Henry Petroski is a professor of engineering at Duke University, and the author of a great many books. One of those books, The Evolution of Useful Things, examines the history of paperclips, zippers, Big Mac packaging, and other small artifacts of modern life. Each case study presents a similar story: small need-based inventions, patiently iterated, have been refined down to a perfect, simple form. The paperclip, for instance, was the end point of innovations in wire manufacture, steel milling, and the inadequacies of straight pins.
In 1958, Mauras Logan was working at Thomas and Betts, an electrical-products company. Manufacturing bombers for the air force, workers knotted together bundles of loose wires with waxed nylon cord. It was inefficient and sometimes crippling to worker's hands. In response, Logan invented the cable tie: a grooved metal strap, fed through a small, stamped-metal pawl, created an instant, irreversible knot. Fifty years later, the zip-tie has progressed according to Petroski's Law, evolving into a spare nylon machine. The design of zip-ties has been solved to an irreducible degree.
Zip-ties have been cropping up in fine art and design lately. A number of designers have prototyped chairs that use zip-ties as the only method of joinery. There seem to be two basic approaches: either a surface-on-frame system, or a surface-only system. A surface-on-frame uses wooden members, joined at the vertices with zip-ties threaded through drilled holes, to make a frame. Some sort of surface is then sewn onto the frame in a similar fashion. Surface-only systems are made solely of plates, joined at the edges to create folded, origami-like forms.
The advantages of zip-ties to the guerilla are obvious: ubiquity, economy, and the ability to pack flat. Furniture can be assembled quickly without tools, and broken down with scissors. Combined with cardboard instead of plywood, pieces can be made without any power tools at all and become entirely, artfully, sustainably disposable. Simple strings of zip-ties, daisy-chained together, have been turned into lights, offices, snow tires, and high fashion.
Naturally, when a structure succeeds as furniture, architects will try and turn it into a building. For the Sukkah City Design competition, in 2010, UGO Architecture + Design proposed a glowing zip-tie egg, just big enough to host a wedding ceremony. In a sort of furniture-architecture hybrid, Burning Man enthusiasts swissnex san francisco created a bouncy, flowing tent, draping a zip-tie surface over yoga balls and wooden framing. The effect, in the desert, was to evenly cut the glare of the sun, providing shade without darkness. Then, out there in DIY-land, folks are putting up the old homesteader stand-bys, domes and yurts, with zip-ties.
My own zip-tie efforts have been rather rude so far. For my Milk Crate Credenza, I sewed the crates, feet, and top together. The joinery is not very artfully done, but it's strong and can be disassembled. Just this week, I repaired my old Conduit Coat Rack with zip-ties. I replaced the original copper wire binding at the base with ties because I couldn't get sufficient tension out of the wire. A tennis ball is squished between, providing the conduit something to bear upon. I hope to begin exploring zip-ties in a more designed way -- the opportunity is high and the cost is cheap, a confluence I always try to exploit.