Conceivably, The Object Is Wat It Seems
2010
Conceivably, The Object Is Wat It Seems
Exhibition

One exhibition, two cities:
A collaboration between Onomatopee Projects, Eindhoven and CITE Showroom, New York

Lucas Maassen:
Questioning Object Perception With Design

Text by Matthew Zuras on September 13, 2010 for www.switched.com

Lucas Maassen isn't interested in making just another chair. "A chair that you can sit on is suspicious," jokes the Netherlands-based designer, as he gestures to one of his latest projects, called Singing Chair. A blocky piece of furniture with clean right angles, the Singing Chair's back is cut away to reveal an LCD screen, controlled by an embedded Mac Mini. As you approach the chair, a faceless pair of red lips -- controlled by a built-in motion sensor -- springs to life, belting a syncopated hymn. We've reached a point in the history of design, according to Maassen, when we should stop talking about chairs, and let them talk back at us.

Maassen has been working in conceptual design since at least 2003, exploring the nature of our ideas about objects, rather than just building another comfy lounger, for instance. His series of incrementally diminutive Sitting Chairs, precursors to the Singing Chair, had their back legs removed, and were placed on top of one another like Matryoshka dolls, appearing as though cartoon people were stealing the seat from the user. But the chairs are not people; the furniture usurps the role of the user by not allowing him or her to sit. Maassen is interested in whether or not, under these conditions, we can still still even call them chairs.

Lately, Maassen has been exploring technology in order to interrogate the roles and our definitions of objects. In the case of his Nano Chair, for instance, Maassen manipulated platinum with a Focused Ion Beam to create a piece of furniture so small (five microns, to be exact) that it's only visible with a scanning electron microscope (SEM). "[As] opposed to virtual reality, in which unreal objects look real, these nano objects are physically real but seem virtual," says Maassen in his new book 'Conceivably, The Object Is What It Seems,' a companion catalog to his current show on view at the CITE showroom in Manhattan. The first Nano is even more mind-bending than its successor, the 3-micron Nano Chair 2.0, since the act of looking at it with the SEM, which shoots electrons at the object to map its location, actually changes the form of the microscopic chair; it's the observer effect of quantum physics applied to furniture design. (The Nano 2.0 was created with a focused electron beam, and more stable than the first.

Maassen made a name for himself in the science press last year with his Brainwave Sofa. (We wrote about it when it was on view at the Bits 'n Pieces exhibition in November.) For this design, Maassen hooked himself up to an EEG, and mapped his brainwaves for three seconds while he opened and closed his eyes; the output was then extrapolated to 3-D, and sent to a CNC milling machine to craft a highly cerebral settee. Maassen joked that perhaps, in the future, designers would only need to close their eyes to create a new object.

But the Sofa may have been one of his most accessible and even mainstream objects, as he had earlier explored the possibilities of designing only in virtual space. Using his avatar on Second Life, Maassen created the 3DMC-1 chair, a piece of furniture that defies almost every precept of what a chair should be. Maassen realized that a chair existing only in virtual space didn't need to be comfortable, nor even abide by the laws of gravity. Making the 3-D file available as a free download, Maassen followed the model of furniture-makers who provide clients with 3-D renderings to help them visualize a prototype, although he didn't intend for the chair to be made in real life. But even he couldn't resist his own temptation; he brought the chair into real life (and named it 3DMC-2) in what he has called a "semi-virtual" version that blurs the line between Second Life and our first one.

Maasen also wrote a computer action script called Script Furniture to serve as the basis for a series of objects. The script, however, is unspecific in dictating precisely how the object should be built. Instead, it provides certain specific rules (e.g., that each material may only be used once, and that each material must be as prefabricated as possible) and other more open-source guidelines, like mandating that the designer pay attention to construction, comfort and aesthetics. With that script, Maassen questions technology's role in modern design, as designers become increasingly bound to digital methods of creation while ignoring those three basic criteria.

As Maassen continues to pose these questions, he asks us, "When is a chair not just a chair?" In a time when the invisible and digital -- whether an e-mail, a virtual gift on Facebook, or the Internet itself -- seem as real as the analog, Maassen's avant garde approach to design is a challenge, a necessary perspective that is as much an ontological inquiry as it is design at play.

Thanks to:
Freek, PJ, Alissia, Jan, Daniera, Cristoph, Shonquis and Val.

With the kind support of:
2018Brabant, FBKVB and Bavaria.

Special thanks to:
Ramon!