For a little over a year now, I've been chasing around some concepts about flat-pack design: its history, its widespread adoption, and design research into modern methods. Parallel to these explorations, I've been using a CNC router and digital file hosting to test out new methods of manufacturing. My first product, the Zip TIe Lounge Chair, went live on OpenDesk last May. Made from a half-sheet of plywood and 44 zip ties, it uses common industrial materials and a universal design language that can be digitally distributed and modified. It was my first open-source object. I was optimistic about its possibilities, imagining a future where Amazon would CNC furniture right in its distribution warehouses for same-day delivery.
I was lucky enough to have it crop up on a few design blogs and featured in Make magazine. Released for free under a Creative Commons license, it has accumulated 2,000 downloads over 10 months. Via social media, I found that at least two people have built one, in Barcelona and Ohio (both using makerspaces). The miserable download-to-build ratio (.09%) illustrates the trouble with truly open-source, digitally fabricated furniture: it's still a lot of work, using machines that are not widely accessible. The chair looked too severe, shaped by the machining method and material constraints. More than a few commenters took issue with the durability and aesthetic of the zip-tie fastening. Six weeks in a gallery show proved their point, as UV light and lots of sitters broke the ties across the front of the seat.
When I brought it home from the gallery, I rebuilt it, doubling the zip ties at previous points of failure. I made cushions that attach with countersunk magnets, and it anchors a corner of the living room. These improvements addressed comfort and durability, but did nothing to fix the fundamental aesthetic problems of the chair: too boxy, too "stitched", too raw.
To address all of these issues, I wanted to test both a new design and a slight tweak on the distribution process. Since flat-pack furniture and CNC manufacturing lend themselves to boxy forms, I went with a storage unit instead of a chair. To see if those 2,000 downloads had anything to do with price sensitivity, I would charge a small fee for this cut file. Instead of putting it together with 44 zip ties, I would use a ratchet strap as a durable, reusable fastener.
The R Credenza is named for both its fastening system and its typographic profile, made from just seven parts for $45. The design is simple: a 5-sided box with two sliding doors, encircled with a 2-ton ratchet strap. Elevated on tapering legs, the cabinet provides 3 linear feet of storage, neatly divided into three equal compartments by nylon bands. Many precedent pieces use tensioned straps, and this method was chosen over other tool-free techniques for its simplicity and robustness. Construction-grade plywood and flat finishes round out a low-cost industrial aesthetic.
Just like the Zip Tie Chair, the prototype was made at Fab Lab Baltimore, one of 73 open-access labs in the U.S. (with over 400 worldwide) that make CNC milling, 3D printing, and laser-cutting equipment available for public use. Assembly instructions were posted on Instructables, and cut files are hosted right here. Like open source software, the process and source code of the product are made available online, free to be modified, hacked, and replicated.
The first build revealed a few flaws -- though it holds up fine made with 5/8" material, I should have built it with 3/4" plywood for a little extra stiffness. It's pretty radical looking, but in many ways more refined than the zip tie chair. Over the next 12 months, I'll be tracking the downloads and remote builds of the R Credenza to see how they stack up next to the zip tie chair. My hunch is that charging even a nominal fee will slash download rates, and lack of widespread access to CNC routers will continue to be an issue.
Or, perhaps more crucially, most people probably just prefer their furniture readymade. IKEA seems to have hit a relative sweet spot between the amount of assembly work involved and the final product. Seeing a market to exploit, Amazon closed in on my prediction last week, taking it one step weirder than anyone imagined with fleets of 3D printer-equipped delivery trucks. MIT is researching completely self-assembled furniture. Drones can't be far behind, dive-bombing front porches with living room sets.
In an attempt to keep up, I will be looking into 3D printed furniture next. A few designs are out there, but it remains to be seen whether consumer-grade printers are up to the task.