Egg, Swan, Womb: these organic words are resonant of nature. They are also names of some of the most recognisable chairs of the 20th century that reimagined seating in bold forms. This new aesthetic language of complex compound forms was enabled by technological developments in polyurethane foam moulding, glues, and fibreglass. These icons of design have been held up as benchmarks to which designers the world over should aspire.
Today, our definition of good design is changing. We are no longer able to judge the quality of a design by aesthetics alone. The value proposition of design is shifting rapidly towards a planet-first approach, and it is leading us to question how we behave and what we make. If a design doesn’t minimise carbon and maximise circularity is it good?
So a question we have been asking ourselves recently as we have been avoiding glueing textiles: would iconic products like the Swan, Egg and Womb chairs be designed today?
Circular design demands that products can be repaired to extend their life and recycled at end-of-life, so that carbon can be recovered by returning constituent materials to their discrete technical cycles. The vision is that we could use the products and materials in circulation today to cater to our needs in the future, preventing the extraction of raw materials.
Icons such as the Egg, Swan and Womb chair apply textiles to concave padded surfaces for comfort. This requires the textile to be glued onto foam to hold it in place. The foam is then moulded over a structural frame or surface, connecting three materials together in a way that is almost impossible to separate for repair or recycling. The poor environmental credentials of this material stack have led to the Egg aesthetic disappearing from contemporary design.
Now, ironically, in the case of these iconic chairs, their cultural durability means that they are cherished way beyond their normal and expected lifespans and, like classic cars, through careful restoration, they may indeed last forever. But what about the generations of derivative products whose useful life is so much shorter? They have been incinerated or added to landfill.
Today we are questioning whether 20th-century technologies are appropriate, to eliminate products that have a short and single carbon lifecycle. We are excited by new material innovations such as 3D knitting that are allowing us to explore new design paradigms, new aesthetics and new demountable structures, to reflect the times we live in and our new priorities.