GENERATIVE DESIGN – THE CHAIRS AT MILAN DESIGN WEEK: NEW DESIGN APPROACHES

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This post is also available in: Italiano

After a controversial debut on the media, Generative Design finally starts to yield some real production case studies. What has long been hoped for is now possible thanks to two fundamental components: a system based on artificial intelligence, capable of “learning” what has been produced so far and responding to the precise demands that designers input through the interfaces of design software. The second factor is, naturally, the computational power that can manage all the necessary operations and simulations. In other words, 3D services and software integrated on cloud architectures will have to face the challenge to give a concrete answer to the needs of companies and designers in the coming years.

Artificial intelligence, implemented in 3D design software using Generative Design is, de facto, the brain of a virtual assistant that can suggest multiple options to reinterpret given forms (formal and topological optimisation) or invent new ones based on specifications and requirements of various kinds (materials, mechanical characteristics, weight, dimensions, production methods, costs, etc.). The perspective change from the machine side to the man side allows the designer to finally exploit all their creative skills thanks to the enormous simulation capacity offered by Generative Design.

Exploring the multiple design approaches that generative tools allow, we have selected three case studies recently presented at Milan Design Week. Finally, these are tangible products, the fruits of research that is already capable of expressing a truly unique potential even in its embryonic stages. Still far from imposing itself as the new design paradigm, the generative component offers designers a synthesis of technical and creative possibilities to explore new ideas that have remained only on paper until now.

1 – Topological optimisation for different production methods: Elbo and Nee, the odd couple

Generative design is largely based on the principles of additive manufacturing, as 3D printing is indispensable to create most of the forms conceived by it. However, this certainly does not exclude the use of traditional production methods. Elbo and Nee are tangible examples. The concept phase was unique and led to the creation of a chair form. At that point the executive phase split up: while Nee was conceived as a monocoque for metal 3D printing, Elbo was composed of various elements, to be produced in wood with CNC techniques and later assembled in the traditional way. Elbo and Nee also share the 3D software used by the designers. The design had different objectives and played a new role here, much more open to new solutions and approaches than in the past.

Elbo and Nee were designed using Autodesk Fusion 360. The role of software is fundamental in the design process and will require more and more the development of interfaces capable of solving the convergent need to generate formal solutions and to test or simulate their behaviour in real-time. (credit: Protocube Reply)
The breakdown of the design and production phases of Elbo, made in walnut using conventional construction methods (CNC). The concept generation was obtained with Project Dreamcatcher, recently renamed to Autodesk Generative Design, while the executive module was created with Autodesk Fusion 360, which in 2016 did not yet include the generative module (credit: Autodesk)

The case of Elbo and Nee shows how Generative Design is an invaluable ally for companies both to offer new concept products and to optimise the solutions already present in the catalogue. It is not necessary to revolutionise the production processes, but it is essential to optimise them, integrating the new, powerful solutions that Generative Design is now able to offer.

2 – Topological optimisation for variable configuration systems: TAMU, by Patrick Jouin

Sustainable use of materials and geometric rules inspired by the forms of nature are the basic ingredients of the innovative concept proposed by Patrick Jouin, the creator of TAMU, the ultra-white folding chair presented at Milan Design Week 2019 in collaboration with Dassault Systemes, which hosted the even in the beautiful space “Design in the Age of Experience”.

TAMU is a prototype chair made in 3D printing with the least theoretical amount of material, a detail that will significantly reduce waste in the production phase, compared to conventional methods. The strong aesthetic connotation of the project is inextricably linked to sustainable design, as Patrick Jouin himself said: “In manufacturing, one has fallen into the habit of producing more material than necessary. But with the help of innovative digital technologies, today we are able to produce with much more efficiency and less waste, and that already in the design process”. His team collaborated with the Dassault Systems Design Studio, exploiting the generative capabilities of CATIA, integrated into the 3DExperience platform. Possessing cross-disciplinary skills will be a crucial factor in product design, and Patrick Jouin has confirmed himself to be a promoter of this hypothesis:  “Our goal was to use the material in a smart way, to create forms never conceived for a chair before. As a designer, I am noticing that today the boundaries between form, function and matter are more and more fluid. The design process itself has become much more organic than in the past. Previously, designers were inspired by organic shapes as their style of reference, they tried to imitate it. Today, technology allows us to do much more. Thinking of design only in terms of style is limiting”. TAMU is a tribute to Japanese origami.

In our opinion, Patrick Jouin’s work is a necessary quest for limits, to develop a mindset that can handle all the pieces of a puzzle that today looks still uncertain but can already show its potential. Today, a project like TAMU is probably premature for the market but the fact that it is feasible with an industrial additive manufacturing process is a considerable achievement.

The “foldable” structure of TAMU reminded us of Kinematics, one of the most innovative projects we have seen in the fashion field in recent years. Kinematics was an authentic jewel on display in previous editions of Milan Design Week. Pioneers of generative design Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg from Nervous System designed it. After studying at MIT, in 2007 they founded a company focussed on research and application of innovative design projects, based on Generative Design, 3D printing and WebGL technologies. Their works are a constant source of inspiration for all lovers of new design technologies.

3 – From pure fascination to production: A.I. Chair by Philippe Starck for Kartell

A central theme of Generative Design is the need to interface artificial intelligence with the designer. A new phase is emerging in the relationship between man and machine, with tools that make the results of this collaboration tangible.

