The Search for the sustainable chair

Over the years I have been intrigued with the efforts being made by designers from all over the planet to create the world's most sustainable chair. Some may argue that it has already been discovered in the form of the humble all timber chair made from plantation grown timber, but others look to innovative new ways with waste products that range from wool to hemp, flax or wood shavings combined with some form of bio resin.

Harvested flax ready to start the process of being made into Belgian linen. This miraculous material while incredibly strong needs a binding agent for it to be made into a chair. Image courtesy of Belgian Linen.

Harvested flax ready to start the process of being made into Belgian linen. This miraculous material while incredibly strong needs a binding agent for it to be made into a chair. Image courtesy of Belgian Linen.

It wouldn’t matter so much if we we were just talking about the domestic housing market – four chairs here and six there, but the real benefit for the environment comes in to play when we talk commercial quantities used in restaurants, cafes and convention centres. Literally dozens - if not hundreds - of chairs per project. Naturally enough this adds up to hundreds of thousands of chairs globally and most of these end up being made from polypropylene because they are cheap to produce and easy to maintain. The problem is of course that at some time these same chairs come to the end of their life and then become landfill because while polypropylene is theoretically recyclable, it rarely is.

The Emeco 111 Navy chair. Each chair is made from 111 recycled PET coke bottles. Launched in 2010 it was the first heavily publicised chair made from waste product.

The Emeco 111 Navy chair. Each chair is made from 111 recycled PET coke bottles. Launched in 2010 it was the first heavily publicised chair made from waste product.

I first got a little excited by the topic when in 2010 I was visiting the basement of Superstudio in Milan and came across two young Swedish? / Danish? / Norwegian? designers who had created what they claimed to be the worlds first mono-block chair made from natural materials. It transpired that that flax (the plant that linen comes from) in this region reacts in a unique way when left under the winter snows rather than being harvested at the end of summer. The strength of the temperature altered material can be likened to steel when compressed into a solid block with a little bio resin to hold it all together. For some reason I can't find this project online so can't credit the designers or show any pictures of the chair ( I will endeavour to track the information down but for now you will just have to take my word for it that the design ever existed). 

Werner Aisslinger's 2012 'Hemp' chair commercialised the idea of a monobloc chair made from sustainable materials. This version is made in a similar way to rear parcel shelves in cars but uses hemp. 

Werner Aisslinger's 2012 'Hemp' chair commercialised the idea of a monobloc chair made from sustainable materials. This version is made in a similar way to rear parcel shelves in cars but uses hemp. 

The chair I stumbled across at Superstudio in 2010 may not have seen the light of day commercially but it did flag the beginning of a new influx of designs that addressed the problem of the number of plastic chairs being created annually. According to an article on Treehugger I read, the standard monobloc chair “is produced in one single production process out of 3 kilos of polypropylene at a little above 200 degrees Celsius, at the rate of one chair every 70 seconds at a cost of about $3.00.” No wonder millions of them are produced each year globally and that many of them end up floating aimlessly on the sea or buried in landfill. When a chair only costs you three bucks you don’t tend to have huge respect for it.

Even  Mr Plastic himself, Philippe Starck has got in the act designing several chairs using new forms of  plastics. His 'Zartan' chair for Magis (with Eugenie Quitlett) was launched in 2012 for Magis.

Even  Mr Plastic himself, Philippe Starck has got in the act designing several chairs using new forms of  plastics. His 'Zartan' chair for Magis (with Eugenie Quitlett) was launched in 2012 for Magis.

Since that first encounter I have watched with interest as companies such as Emeco, Magis, French brand Alki  have all produced chairs made from recycled ‘waste’ products. It started with Emeco's recycled Coca Cola bottle project The 111 Navy chair in 2010 (see above) where plastic PET bottles substituted the usual use of virgin polypropylene. I discovered while researching this post that French designer Francois Azambourg had actually produced a 94% renewable chair in 2009. 'Lin 94' was a collaboration with DCS (Design Composite Solutions) is a laminated flax and bio resin chair where 80% of the chair's material is plant-based resin. 

Francois Azambourg's Lin 94 chair from 2009 a combination of flax and plant-based resin.

Francois Azambourg's Lin 94 chair from 2009 a combination of flax and plant-based resin.

Philippe Starck’s design ‘Zartan’ was originally conceived with a seat made from wood waste and PLA - a bio resin made from vegetable matter - combined with a recycled polypropylene base. Launched by Italian plastics specialist Magis in 2012, it has undergone a few changes and is now made from recycled polypropylene 'strengthened' with natural fibres. Unlike most 'eco chairs' however, 'Zartan' also comes in a few different looks as the seat component in either jute or hemp. While some commentators were sceptical that after years of pumping out stuff in plastic, Starck would suddenly turn over a new leaf, it was a potent symbol of the changing times and heightened awareness of the over use of petrol-chemical plastics in the furniture industry. 

Marjan van Aubel and James Shaw were both designers at the Royal College of Art and developed the chair as part of their graduation project. The naturally foaming chair has been incredibly well received and graced limited edition design showrooms such as Mint in London. These guys are genuinely seeking environmental solutions in various projects with van Aubel in particular creating some interesting furniture pieces that use solar cells to create their own power source. The 'Well Proven' range is available through the Dutch label Transnatural.

