“Does the world really need another chair?” This was the question my ME 203: Design and Manufacturing professor asked me after I showed him my list of final project ideas. Every year he said chairs were built in his class and as I would later learn, were sort of obsessed over in the design world. Still, he encouraged me to build a chair but challenged me to build a chair that the world needed.
To better understand what would warrant a new chair’s existence, I created a personal hierarchical set of criteria to determine a chair’s "worthiness to exist”. At the top of the hierarchy was problem solving. If the chair solved a problem or fulfilled a need that existing chairs don’t solve, this would justify its existence.
Secondly, just like fashion, design trends change over time. Good design isn’t limited to just function but also aesthetics and form. If a chair’s aesthetic is meaningfully differentiated, this would also justify its existence.
With this framework in mind, I began by taking a closer look at my own world. I was designing for myself as the user so I focused on problem finding in my own life. I was a college student living in a dorm room — space was by far my biggest constraint and as a result, I didn’t possess many things.
Having friends over in my room was always a challenge because seating options were limited. The school only provides one chair and the bed is lofted high to provide space underneath for cabinets. Guests tended to just stand, uncomfortably shifting their feet, or sit on the floor which made me feel awkward as I sat above them on the only available chair. To solve this, I purchased an additional chair but quickly found that it takes up quite a bit of room and is only used when I’m hosting guests. Inevitably, this chair turns into makeshift storage, becoming piled with books and clothes.
Here, a problem began to form. Having friends over is awkward because seating options are limited. Existing seating options don’t perform secondary functions when not in use, making them poor objects to own as a student living in a small dorm room.
College students living in cramped dorms need space efficient seating that can perform secondary functions when not being used. Chair Shelf attempts to fulfill this need by redesigning the structure of a chair to utilize the space underneath as storage.
Product Design, CAD, Manufacturing
Concepting, Design & Manufacturing
April – June 2015
I began my design process by looking at existing chairs and shelves. A quick google search of “storage chair” served a host of images.
The results ranged from silly and impractical to surprisingly ingenious and useful. While these chairs certainly fulfilled the functional purpose of being a storage chair, their forms were dominated by their function of storage in a way that wasn’t elegant nor practical for small spaces.
Despite being a storage chair, I wanted my chair’s form to fit in smaller spaces and look just as elegant as a non-storage chair. To get aesthetic inspiration, I googled “well designed chairs”. As expected, chairs from iconic designers like Charles and Ray Eames and Arne Jacobsen dominated the results. As I scrolled further however, there were a host of chairs I didn’t recognize whose forms really struck me as having potential to provide storage while still achieving a level of elegance I wanted my chair to aspire towards. Most of these chairs had simple, geometric forms with frames that opened up the space underneath the seat of the chair. The side profiles of these chairs were especially striking and visually captivating to me.
To get an idea of how I would incorporate a storage option within my chair, I also took a look at shelves and storage furniture. I was immediately drawn to designs that featured open, visible storage. As millennials, we prefer experiences over things. The objects we do possess, we take pride in owning. I wanted my chair to provide visible storage as a way for users to personalize and integrate the chair into their space.
After gathering inspirations, I began sketching different ideas. I arrived at a specific form that turned the base of the chair into a shelf for books. Similar to the chairs I discovered during the exploration phase, the side profile of the chair had a distinct form made with simple lines and edges.
After I settled on a general shape in my sketches, I began prototyping. In order to get a feel for dimensions, I made my first prototype out of MDF and used a nail gun to fasten the seat and storage shelf to the seat back.
In this first prototype, the seat height was a little high for my height and felt uncomfortable to sit on since there was no slant in the seat or seat back.
To get a feel for what dimensions would be more comfortable, I went to the Design Within Reach store near campus and sat in and measured dozens of chairs to get a feel for what dimensions felt best for my body.
I went back to sketches and began incorporating the values I found. I created my second prototype out of 2” x 2” baluster lumber for the frame and plywood for the seat, seat back, and storage compartment. I lowered the seat height from 18” to a little over 16” and added a 6° slant to the seat and a 4° angle to the seat back which improved comfort significantly.
Once I was pleased with these values, I finalized my design in a CAD mockup, made with Solid Works.
After gathering inspirations, I began sketching different ideas. I arrived at a specific form that turned the base of the chair into a shelf for books. Similar to the chairs I discovered during the exploration phase, the side profile of the chair had a distinct form made with simple lines and edges.We were given two specific constraints for our final project — at least one of our primary materials had to be metal and subsequently, one of our primary manufacturing processes had to involve lathing, milling, sand casting, or welding.
There are two parts to my chair — the frame and the seat/storage components. From my early explorations, I knew I wanted to incorporate wood elements into the seating elements of my chair to give it a softer feel and a warmer aesthetic. Exploring the pros and cons of hardwoods and softwoods, I ultimately landed on maple wood. Since I was making this chair by hand, I knew it was an object I would treasure for years and I wanted a wood that would last and age well.
To improve the structural integrity of the chair, I made the frame out of steel tubing. I used a cold saw to cut the steel tubing stock into precise lengths and angles.
Using a MIG welder, I then butt welded the pieces together to build each side of the frame. Once I had two identical frames, I welded them together with a steel cross bar, using a fillet “T” weld.
After the complete frame was welded together, I sanded down the welds and milled holes for the screws that I would later use to fasten the frame to the wood. To finish the frame, I had the steel anodized in Silver, 30% gloss.
For the wood components, I cut the maple beams to length and used epoxy to form larger pieces for the seat, seat back, and storage compartments. I finished my maple wood with linseed oil to give it a golden, satin hue.
Once the maple wood finished drying, all that was left was assembling the parts together with self tapping screws.
At the beginning of this project, I laid out a hierarchy for justifying a new chair’s existence. I focused on problem solving: I personally needed a space efficient seating option for my small dorm room that would allow a guest to have a place to sit but would still provide secondary functionality when guests were not present.
Chair Shelf successfully solved this problem — friends now had a place to sit and when friends weren’t over, the bottom of the chair was used to store my book collection. From an aesthetic standpoint, Chair Shelf was also a success. I acheived my personal aesthetic goals and received praise from many of my peers and instructors on its form and integration of wood.
One tradeoff I made with the chair was with its mobility. When objects are stored at the bottom of the chair, it becomes heavy and difficult to move around. During the design phase, I had considered a version with wheels at the back of the chair to solve this but ultimately steered away from this direction for aesthetic reasons. This means that in practice, the chair has to be placed in a location where social interactions are fluid and the storage is still easily accessible because once placed, it becomes cumbersome to move. I’m not sure if there is an elegant design solution to this limitation since storage furniture like bookshelves and wardrobes are inherently stationary. While finding an optimal location to place Chair Shelf isn't too difficult, it does make it a more challenging product to own, likely limiting its ability to become an appealing mass market product.
If you’re looking to build your own Chair Shelf, shoot me an email and I’d be happy to send over CAD files and a complete bill of materials needed to construct one.
Chair Shelf received an A in ME 203. Special thanks to Professor David Beach and TA David Bordow.