written by:
December 16, 2009
Originally published in The Future

For almost a decade Dwell has printed countless examples of new furniture designs, but with a handful of exceptions, little has been offered—–to us or to you—–in the way of truly new ideas about what furniture could be or do. Digital technology and material innovation have pushed the forms and qualities of modern furniture into unexplored realms; however, the industry is still dominated by a staple diet of types: chairs, sofas, tables, and storage. Arguing against the creation of new chair designs would be like debating the need for new novels. That notwithstanding, we still wondered what furniture could be without imposing any constraints on the designer. To find out, we turned to hometown superheroes Council—–the San Francisco furniture-design company founded by Derek Chen and winner of the 2009 ICFF Editors Award for furniture.

With Magneto, Council’s prospective design for a modular set of foam-covered building blocks, users would be able to fashion their own furniture to accommodate a variety of activities and sitting positions. The proper technology to make the blocks adhere
With Magneto, Council’s prospective design for a modular set of foam-covered building blocks, users would be able to fashion their own furniture to accommodate a variety of activities and sitting positions. The proper technology to make the blocks adhere is all we lack to turn this concept into a product.
With Magneto, Council’s prospective design for a modular set of foam-covered building blocks, users would be able to fashion their own furniture to accommodate a variety of activities and sitting positions. The proper technology to make the blocks adhere
With Magneto, Council’s prospective design for a modular set of foam-covered building blocks, users would be able to fashion their own furniture to accommodate a variety of activities and sitting positions. The proper technology to make the blocks adhere is all we lack to turn this concept into a product.

Derek Chen is the founder and creative force behind Council, a furniture brand he started in 2007 to bring a more international sensibility of design (and an all-star roster of designers) Stateside. Here, he offers his insight into the evolution of furniture and proposes a new design—–Magneto. “The types of furniture we have are a direct response to the types of things we do, and these evolve over time.

For example, the coffee table now has a magazine rack in it and a place to hide the remote. The dining table is still for dining, but we also have the conference table with an outlet or hole in the middle for wires. There’s the emergence and subsequent extinction of the telephone table. With all the time we spend working we have the emergence of the task chair. I do believe there is a strong case to be made for continuing specialization, divergence, and evolution of furniture (video-game chair, anyone?). But I also see something different happening, which is an erosion of formality.

“My perception is that in the past, activities were more regimented, and corresponding furniture could be categorized more easily because activities were more formal. People dined at a dining table and sat on dining chairs. People retired to the parlor and had coffee on the coffee table. We still eat at the dining table, but we also eat in front of the TV, in the kitchen, and in front of the computer. We still put coffee on coffee tables, but we also drink coffee in our cars and at our desks.  There is no longer a one-to-one mapping between the things we do and the furniture we do it on or in. I think our less formal lives call for more flexibility in our furniture.

“This idea has been addressed in the past with pieces that can transform to address a wider continuum of human activities. A recliner offers two kinds of sitting. A sofa bed allows you to sit or sleep. We would like to find a way that takes things up a notch in terms of flexibility, so that the pieces hit not just one or two functions but the myriad functions in between that may not have been imagined by the designer. Rather than offer 100 percent sofa versus 100 percent bed, maybe you want to rest on your side and watch the TV with a cup of tea.

“Magneto is a collection of magnetic foam blocks that can be arranged in any way the owner sees fit. It’s kind of like a pile of pillows, but the pieces are magnetic or somehow tenacious so that they hold together more supportively rather than tumble away when you lean on them. The foam is firm, but additional hard surfaces can be placed on the blocks to hold a drink or other items. The technology we lack for this concept is the way to make the pieces stick together. Magnets or Velcro are imperfect but one day could improve enough to make Magneto a reality.”

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