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The 2X4CHAIR

The 2X4CHAIR | Jim Nicholls

In the early 1930’s Dutch architect and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld, inspired by social concerns and aiming to provide well designed furniture as cheaply as possible, designed a ‘Crate’ furniture series and wrote,“… a piece of furniture of fine wood, made wholly according to traditional methods, is shipped in a crate to prevent damage and breakage. Someone receiving such a crate at home says, at most: well packed. But it has never been established that such a crate represents a freely rendered method of carpentry aimed straight at its goal. The plain materials make it stronger than its precious contents… Therefore, there must finally be someone who chooses the crate instead of the ‘piece of furniture’.”

The design for the 2X4CHAIR was motivated by a desire to produce a pedagogic tool exhibiting human and social inquiry, and which relied on a design of strategic constraint resolution, rather than on prime materials or skilled labor, to add values beyond utility. The resultant intentional chair has evolved from a material study and full-scale drawings, through a series of increasingly refined physical prototypes, to a publicly tested product and a faculty colloquium presentation.


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To enable localized garage-scale manufacture, the chair is designed for low-tech batch production. By interrupting the waste stream of wood frame construction sites, short 2×4 off-cuts are redirected into durable, solid-wood furniture. Fabrication is by wood glue and clamping pressure on side-grain surfaces. End-grain is left exposed on checkerboard top and bottom faces. Legs and backs are extrude down or up, braced laterally by the depth of the slab. All cuts are straight cuts and most are chop saw cuts using a stop for length, simplifying labor and equipment costs. Inherent properties become design assets.

Dimensions and proportions record an interactive overlay of 2×4 and human body. Repetition of the sectional 2×4 generates a calibration grid for the horizontal dimensions. The actual 2×4 dimensions of 1½” and 3½” are used as a proportion system throughout. Vertical dimensions are generated from the experiential, registering the human body and the necessary supports for the actions of sitting, leaning, supporting, and working. Post-assembly sanding by hand-held belt-sanders and palm-sanders provide unified, machined surfaces that retain the empathetic variations of process. Finishes are oil, transparent stain, and wax. It is intended that a patina of time will be acquired rather than resisted. An old chair will have added value.

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 While labeled a chair, the 2X4CHAIR also acts as a table, a bench, and a bookshelf. In proportion and dimension it is small enough to fit easily, but big enough to be accommodating. With many different functions, the design’s ambition and success is as a polyvalent form, it responds to a changing context of multiple locations and varied intended uses by providing an open stable terrain of possibilities. It becomes nomadic architecture.

Herman Hertzberger, another Dutch architect, in his book, “Lessons for Students in Architecture” writes, “The only constructive approach to a situation that is subject to change is a form that starts out from this changefulness as a permanent – that is, essentially a static – given factor: a form which is polyvalent. In other words, a form that can be put to different uses without having to undergo changes itself… In whatever we set out to make we must try to not only meet the requirements of function in the strict sense, but also that more than one purpose may be served, so that it can play as many different roles as possible for the benefit of the different individual users. Each user will then be able to interpret it personally so that it may be integrated into [their] familiar surroundings.”

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Although intended as a teaching tool and the product of creative research and public practice, the 2X4CHAIR is ultimately about the production of material evidence of the human condition. It is about changing lifestyles, and the rise of the urban nomad, it is about shrinking homes and the need to conserve and make space, it is about temporary and disposable, and the desire for lasting. It is about what we can afford, economically and environmentally. It is about working with the many. It is about a loyal pet.

The contemporary, iconoclastic, French industrial designer, Philippe Starck, sums up his motivation to design products by stating, “I create not to make a product, but to speak, to communicate. The object it is just a vehicle, a pretext, for speaking to millions. Some people can sing, some people can write, some make politics; me, I am unlucky so I am obliged to speak though a chair. It is very complicated, very slow, very sticky.”

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