It’s rare to find product design that radically challenges the existing paradigm for an item of commonplace furniture. Take, for example, the chair. It is one of the simplest objects around, and one with the most obvious function. But that function alone wasn’t enough for South Korean designer Seung-Yong Song, who undertook a series of projects that shaped a prototypical chair to accomodate a variety of additional uses.
First up is his project fittingly titled, “8-Objects.” It consists of 8 chairs that have been outfitted with elements of other bedroom furniture. There’s a desk, clothing rack, shelves, and even a bedroll. These “chairs” can be spread around the room, or combined to form a bed platform. I put chairs in quotes there because it seems misleading to designate these innovative multifunctional objects with so mundane a term. And yet when it comes down to it, they are first and foremost chairs, I think that’s the most interesting part. To me, these are clearly not new items of furniture, they are chairs who have experienced a growth of function and character.
Then there is Object-A, a beautifully organic, spatially efficient, and downright weird hybrid between a chair and a set of shelves. Of the project, Seung-Yong says, “I am looking in every nook and cranny of the room to find hidden spaces. Under the table, beneath the bed, above the wardrobe … All the space in the room is completely full of odds and ends. There’s no other choice. And I start building my objet like the city’s tallest building seen from the window in the room.”
Object-B is similar to A in that it also offers the functionality of a shelving unit, but it also functions as a ladder. The reason I’m including it here though, it primarily because of the striking form achieved by putting two of them back to back. This attention to combination and orientation is one of the things that makes this such a wonderful series of objects.
Finally, I’ve got to mention Object-E, a rocking chair with a drying rack above it, so that the clothes dry in the breeze as you rock. This is a brilliant synthesis of purpose that, although perhaps awkward to carry out, makes for a great idea. What impresses me most about all of these projects is the open mind that went into their design. Seung-Yong speaks to this same point. “The unique name of things limit the range of product’s shape and function, but above all, the fact that there exists stereotyped function in accordance with each unique name suppresses my imagination. I am not willing to deny or destroy the identity based on the stereotype, but I only reinterpret the uses I need in my own design language.”
This willingness to look first to function and necessity, and only then to the archetypes that traditionally serve, is the mark of a truly great designer. In cognitive psychology there is a concept known as an “anchor,” the idea being that if we are given a suggestion before having to estimate a particular variable, we will almost certainly be influenced by that suggestion, no matter how irrelevant it seems. For instance, if I ask you if Ghandi was older or younger than 144 when he died, and then ask you to estimate his age of death, you will clearly see the implausibility of my suggested number, yet you will nonetheless tend to overestimate his age of death as a result. You will have been anchored to some degree by my suggestion.
Similarly, it takes extraordinary effort to avoid the anchor of conventional design interpretation. A car is just a vehicle for self transport, and a chair is just a device for sitting; nowhere within the project constraints is there anything about a combustion engine or a back of a certain height. But while all designers can appreciate the intellectual importance of these ideas, it takes great willpower and determination to ignore these cognitive anchors, and yet this is what designers must do – and what Seung-Yong has done here.