The relationship between man and machine, even before becoming a technological standard, was the source of hybrid inspiration. It is the reflection that “The Chair Project” suggests, the installation hosted within the exhibition “Interfacce del Presente” (Interfaces of the present), curated by IED (European Institute of Design) at Milan Digital Week. The project is provocative, inverting the roles of collaboration between man and machine. A generative neural network was trained with a large catalogue of iconic 20th-century design chairs, to create new proposals without any seating purposes. These “sketches” of pure form constituted a hint for designers to create several fascinating proposals, the results of a subconscious reinterpretation of a defunctionalised object, carried out by the generative component.

The absurd reasoning of The Chair Project, with its surreal results, is useful to understand what Generative Design consists of, especially for the determining role of the objectives undergoing the screening of the algorithms based on artificial intelligence. Once again, collaboration with machines makes sense when the design is functional to human needs. Not vice versa.

The Chair Project, by Philipp Schmitt and Steffen Weiss, 2018, (credit: Protocube Reply)

The exploratory attitude of design thus finds its place in many experiments aimed at creating the suggestion of a form based on the reinterpretation of something already known. This is the field of surrealist art, in which the real value lies precisely in the experience that generates it, much more than in the final result. This experience is almost in contrast with production, where the need to produce a chair makes a structured design pipeline necessary, even when it originates from experimental approaches to design. It is the case of A.I. Chair, produced by Philippe Starck for Kartell.

Beyond the emphasis of this extraordinary collaboration, the form of A.I. Chair does not stray too far from other creations of the famous French designer. Also, being aimed at serial production it is far less complex in its form than a concept like Patrick Jouin’s TAMU. The experience that generated it is in fact much more interesting than the result. The dialectical words of Starck that captured the media attention at the Design Week evidence it: “Kartell, Autodesk and I asked the artificial intelligence a question: do you know how we can rest our bodies using the least amount of material?

With the collaboration of Autodesk Research, Starck’s firm created the A.I. Chair thanks to what the French designer has defined: “something like a conversation”, in which the relationship between man and machine became necessary since: “artificial intelligence doesn’t have culture, memories or influences and so can only respond with its ‘artificial’ intelligence to our questions. A.I. is the first chair designed outside of the human brain, outside of our habits and how we are used to thinking”.

The chromatic configurations of A.I. Chair, designed by Philippe Starck for Kartell (credit: Kartell)
After the emphasis given, in previous editions, to 3D printing, robotics and virtual reality, at Design Week 2019 it was artificial intelligence along with the inseparable Machine Learning that played a key role. The perfect setting for a great communicator like Philippe Starck, who was able to make the most of the Design Week to showcase his work (credit: Dezeen)  

After examining three approaches, three points of view and three possible design solutions, we wrap our reflection with the reassuring confirmations of Philippe Starck, who could focus very effectively the role of Generative Design in supporting designers. They must be able to re-discuss their role, humbly realising the human limits compared to the power of computers which can become their most loyal ally. It is curious how this vision is shared by one of the most self-centred exponents of design stars: “I have designed dozens of chairs that are fairly well made, intelligent, and diverse. But after all these years, I realize that they come from the same brain – a brain that belongs to the same animal species, therefore to the same intelligence and logic. In other words, even if I twist my brain in all directions – if everyone twists their brain in all directions – if we are all geniuses, all great designers, we will always come out with pretty much the same thing because our DNA, our ‘background’, our structure does not allow us to do it differently. I was getting bored, but I have great hope with AI to get out of this creative ghetto”. In the interview given to Erin Hanson (Redshift), Philippe Starck focuses on the relation between design and technology when asked if the latter is capable of genius: “Today it’s not, because it relies on limited memory that is castrating. However, we only have to give AI a little time to grow in its heart, to make it capable of even more sophisticated feelings. The day when it will be in love, when it will be afraid, when it will have desires and dreams, it will have become a genius”.

Philippe Starck cleverly juggles between the sincere desire to explore new possibilities and that of being the first design star to join a new and powerful communicative trend, that of artificial intelligence. One thing is certain: the Generative Design game has just started, especially considering the huge variety of application areas that lies ahead. As Starck himself sets out, innovation cannot be reduced to the search for novelties. It is important to start thinking outside of the box, taking giant strides forward, going beyond the holistic component of one of the cornerstones of digital transformation: mass customisation. A crucial point, which Henry Ford highlighted quite effectively: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have asked for faster horses”. We all know how it turned out.

Per approfondire la lettura sui principi e sulle potenzialità del Generative Design vi consigliamo i seguenti Insight, pubblicati in precedenza su 3D Stories.

Innovare la Manifattura: La sfida del Generative Design

Generative Manufacturing: il vero Digital Twin

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Note – cover image – Il designer francese Patrick Jouin a Design in the Age of Experience di Dassault Systemes alla Milano Design Week 2019 (credit: Thomas Duval)

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This post is also available in: Italiano

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Francesco La Trofa

Francesco La Trofa

Architect and journalist with 20 years’ experience in 3D technologies.
Consultant to public entities and 3D businesses for aspects relating to design and communications.
Head of editorial content at Treddi.com and co-founder of Digital Drawing Days, the only event of its kind in Italy.
Actively involved in research and teaching at Milan Polytechnic.
Edits 3D STORIES for Protocube Reply.