Can you CNC a classic American chair? Of course you can.

Architect, designer and educator John Thomas Heida in his Eames-inspired chair

Architect, designer and educator John Thomas Heida relaxes in his retro, flat-pack chair

 

John Thomas Heida is an architectural designer, a furniture designer, and a digital-fabrication specialist at the School of Visual Art’s Visible Futures Lab. He teaches at the New York School of Interior Design, School of Visual Arts and at Pratt Institute in New York City.

Serving the NYC and SF Bay Area for over 8 years, John has worked with Architecture Firms (& related industries), Jewelry Designers, Furniture Designers, & world class Branding Agencies in various capacities. He brings a toolkit packed with software, construction, and fabrication knowledge which helps him to provide cutting edge solutions to the most demanding clients.

John teaches Furniture Design and Sophomore Studio at Pratt Institute and Rhino software at School of Visual Arts in NYC.  He has previously taught architecture studio courses and has been an invited design critic at Columbia University, UPenn School of Design, RISD, UC Berkeley, California College of the Arts, and Parsons The New School for Design.
Besides being well versed in construction technologies and methodologies, John is also fluent in many digital fabrication techniques, including 3D Printing, CNC Milling, and Laser Cutting. John is currently the Digital Fabrication Specialist at SVA’s Visible Future’s Lab in NYC.

I caught up with John by phone recently:

MB: Several people at ShopBot found your article in Popular Mechanics and were excited to see the retro chair design recreated (or more correctly, created anew) with the help of CNC technology. How did this project come about?

JH: The editors at Popular Mechanics came to me with what was basically a proposal/challenge, “Can you CNC this?” “This”… being a classic American chair which features the bending of wood to make a one-of-a-kind design. The impetus behind the assignment is the magazine’s initiative to delve deeper into CNC and other digital fabrication technologies and share its potential with their readers. So of course I said YES!

Photo by Reed Young

 

The trick here was to find a way to pay homage to the classic curved design using ‘2D’ pieces.

As John notes in the article: “I built this chair without touching a single traditional woodworking tool. No, it’s not because I’m some kind of Luddite. I just love the immediacy of rendering a chair with 3D modeling software and then cutting out the parts with a CNC machine. Everything snaps together like flat-pack furniture, but without the cheesy fasteners—just mechanically sound through tenons and lap joints. The manufacturing process takes 2 hours.”

John found that he was able to get material for making two chairs out of a single 4 X 8 sheet of plywood.

The Popular Mechanics article provides a link to the files, so you can get to work making the chair yourself. John notes, “Download all the files for this chair and open the 3D model with a CAD (computer-aided design) application. I use Rhino ($995, PC/Mac beta), but if that’s too expensive, use the trial version or Autodesk’s free app, 123D.”

 

ShopBotting the parts at the Visible Futures Lab at School of Visual Arts, NYC. Photo by Reed Young.

ShopBotting the parts at the Visible Futures Lab at School of Visual Arts, NYC. Photo by Reed Young.

MB: Can you talk about your work at the School of Visual Arts?

JH: Sure. The Visible Futures Lab was created about 2 years ago; it’s integral to the graduate program at SVA for Industrial Designers and Fine Arts students. This Lab supports all of their work. Basically it’s a maker space furnished with all of the traditional and digital fabrication tools that you’d expect, including a laser cutter, 3D printers, and of course a ShopBot CNC router which we used to make the classic chair.

MB: Can you share some detail about your work with the students?

JH: Well that is interesting because at SVA I have the opportunity to work with students with varying interests. I work closely with Fine Arts students, who are thinking about design very differently than industrial designers. With Fine Arts students, they are using the CNC and other digital fabrication equipment to help them visualize and create often very fluid sculptures and other structures. Altogether there’s a “freedom” from the rigid requirements of architecture; you’re trying to make an emotionally provocative piece of work, and are less concerned with getting exact tolerances down to the 1/100th of an inch.

MB: And the industrial designers…

JH: Well of course they need to be concerned with getting the tolerances right!

John has been building an impressive and varied portfolio of work. Here are just a few samples:

The Leonard House in Tiburon, CA. The sculptor who lives here provided the architects with small plaster shapes and said, "I want to live in these spaces." John notes: "To realize the forms, the artist’s clay molds were 3D scanned, imported into Rhino and then given a technical 'make over.' John was contracted to handle all 3D modeling, as well as to coordinate with the multitude of contractors enlisted for the project.  The model was first used as a tool to gain client and city approval.  Once this was accomplished, the model then became the drawing set for all parties to reference.   Boat makers were hired to create the complex forms out of FRP (Fiber Reinforced Plastic).  John modeled all steel components in Rhino and then exported the model to a steel detailer.  The steel shop drawings were then sent back as a 3D model and checked against the Rhino model.  Concrete form work was made in the model as well.  It was milled by a fabrication firm and then used to create the complicated foundations, sills, and walls. Glazing, handrails, and composites were all extracted from the model as well.

