Super-lightweight revisited.

Continuing on from the Design daily post on Gio Ponti’s ‘Superleggera’ chair a few weeks ago, I decided to look at other furniture that boasts of being SUPER LIGHT. 

 Sylvain Willenz designed his 'Profile' chair in 2012 and followed it up with the 'Profile' table a year later. Photo by SWDO.

Sylvain Willenz designed his 'Profile' chair in 2012 and followed it up with the 'Profile' table a year later. Photo by SWDO.

This idea of striving for the lowest possible weight is quite normal in sport. Racing cars and sailing boats are often made from carbon fibre or aluminium for the speed advantages these materials bring but why is low weight so important in furniture? In itself lightness is a worthy attribute because it makes it easier for the consumer to move it around, it’s also less expensive to transport by sea (where the charge is by weight not volume). In most cases it means that less material has been used and therefore the design is inherently more sustainable too. But the reality is that a piece of furniture still needs to be strong enough to do its job – otherwise we would all be using furniture made of balsa wood or paper, rather than steel or solid timber. Supporting a 100kg human being is no easy task for a chair nor for the table that has to enable the same weight-challenged individual to change a light bulb by standing in the middle of it. Storage items have an easier time of it because generally speaking people aren’t idiotic enough to climb up a bookshelf………. Here's a look at some of the more interesting lightweights (so to speak) from the last few years and one old favourite from two decades ago.

 The 'Profile' chair by Sylvain Willenz uses hollow cotton tube technology to avoid using solid timber legs. Photo by SWDO.

The 'Profile' chair by Sylvain Willenz uses hollow cotton tube technology to avoid using solid timber legs. Photo by SWDO.

Combining the featherweight with the strength of an elephant, is the ‘Profile’ chair by Belgian designer Sylvain Willenz. Designed in 2012 for fledgling German company Stattmann Neue Moebel, the chair uses a new hollow leg material made by winding layers of cotton strips soaked in resin (known as NCF or Natural Composite Fibre) much in the way cardboard tubes are made. The resulting leg is incredibly strong and of course, SUPER LIGHT. Willenz has done a beautiful job of finishing this new material in a way that still feels solid and natural. Where there needs to be a joint, a solid piece of wood is machined and inserted and the exterior of the tube is wrapped in a thin ash veneer. This cool technological breakthrough is all very well but if the chair didn’t look the part I wouldn’t be talking about it. Thankfully Willenz is an incredibly talented designer and the chair  beautifully proportioned.


 Weighing in at 3.9kilos means the 'Profile' chair isn't in the running for the lightest chair in the world but it's certainly one of the most subtle. Photo by SWDO.

Weighing in at 3.9kilos means the 'Profile' chair isn't in the running for the lightest chair in the world but it's certainly one of the most subtle. Photo by SWDO.

The ‘Profile’ chair is nothing radical to look at. In fact it has the look of the archetypal chair. There is nothing extraneous here, with Willenz opting for purity of form. The chair isn't anywhere near as light as Gio Ponti's little marvel but at 3.9kgs it's still extremely petit and the hollow leg approach is an interesting new development. Available in 5 shades, the chair is also stackable, something the 'Superleggera' is not.

 Benjamin Hubert just cant help questioning the role of materials in his work. 

Benjamin Hubert just cant help questioning the role of materials in his work. 

When Hubert launched his 'Ripple' table late last year proclaiming it might just be the lightest table in the world he was aware that he was asking for a showdown from all-comers. It was of course a bit of a joke by Hubert who wasn’t sure whether it was or wasn’t the lightest but he thought it would provide a great publicity angle regardless. At just 9.0 kilos for a 2.5 metre long table it’s certainly in the ball park of being the world title holder and in the end does that really matter as much as whether it combines extreme lightness with good looks and an amazingly resourceful use of materials? The table excels in this department, 80% less material than a conventional timber table. This stands to reason as it's 80% lighter.

 Now that's light! But is it the lightest? Hubert's 'Ripple' table was launched during the London Design Festival in 2013.

Now that's light! But is it the lightest? Hubert's 'Ripple' table was launched during the London Design Festival in 2013.

“The Ripple table is a triumph of research and reductionism”

Max Fraser - Deputy Director, The London Design Festival

 The first version of Hubert's 'Ripple' table weighed 9kg.

The first version of Hubert's 'Ripple' table weighed 9kg.

As it turned out the title of the lightest table in the world was quickly taken away from Hubert by Ruben Beckers - a student at Kassel School of Art & Design in Germany. His 'Kleinergleich5' table weighs just 4.5kg and uses a complex grid-like pattern of thick veneer to achieve the necessary strength. 

