Imagine buying a new chair from Ikea. You take the flat box home and open it. But instead of grabbing a hex key and saying goodbye to your weekend, you open a bottle of wine, sit down, and watch the chair grow from a flat piece of wood right before your eyes.
It’s the possibility of what researchers at the University of Stuttgart call HygroForm. It is flat-packed wooden furniture that after about 8-12 hours of sitting in your home can become a solid chair or lounge chair. Although this is cutting-edge research, the first purchasable products will be released this spring from a company called HyloTech.
“Hylo Tech” is sort of a nod to “high low tech,” which is how aptly named researcher Dylan Wood describes his team’s new technology (Wood co-founded Hylo Tech with Laura Kiesewetter). Today, most wooden furniture sold by Ikea involves turning a tree into sawdust and then using glue to bind the wood into different shapes. More excitingly, 3D printed wood, which just debuted last year, works much the same way. An inkjet prints tiny pieces of sawdust and binder into shapes.
These composite wood products can be durable, but they also fight against themselves. Trees are naturally filled with fibers that make them strong. Sawdust breaks down these wood fibers to create a powdered material with no inherent mechanical strength. “With composites, you expend so much energy — literally energy, but also effort — to refine them and make them perfect,” says Wood. “Then you put all that effort into putting them back into new shapes.”
HygroShaping works completely differently, because not only does it preserve the natural properties of wood, but it actually depends on it to form a piece of furniture. Here’s how it works: Researchers get a tree. Cutting it into planks, they scan each piece, both for its grain and its water content. (It may seem like a lot of work, but in fact, that’s what most sawmills already do to grade trees.) What’s new is that researchers have created software that can analyze this grain of wood and its moisture, then figure out how it will bend. because it naturally dries out.
“Wood is anisotropic. It has a coordinate system. For the layman, this is called grain. That’s the key,” Wood says. “You usually have to be very careful about this coordinate system and how you use it, but it can be very technically mapped. Part of the smarts of what we’re doing here is that we have it somehow sort pieced together in a slightly different way.
Researchers cut the tree into jigsaw pieces. (The pieces look like the foam floor boards in a home gym or baby playground.) Then they assemble the right pieces together into a sandwich of flat boards, which will be packed in a package retaining moisture while remaining moist for shipping. Once unpacked, these boards dry and exert pressure on each other to create a very specific shape: your new piece of furniture.
“There is a hidden code in the layout of the boards,” says Wood. “And when you put them in your house, which is usually dry, they dry out and that physical form emerges from that code.” Of course, this code is not really created by humans. This is just how these little pieces of wood prefer to shape themselves. Using calculation and clever design, humans exploit the natural tendency of wood.
Wood compares his team’s process to the gracefully molded wooden shell you see in the Eames lounge chair, a hallmark of mid-century modern design and, at the time, a breakthrough in wood processing. To make these chairs to this day, Herman Miller presses a thin sheet of wood into a mold, almost as if it were plastic.
“We love the Eames chair. We almost see it almost as a new investigation into that spirit,” Wood says. “But what is shocking is that we can get the shape just from the parts and materials. We don’t need the mold, basically.
Are there any limitations to the HygroShape process? Certainly. The team still has incomplete data; they don’t know yet how far they can push all types of wood into what types of shapes. Another issue is that because this is a natural shaping process – literally the wood is shaped by its own drying – there is some variation on how exactly the same chair design will actually look. rendered in wood. The same chair will look a little different each time, and not just its grain, but its geometries. Wood says the team is currently trying to dial in their computer technology so they can produce furniture with the right level of predictability, while still allowing some room for natural variation.
“We always thought we wanted it to look exactly like the picture,” says Wood. “But trying with friends and colleagues, [we learned] there’s actually a kind of value to things being slightly different and expressing the variation they have in the wood.