The Leonard House in Tiburon, CA. Walker and Moody, Architects. The sculptor who lives here provided the architects with small plaster shapes and said, “I want to live in these spaces.” John notes: “To realize the forms, the artist’s clay molds were 3D scanned, imported into Rhino and then given a technical ‘make over.’
John was contracted to handle all 3D modeling, as well as to coordinate with the multitude of contractors enlisted for the project. The model was first used as a tool to gain client and city approval. Once this was accomplished, the model then became the drawing set for all parties to reference. Boat makers were hired to create the complex forms out of FRP (Fiber Reinforced Plastic). John modeled all steel components in Rhino and then exported the model to a steel detailer. The steel shop drawings were then sent back as a 3D model and checked against the Rhino model. Concrete form work was made in the model as well. It was milled by a fabrication firm and then used to create the complicated foundations, sills, and walls. Glazing, handrails, and composites were all extracted from the model as well.

Highwood Square project, New Haven, CT.  Awarded First Place, Housing, in the Connecticut Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors Excellence in Construction Awards for 2011.  Highwood Square is a 45,000 sq ft low income housing development with an artistic bent.  Applicants must not only qualify financially, but they must also submit a portfolio of artwork to be considered for housing.  Once accepted, the applicant is housed in a One, Two or Three bedroom apartment.  Each unit is also given a designated studio space located on the first floor.  The studios are arranged so that art openings and gatherings build and sustain a sense of community, while allowing the artists to sell their wares.  The complex is situated on an old perfume factory site.  Two of the existing buildings were retained and have been incorporated into the new design.  Bright colors are used to suggest the characteristic creative nature of the site, and to bring some visual interest to the inexpensive and generally mundane, off-the-shelf building materials.  The units are designed in ways that lock them together vertically and horizontally, offering some unexpected double height spaces, nooks, and exterior decks.  John notes, "My primary responsibilities included design, drawing set management, 3D modelling, detail drawings, coordination with consultants, and materials research."

Highwood Square project, New Haven, CT. Graftworks LLC. Awarded First Place, Housing, in the Connecticut Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors Excellence in Construction Awards for 2011.
Highwood Square is a 45,000 sq ft low income housing development with an artistic bent. Applicants must not only qualify financially, but they must also submit a portfolio of artwork to be considered for housing. Once accepted, the applicant is housed in a One, Two or Three bedroom apartment. Each unit is also given a designated studio space located on the first floor. The studios are arranged so that art openings and gatherings build and sustain a sense of community, while allowing the artists to sell their wares.
The complex is situated on an old perfume factory site. Two of the existing buildings were retained and have been incorporated into the new design. Bright colors are used to suggest the characteristic creative nature of the site, and to bring some visual interest to the inexpensive and generally mundane, off-the-shelf building materials. The units are designed in ways that lock them together vertically and horizontally, offering some unexpected double height spaces, nooks, and exterior decks.
John notes, “My primary responsibilities included design, drawing set management, 3D modelling, detail drawings, coordination with consultants, and materials research.”

Locust Projects, Miami. John: "Three years after our PS1 Young Architects Competition entry, a gallery in Miami, Florida commissioned us to build our project in their outdoor space.  Located in the Wynnwood Art District, this commission afforded us the opportunity to test our proposed system of building. "The parasitic nature of the structure creeps from the roof, over the main outdoor space, and into the parking lot located next door.  Shade, seating and a bar became the main programmatic elements that guided the form of the installation. "Construction of the assembly was completed in three weeks, thus affirming our position that our kit of parts could be an economical (under $10,000) and efficient method of building.  Built from over 500 pieces, the assembly is based on four standard parts. "My responsibilities included building the 3D model, coordinating the milling, producing construction drawings, and managing the build on site in Miami."

Locust Projects, Miami. Graftworks LLC. John: “Three years after our PS1 Young Architects Competition entry, a gallery in Miami, Florida commissioned us to build our project in their outdoor space. Located in the Wynnwood Art District, this commission afforded us the opportunity to test our proposed system of building.
“The parasitic nature of the structure creeps from the roof, over the main outdoor space, and into the parking lot located next door. Shade, seating and a bar became the main programmatic elements that guided the form of the installation.
“Construction of the assembly was completed in three weeks, thus affirming our position that our kit of parts could be an economical (under $10,000) and efficient method of building. Built from over 500 pieces, the assembly is based on four standard parts.
“My responsibilities included building the 3D model, coordinating the milling, producing construction drawings, and managing the build on site in Miami.”

Learn more about John’s work and see samples from furniture to jewelry to architectural projects, at his website.

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