 Ruben Beckers nonchalantly showing off his 'Kleinergleich5' table. The name means 'less than or equal to 5'. Photo by Olga Holzschuh.

Ruben Beckers nonchalantly showing off his 'Kleinergleich5' table. The name means 'less than or equal to 5'. Photo by Olga Holzschuh.

 The underside of the 'Kleinergleich5' table reveals its intricate structure. Photo by Olga Holzschuh.

The underside of the 'Kleinergleich5' table reveals its intricate structure. Photo by Olga Holzschuh.

To my mind Beckers' table isn't as exciting as Hubert's because of it's need for more complex construction. Hubert's design uses sheets of Canadian spruce veneer pressed into a corrugated profile for its inherent strength. Each of the three layers are just 0.8mm with the final thickness being only 3.5mm. The real beauty however is that the corrugated sheets are already being made by Corelam, a Canadian company. 

 The second version of 'Ripple' - dubbed 'Ripple 2.0' was 1.5 kilos heavier than the original taking it to 10.5kg but far stronger.

The second version of 'Ripple' - dubbed 'Ripple 2.0' was 1.5 kilos heavier than the original taking it to 10.5kg but far stronger.

Hubert's second version of 'Ripple' - 'Ripple 2.0' was made stronger by making the leg triangular and by creating a curved support rail between the legs at each end. This added 1.5 kilos but allowed a normal sized person to be able to stand in the middle of its 2.5 metre span. Hubert's clever new slogan said it all:

Held by 1. Holds 1. Seats 10.

 The 'Pressed' chair by Harry Thaler for Nils Holger Moormann, is made from a single sheet of aluminium.

The 'Pressed' chair by Harry Thaler for Nils Holger Moormann, is made from a single sheet of aluminium.

As mentioned, aluminium is widely used by the racing and airline industries. Its low weight and ability to be moulded or formed into complex shapes makes it also very applicable to making lightweight furniture. One such design, the Hans Coray 'Landi' chair from 1938, has recently been reissued by Vitra. Along similar lines but far simpler in construction is the ingenious 'Pressed' chair by Harry Thaler, designed in 2011 for German manufacturer, Nils Holger Moormann. The design is laser cut then formed from one sheet of anodised aluminium. The fact that the chair has no welds or joints also makes it perfect for outdoor applications but because it's only 2.8kg it is not ideal for extremely windy locations. The chairs strength comes from the ribs pressed into the material as the shape is being formed. Suitable for persons up to 120kg, the chair can be stacked and is available in a wide range of colours or in its raw aluminium form with a clear coating.

 The 'Knotted' chair by Marcel Wanders was designed in 1996 for Droog. It uses resin and a type of rope. 

The 'Knotted' chair by Marcel Wanders was designed in 1996 for Droog. It uses resin and a type of rope. 

A look at lightweight furniture wouldn't be complete without a mention of Marcel Wanders' famous 'Knotted' chair. Although it's mostly air it still weighs 5 kilos. The chair was demonstrated to me once by a Cappellini sales person standing on the seat saying "it's okay it wont break". I was terrified but he was right.

In 2013 Wanders tried his hand at carbon fibre again, this time wrapping the material around balloons filled with compressed air. The 'Carbon Balloon' chair is exceptionally light at LESS THAN ONE KILO but you have to love the art of Jeff Koons to appreciate it's appearance.

There doesn't seem to be a great deal of demand for ultra-light storage systems but those who have ever had to move a few steel filing cabinets around would attest that it might be something worth considering. The 'Opus Incertum' bookshelf by Sean Yoo was designed for Casamania in 2005. Its one metre by one metre size would weigh a ton if made from regular materials like wood or MDF but because of the expanded polypropylene used it's like lifting a block polystyrene foam. The books provide the stability.

 Sean Yoo's 'Opus Incertum' for Casamania is named after a Roman stone wall technique.

Sean Yoo's 'Opus Incertum' for Casamania is named after a Roman stone wall technique.

But even Wanders and his carbon fibre balloons can't claim to have designed The Guinness Book of Records - World's Lightest Chair. This honour went to the Italian designer Massimiliano Della Monaca in 2008 with his 'Estrema' chair - a single layer carbon fibre design that is just 0.617 kilos. It may not be the prettiest but it is the lightest. For now anyway.

 The Formula 1 styling of Massimiliano Della Monaca's 'Estrema' chair. Go faster stripe optional.

The Formula 1 styling of Massimiliano Della Monaca's 'Estrema' chair. Go faster stripe optional.