Steam Bent Wood Furniture
Matthias Pliessnig’s furniture combines computer technology, craft skills, and design. Working predominantly with steam-bent wood, he constructs sinuous and kinetic forms that clearly express the design language we have come to recognize as computer-based – a language commonly associated with more fashionable materials such as carbon fiber or plastics. Influence for his work comes from an array of sources including the movements of hydro/aerodynamic paths, the human body, and the ambition to visualize energy and fluidity as a kind of modernity.
“I use steam-bending techniques to construct my work. The strips of wood are put inside of a tube filled with hot steam. 10 minutes later, a strip is taken out and bent into the desired shape within 30 seconds. After 8 hours, the wood is back to the original strength.”
“Wood is composed of cellulose fibers that are basically held together by polymer resin, a natural resin inside the fibers of the wood, so it’s like a plastic that holds the tissues of fibers together. And all these fibers are running straight next to each other, held together by this glue.”
“With the steam bending, you’re softening those polymer resins that hold the fibers together, and you soften them enough to where the wood fibers can slip past one another, then you bend it, hold it in place. When the wood dries and cools, then those fibers are locked in their new orientation. So you’re actually changing the whole relationship of the fibers.” – Matthias Pliessnig
Craft skills and computer technology meet in the furniture created by American designer Matthias Pliessnig. Working predominantly in a single material, steam-bent oak, Pliessnig constructs sinuous and kinetic forms that clearly express the design language we have come to recognize as computer-based, a language more commonly associated with modern materials such as plastics or carbon fibre. ‘This combination of new technology and ancient materials fits perfectly into today’s stratum,’ Pliessnig believes. And indeed it does, for Pliessnig’s methods of working are entirely contemporary, even in their assents to nostalgia.
The reference to tradition, to past generations of craft and the values and qualities attached to it, is common in the world of contemporary design. By choosing to work in wood over other, more fashionable, materials Pliessnig makes his work a new chapter in the evolution of traditional design practices. For him it is the physical properties of wood and its huge potential for manipulation that most fascinate. He reveals those qualities with the aid of technology, as illustrated in ambitious and engaging forms such as the undulating Dilapidated Flow or the complex geometry of Ebb.
Pliessnig had previously worked in wood and had also used the computer as an aid to his designs, but it was a project to build a boat in 2006 that suggested a synergy between the two. The construction process used cross-section planes as supports for pieces of steam-bent wood and concluded with the removal of the supports, leaving the skeletal form of the strips. This principle has influenced much of Pliessnig’s subsequent work. He first sketches out his designs on a computer (‘I’ve become comfortable enough with the software that it has become as innate as a sketchbook’) and from there allows the work to grow organically. Not only does this marriage of craft and technology forge a new process of hand-manufacture, it also, vitally, allows Pliessnig to explore a visual language that is of key importance to his work.
The linear forms of the bent-wood strips offer more than simple structure, they also suggest a sense of dynamism: ‘The movements of hydrodynamic/aerodynamic paths, organic growth, and various structure systems influence my forms.’ The ambition to visualize energy and fluidity is a mission to visualize a kind of modernity. The dialogue with the viewer is instantly identifiable as a dialogue of the digital age. Pliessnig acknowledges the work of other great creatives with whom he shares a similar visual language, if not dialect, such as Zaha Hadid and Ron Arad. Though Pliessnig is proud to offer his choice of material as a point of difference. He is especially drawn to the associations of permanence and integrity suggested by wood. Through embracing the natural laws of wood he has changed his own perceptions too, and aims to challenge those of his audiences: ‘The material I once thought to be rigid, flat, and unforgiving can actually be fluid and elastic.’
The sculptural qualities of recent work such as Providence and Evolution are clear. ‘Each piece I make provokes a feeling of speed although it is a static form.’ The tension between opposing forces – movement and stillness, calmness and unrestrained, natural energy – are at the heart of Pliessnig’s work. So too is the supposed conflict between traditional materials and technological languages – though in Pliessnig’s hands, these are successfully proven not to be in competition at all.
- Pliessnig received grants in 2008 and 2009 from the Joan Mitchell Foundation and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, respectively. In 2008, Interior Design Magazine recognized Providence with a Best of Year award for lounge seating. His work is in the collection of the Museum of Arts and Design, New York. Pliessnig currently maintains his studio in Philadelphia
About: Matthias Pliessnig:
Matthias Pliessnig is an acclaimed furniture designer based in Philadelphia whose work uses steam bent wood. His style is “kinetically contemporary” and he uses “computer-aided curves with laborious craftsmanship” to handcraft chairs and benches.
I’m a furniture designer based in Providence. Graduated from RISD in 2003. And I build furniture utilizing steam bending and bent lamination of white oak. My Furniture is an extraordinary example of that. Maybe the most interesting thing to me is that it’s the earliest version I’ve ever seen where the chair becomes the back with a bent piece of wood, so utilizing the bent wood to actually bridge the seat to the back. That area where the seat meets the back, where there would normally be a complicated joint of some kind, is usually the weakest part of a chair. With this, the bend is acting as the joint. I’m assuming there is some kind of flexibility in this chair from the title of the chair, but also just looking at it, if somebody were to sit on this, I think it has a little bit of give.
Born in New Orleans in 1978, Pliessnig as a child was interested in aviation, drawing, and knowing what made things work. He started his art education in the sculpture department at the Kansas City Art Institute and then transferred to the furniture department of the Rhode Island School of Design. It was there that he developed his penchant for woodworking and discovered the sympathetic relationship between design software and craft processes. After graduating from RISD in 2003, Pliessnig stayed in Providence, doing commission work for architects and occasionally exhibiting pieces in shows.
He also became interested in boat design. While completing his MFA at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (2005–8), Pliessnig undertook a boat-building project with Professor Tom Loeser and fellow graduate student Benjamin Wooten that dramatically altered the direction of his work. The marine design–influenced pieces created since that experience have been exhibited and published widely over the last five years.
He currently works out of his studio in Philadelphia, PA collaborating with architects on large scale installations as well as private commission work. Pliessnig’s furniture and sculpture have been featured in numerous international books and magazines including: Dwell, Interior Design, Forbes, Architectural Record, D’Casa, Space, LAB, American Style, Arch, Craftpunk: Objects, Desire: The Shape Of Things To Come, and Innovators: Shaping Our Creative Future. His works have been exhibited at Salone Internazionale de Mobile in Milan, Wexler Gallery in Philadelphia, International Art & Design Fair in NY, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. His works are included in the permanent collection at the Museum of Art and Design in NY, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Arizona State University Art Museum.
Name: Steam Bent Wood Furniture
Materials: White Oak
Materials Combination: Wood, Eco / Recycled / Green
Colors: Natural Color
Furniture Designer: Matthias Pliessnig – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Text Description: © Courtesy of Matthias Pliessnig
Images: © Matthias Pliessnig