Jan Waterston pushes the physical limits of wood with his ‘Velo’ chair

Nominated for the 2016 Wood Awards, the ‘Velo Chair’ by Jan Waterston is a response to modern bicycle design with its components seamlessly wrapping around the user, constantly changing form for comfort and then blending
into the next component, leaving the user feeling at one with the chair. When designers are thinking about creating furniture pieces
or other objects, they often look around them for inspiration, and they never know when something will truly inspire them to make a design. In the case of the Velo Chair, British designer Jan Waterston’s inspiration came from cycling. And the end result is a dynamic piece of furniture inspired by the shape of modern bicycles.

“Having been a fan of modern bicycle design, carbon road bikes to be more concise, I was interested in how these could inspire a 
design. Carbon road bike design
is interesting to me as the tubes 
of the bikes seamlessly flow into each other, uninterrupted by lugs or welds. On closer inspection of these joints there are many soft details, spines or ridges if you like, that filter out from the joint changing the shapes of the tubes from oval to round to almost rectangular 
in some cases. These forms are born out of function increasing strength in high stress areas, I felt these forms could inspire joints in furniture design, aesthetically but functionally also,” says Jan Waterston.

Waterston believes the bicycle to be an amazing object as when you use it you become part of it, you complete the object. This relationship to the bicycle is a seamless one and when cycling, one gets feedback from the road. The chair is also an object which the user completes; an object in which we get inside. Waterston wanted to design a chair that reflected the relationship a cyclist has to their bicycle. A chair where the components wrapped around the user so they felt part of the chair, with its components changing form for comfort, strength and aesthetic beauty.

Waterston’s chair reflects this inspiration by using a single bent piece of wood to form the entire backrest, testing the material’s physical limits. With each surface being hand sculpted and constantly changing, a real tactile nature lends itself to the design, begging to be explored. Made from Ash, the unique and modern take on bent plywood has unsurprisingly earned Waterston some much-deserved attention, including being one of only a handful of international product designs shortlisted for the 2016 Wood Awards, which recognizes outstanding design and craftsmanship.

The laminated backrest pushes the boundaries of what can be achieved with timber and its seamless junction with other components lock them all together giving strength and making the piece irresistible to touch. According to Waterston, timber is fairly unforgiving in a lot of ways – if you cut it too short, there’s no going back. If you slip with the wrong tool and ruin something, there’s certain mistakes you just can’t cover. But sometimes mistakes lead to more interesting designs though, and you can make them work in your favour.

“Much of the chair was designed at the workbench, as although I had made sketches of the basic form of the chair I didn’t know how capable the material was of achieving 
these forms. The seat and armrest of the chair are all laminated constructional veneers. Laminations are used in the chair as the glue lines create incredibly strong components and the flexibility of the thin veneers allowed me to free form the ergonomic shapes. Free forming the backrest of the chair is particularly difficult as manipulating the timber into the correct ergonomic positions is challenging,” adds Waterston.

Quarter sawn Ash is used for
 the backrest as Ash is naturally very flexible and strong and the straight grain retains strength around the tight curves. The seat
 is crown cut veneer as the wide leaves allow the seat to be built
 up in the least wasteful way. The laminated armrest and seat are joined together and further veneers are laminated onto them locking the backrest in as part of the seat. These veneers are built up so a long tenon can be used joining the legs into the seat. This long tenon means no under frame has to be used, allowing for a more refined design.

The shaping of the components is an attempt to create a real tactile design, in which the junctions between components are seamless as found in carbon bike design. Waterston wanted the user to constantly explore the evolving surfaces as to enhance the feeling of being a part of the chair. This shaping is done by hand with traditional tools and methods. The free formed backrest wraps around the user, housing the body and flexing when committed to. The curved laminated seat is an attempt to push the user to sit right back in the seat where there is the most support for the back and posture is correct. Sitting on the downwards slope of the seat amplifies slouching and places too much pressure on the backrest, making the experience uncomfortable.

“The interaction between body and chair should be a seamless one, so that the user feels as though they and the chair are one. I felt this ideal should be reflected in my design aesthetic. I began researching modern bicycle design as I felt the bicycle is an object which the user can feel a seamless relationship to and subsequently the road. This relationship between body and object is echoed in bicycle design with tubes owing seamlessly into one another, constantly changing shape to improve function and aesthetic,” concludes Waterston.

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