th Century dictates an extremely sensitive approach to the design. A recent critique of the new chair’s design by Lesa Rozmarek, an experienced historic architectural consultant, alerted the team to the nuances of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment of Historic Properties relative to their Rehabilitation,

Design for the Replacement of Missing Historic Features

Designing and installing a new interior feature… The design may be a restoration based on historical, pictorial, and physical documentation; or be a new design that is compatible with the historic character of the building, district, or neighborhood.

Creating a false historical appearance because the replaced feature is based on insufficient physical, historical, and pictorial documentation or on information derived from another building.

Introducing a new interior feature or finish that is incompatible with the scale, design, materials, color, and texture of the surviving interior features and finishes.

So, what this means is that the chairs – even though there is at least one in existence, should NOT be replicated.  The treatment of rehabilitation strongly recommends that there be NO replication because it creates a false sense of history.  Therefore, you [Ali & Shawn ] are in a really great position to get into the mind of FLLW to design the chair that he would have designed in 2011 using the CNC machine.”

            The design style of any period is indicative of human spirit and the technology of the time. This was a theme expressed throughout Wright’s career. Wright himself embraced the machine as an important  aesthetic driver of modern design. However, this is not to say that he  embraced a machine aesthetic or mechanistic design. Instead, his “organic” design philosophy presented a more fluid approach to the incorporation of technology and its application as an aesthetic driver.  During “Machinery, Materials and Men,” the first of Wrights’ six lectures in his “Being the Kahn Lecture Series“, Princeton, NJ. 1930, Wright discussed the role of the machine in modern architecture, and his later Usonian residential designs-of which the Affleck House is one of-incorporate ideas of industrial process in their making.

            The chair’s joinery is influenced by Asian wood work detailing, which seems appropriate given that Wright himself was an aficionado of Asian art, design, and architecture. The chair design will continue to evolve over the next several weeks with a final prototype being produced for display at the Exhibition later in the month and followed by a short production run of 12 chairs which will be used at the Affleck house for large events such as dinners, board meetings, etc. 

-Jason Colón


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