For Vitra magazine design writer Anniina Koivu wrote an interesting piece about French designers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec's Vegetal chair that is the result of the pair's deep fascination with nature. “Is it possible to ‘grow a chair’?” That was the guiding question behind Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec's Vegetal chair. Nature has been a recurrent source of inspiration among designers. When Michael Thonet presented the Chair No. 14, he demonstrated that he had successfully experimented with solid wood, bending it in a way that feels completely ‘natural’. The French Art Nouveau designers freely intermingled vegetal motifs and constructive elements. Alvar Aalto organically shaped plywood two-dimensionally, and subsequently Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen three-dimensionally molded chairs.
Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s interest lies in another aspect of nature: nature’s growing process. For the Vegetal chair, the brothers investigated historical gardens of the 20th century, where young trees grew into furniture-like structures thanks to deliberate pruning and continual care. Another source of inspiration was an earlier, successful project of their own, called Algues (2004). Using little plastic twigs, the Bouroullecs created unexpected room dividers, semi-transparent structures reminiscent of artificial representations of nature. Algues gave the designer brothers confidence that it would be possible to apply the logics of organic complexity to the process of industrial production.
With this in mind, ‘Vegetal’ was first conceived of in delicate drawings of interwoven branches and leaves, showing a structure that grows from four branches (the legs) into a network of twigs that bend to form a basket-like shape (the seat’s shell). Then, in a four-year long process of trial-and-error, the design was adapted to plastic injection moulding. First, the branches were optimised: starting out from an initial tubular form, the brothers flattened out each branch, creating a kind of T-shape. By adding stabilising ribs or nerves underneath the now-flat twigs – very much like the structure of a leaf – they were able to build components that would give the chair extra strength. To create a comfortable seating surface, the brothers created a kind of thicket, making the web of branches dense enough to sit on. Next, the two front legs were integrated into the mould for greater stability. After further reorganisation, the chair became stackable, and ‘Vegetal’ slowly started to take on its final form, as an industrially producible product.
When it was first released, the ‘Vegetal’ chair provoked a fascinating discussion around the issues of ‘artificial nature’ and the essence of design. The chair poses a question that continues to spark debate among the Bouroullecs’ peers and design critics: Can design reproduce nature?