Parametric Style Furniture - The Definitive Guide

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Apart from the technical definition of parametric design, it’s becoming common to refer to a style of sectioned furniture as ‘parametric’. Often times pieces like this, which range from pendant lamps to benches to decorative wall fixtures will have asymmetrical or otherwise uniquely organic shapes. However, ‘parametric design’ at its core describes a way of approaching design, and not necessarily a style of its own. It is a method of using variables, inputs, outputs, and customization to create highly unique designs. These range across a variety of industries, from engineering, to jewelry, to graphic design, and countless others.

To really understand this way of designing, think about the difference between soft clay, and hardened baked pottery. One of them is soft and malleable; it can still be changed and reshaped an infinite number of different ways. If the modeler wants a specific change made, they have complete freedom to add their change into it. On the other hand, once baked, the model is rigid and unchanging. It’s a final product, more or less. Unsurprisingly, parametric software such as Grasshopper actually uses the term “bake” to allow designers to finalize models made in their parametric definition, or algorithm.

 A parametric script, or ‘definition’ - using a plugin called Grasshopper for CAD modeling software Rhinoceros. Other examples include Dynamo & Nodebox. Many popular CAD sofware systems have built-in parametric tools, such as Solidworks, Maya, Inventor, & others

A parametric script, or ‘definition’ - using a plugin called Grasshopper for CAD modeling software Rhinoceros. Other examples include Dynamo & Nodebox. Many popular CAD sofware systems have built-in parametric tools, such as Solidworks, Maya, Inventor, & others

 An example output of a parametric definition; this wall fixture was produced by manipulating a flat surface using the code to the left, creating a rippling, wave-like pattern

An example output of a parametric definition; this wall fixture was produced by manipulating a flat surface using the code to the left, creating a rippling, wave-like pattern

So why design this way? Of the many advantages, the two biggest may be speed and simplicity. Once a parametric algorithm or ‘definition’ is created, 90 to 95 percent of the modeling work is immediately done - not just for one design but for every design you do from there on forward. If a ring maker is designing a ring, but needs that same model in every size that human fingers come in, they don’t need to make 13 different versions. Instead, they can make one version, with an input ‘parameter’ that controls diameter - and just like that, they’re done.

A number of companies use parametric design in innovative ways. Some have even created platforms for anyone to use on their computer or phone for themselves. N.E.R.V.O.U.S. System is a company specializing in parametric jewelry and home decor, and by using their ring-creation tool, anyone can design an organic, futuristic bracelet - and then buy it - in less than five minutes.

 N.E.R.V.O.U.S. System’s Parametric Ring-Maker tool allows for incredibly futuristic & organic designs at the touch of the button

N.E.R.V.O.U.S. System’s Parametric Ring-Maker tool allows for incredibly futuristic & organic designs at the touch of the button

 The parametric music box - an open-sourced tool allowing anyone to choose their favorite song, and have a 3D printer make a music box to play it

The parametric music box - an open-sourced tool allowing anyone to choose their favorite song, and have a 3D printer make a music box to play it

 Activarmor - a company that makes casts that custom fit each and every patient exclusively and individually - by scanning the patient’s arm, and 3D printing a lattice structure to envelope it

Activarmor - a company that makes casts that custom fit each and every patient exclusively and individually - by scanning the patient’s arm, and 3D printing a lattice structure to envelope it

Parametric Furniture

When people refer to ‘parametric furniture’, oftentimes they are mistaking the style of the furniture with the process used to make it. Since many new furniture pieces, lamps, and architectural fixtures (such as the rippling wall fixture seen above) depend on the use of parametric design to create them, this new style has begun to almost create a second definition for the word ‘parametric’ itself. What, then, constitutes a ‘parametric’ style of furniture? There are several elements that tend to be common throughout most designs in this new category.

1. Organic
Nature-born. The most efficient and beautiful designs throughout the world all come from growing things. Honeycombs in beehives. The strength and simplicity of molecular bonds. The stalk of bamboo wood (which inspired Taiwan’s Taipei 101 - the tallest building in the world at the time it was finished). Many artists, architects, and designers who use parametric tools love to take inspiration from shapes and patterns found in nature because these ancient designs have stood the ultimate test of time - and survived.

 Aragonite Lamp - a lamp inspired by centrally-located starting points of Aragonite crystal growth.

Aragonite Lamp - a lamp inspired by centrally-located starting points of Aragonite crystal growth.

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2. Sectioned Pieces
Many designers who work in the parametric style are constantly looking for practical, dependable ways of bringing abstract shapes into reality. One of the most attractive qualities of parametric-style works is their innate ability to capture shapes that people aren’t used to seeing. Maybe this is a bench designed to look like a shark, or a wall panel that ripples like an ocean’s surface. While not imperative to the parametric style, the most common solution to fabricating these polymorphic shapes is to use sectioned pieces of wood, acrylic, or other materials. To create these, designers often take advantage of two related tools - the laser cutter, and CNC router.

3. Created by 3D Printers
As a popular alternative to a ‘sectioned’ look, sometimes a 3D printer is enough to bring a product to life. Many designers within the spheres of parametric works have successfully brought pendant lamps and other pieces to the market using nothing more than a 3D printer and a few light bulbs. Designing like this can have its challenges, however. As compared to processes involving injection molding, 3D printing can be incredibly costly and time consuming. Any object over 12 inches cubed is almost guaranteed to take at least 8 hours to finish printing, and the raw materials used in these machines can sometimes require very costly selling prices. On the other hand, 3D printed designs can open the door to a variety of complex shapes that simply couldn’t be manufactured any other way, which for many people helps to justify the higher prices these designs can cost. 3D printing has also opened the door to hundreds of new parametric designers having the ability to sell directly to market with new ideas, instead of having to wait weeks or months to get $10,000 injection molds made as designers in past decades have always done. Incredible sites such as Shapeways.com have created a seller’s platform for artists to bring their creations to buyers in an instant, often without any startup costs to speak of.

  Clothoid.B Lamp - by Alienology Design on Shapeways

Clothoid.B Lamp - by Alienology Design on Shapeways

 The Corona Chandelier - created parametrically using codes to replicate colliding gravitational fields

The Corona Chandelier - created parametrically using codes to replicate colliding gravitational fields

4. Geometrically Abstract
Many designs created parametrically imitate nature. However, many others defy any and all expectations entirely. Living in the digitally augmented age of the present day, the worlds of abstract mathematics and furniture begin to mold, fuse, and sometimes crash into each other in remarkable ways. Reality distorting patterns and shapes that could not be created before are not only possible now, but easy.

With such previously-invulnerable barriers to entry being torn down every day, we truly don’t know what the designs of our future will look like. Unlike patterns found in nature, we can’t yet know what will pass, and what will stand the test of time in the realm of pure, untethered geometric creation.

Nick ODonnell