archolab Architectural Research Collaborative

Spring Back

Digital Steam Bending

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In the mid-nineteenth century, at the same time that Great Lakes craftsmen utilized abundant regional lumber to construct bent-wood snowshoes and canoes, Michael Thonet was manufacturing his iconic Café Chair No. 14. Steam-bent construction was lightweight, rigid, and compact, making it ideal for mass production. But unlike many industrial processes, steam bending used local and renewable materials, lent itself to easy disassembly / repurposing of material, and required no toxic adhesives.
While steam bending remains a viable craft-based practice its chapter in the history of early industrial production was relatively short-lived, having been quickly replaced with tubular steel and other more predictable, more thoroughly modern materials. Practicing in the post-industrial meltdown of the American Midwest, we began our research by probing this virtually forgotten technique.  This return provided a frame within which to speculate about new modes of digital fabrication at an architectural scale.

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