The Marjan van Aubel and James Shaw 'Well Proven' chair from 2012 uses wood waste and a specific type of bio-resin to form a natural bubbling reaction. This image here shows the latest 'Stromboli' incarnation of the design - now in black with walnut legs and in stool, chair and chaise form.

The Marjan van Aubel and James Shaw 'Well Proven' chair from 2012 uses wood waste and a specific type of bio-resin to form a natural bubbling reaction. This image here shows the latest 'Stromboli' incarnation of the design - now in black with walnut legs and in stool, chair and chaise form.

Chinese studio Pinwu (Zhang Lei, Christoph John and Jovana Bogdanovic) have pursued another approach to the sustainable chair idea with their 'Gu' and 'Piao' chairs first shown at Salone Satellite in 2013. The seat shells of both chairs are made from paper derived from bamboo pulp. Pinwu curate the “From Yuhang”project and “Rong”project and have won more than 20 international design awards for their unique approach to redesigning traditional materials and crafts. 

The 'Piao' chair by Yuhang (China) based studio, Pinwu.

The 'Piao' chair by Yuhang (China) based studio, Pinwu.

The 'Alfie' stools and chair by Japser Morrison for Emeco 2015. The bases are natural ash timber.

The 'Alfie' stools and chair by Japser Morrison for Emeco 2015. The bases are natural ash timber.

This year for Milan's Salone del Mobile Emeco launched a new Jasper Morrison designed chair called 'Alfi' - a product made from Wood Polypropylene (WPP) which is much the same as that is commonly used in synthetic decking. In recent times I have seen claim and counterclaim of world firsts in sustainable chairs and have quite frankly become ambivalent to the notion - not because I don’t think that pursuing the goal has great mertit but because I am sick of the media grabbing headlines generated by PRs. Sometimes this means I have been unfairly ambivalent about designs that have shown real merit.

The 'Hembury' chair by Solidwool has a unique look due to the natural variation in the colour of the Hardwick fleece used to strengthen the resin. Shown here with the 'Samara' table by Feist Forest

The 'Hembury' chair by Solidwool has a unique look due to the natural variation in the colour of the Hardwick fleece used to strengthen the resin. Shown here with the 'Samara' table by Feist Forest

One of these is the wool chair by British husband and wife team Justin and Hannah Floyd who started their company Solidwool to promote new uses for a under-utilised type of coarse wool local to the Lake District of England. I saw the first international launch of the 'Hembury' chair back in 2013 at a group show in the San Gregorio district of Milan but decided not to publicise it because I found the shape of the shell too derivative (It still remains the least interesting part of the design).

Solidwool is a small company from Buckfastleigh in Devon, England, that makes products from a breed of grey sheep called Herdwick. Their wool and bio resin chair is called 'Hembury'.  Photo: Jim Marsden.

Solidwool is a small company from Buckfastleigh in Devon, England, that makes products from a breed of grey sheep called Herdwick. Their wool and bio resin chair is called 'Hembury'.  Photo: Jim Marsden.

Like the Eames fiberglass shell chair on which it is modelled, it is capable of fitting into any décor but more importantly it is made up of natural materials to strengthen its combination with a small amount of resin - 30% of which is bio resin. 

A close-up of the Hardwick chair showing the beautifully soft colour variations found in each shell. Photo: Jim Marsden.

A close-up of the Hardwick chair showing the beautifully soft colour variations found in each shell. Photo: Jim Marsden.

Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma and natural fiber specialist Enkev have teamed up to create what they believe is a groundbreaking material that combines the natural fibers of wool and flax with strong bio-plastic fibers, making a revolutionary material that can be heat-pressed into unbelievable shapes. 

 

The 'Flax' chair has a incredibly fine profile but a high degree of strength - partly because of itscombination of wool and flax but also because of it's unique leg shape. Made from biodegradable thermoplastic aliphatic polyester derived from renewable resources such as corn starch, tapioca roots, chips or starch, or sugarcane the chair is available from new Dutch brand Labelbreed.

The designer of the Alki chair, Jean Louis Iratzoki, in the type of cornfield that might produce PLA.

The designer of the Alki chair, Jean Louis Iratzoki, in the type of cornfield that might produce PLA.

One of the biggest claims about sustainable chairs came in 2014 when French furniture manufacturer Alki boasted of having produced the world ‘s first 100% bioplastic chair. This clever piece of PR ignores the fact that many people have been doing virtually offering the same solution for many years and initially this made me take against the chair but the design is actually very appealing and the shell material is 100% plant-based resin made from renewable resources (beet, corn starch, sugarcane, etc) and a slight improvement of designs that use lesser percentages of bio-resin. Designed by Jean Louis Iratzoki, the 'Kuskoa Bi' chair comes in several colours on an oak base.

The 'Kuskoa Bi' chair by Jean Louis Iratzoki for Alki.

The 'Kuskoa Bi' chair by Jean Louis Iratzoki for Alki.

So....... we are getting slowly closer to the holy grail of chairs made from 100% biodegradable and renewable materials. Its been a long time but we will get there. The question is do enough people care and will they buy them if they are more expensive than the petrochemical derived plastic versions?

I hope so.