Chairgenics (courtesy TK)

The procession of Chairgenics (image courtesy FormNation)

Good or bad, every experiment starts with a hypothesis. For Dutch-born designer Jan Habraken with New York-based design studio FormNation, it was the question: “What if we apply the science of genetic engineering to an inanimate object?”

“Chairgenics” at MAD Museum (photograph by the author) (click to enlarge)

Habraken used this science to try to “breed” the ideal chair. Called Chairgenics, the project started in 2010 and its first fully realized result is currently on view in Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. The exhibition, featuring 80 international artists, is focusing on how design is being advanced by new technology and digital fabrication, and nothing is quite so futuristic as applying the already ominous practice of selective genetics to inanimate objects.

The 3D-printed “chair child” is not pretty, more of a blobby, misshapen thing than its elegant ancestors like the Thonet Vienna Chair and the Jacobsen Series 7 Chair, but it is an intriguing idea in taking the rules of biology and seeing if the same crossing of design “DNA” could create the perfect specimen.

The exhibition shows the whole “family tree” of the chairs, with their classic designer relatives like the Verner Panton “S” Chair, the Plia Folding Chair, and the Tom Vac Chair by Ron Arad shown crossing with each other and resulting in new additions to the furniture family. Habraken used a few different factors and gave them weights of desirability, including ergonomics, costs, durability, and construction, as well as the more abstract “aesthetics” and popularity. This he estimated using the opinions of the presumably quite design-conscious FormNation staff and the highly scientific Google and Yahoo search result popularity, and mixed it together through Symvol 3D morphing software, all aimed at trying to achieve perfection.

“Chairgenics” family tree detail (photograph by the author)

The process had its kinks, as you can see from the display, with chair backs sometimes vanishing in one generation or a strange sedimentation of layers occurring in the next. Habraken does note that the project has shown him that perfection “remains as elusive as ever,” but it hasn’t been without its positive results:

“Our exploration has produced exciting new forms and ideas. As we continue with Chairgenics, we might introduce whole new species into the mix. What would result from ;breeding’ a light and a chair? Or a chair and table? Or a chair and something even weirder? We are at the threshold of a brave new world.”

Indeed, we are. So don’t be surprised if some unholy lamp chair or chair table is in your future.

Chairgenics (photograph by the author)

Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital through June 1, 2014 at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Upper West Side, Manhattan).

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...