WHEN ARCHITECTS AND DESIGNERS approach a project these days, whether it involves cabinetry or furniture production, technological developments over the past 25 have affected their thinking about design.
The question as to what degree things have changed is an important one to Alain Albert, who studied architecture in the 1980s and later transitioned into industrial design through that decade and into the 1990s. “Although there have been countless innovations in materials, finishes and hardware, there are two innovations that have changed the way I design and also changed the way that consumers consume the product of the wood industry,” says Albert, the owner of Woodoer.com, a digital manufacturing CNC contract services company, and digital columnist for Wood Industry magazine.
These innovations aren’t confined to the wood industry, but their effect has been profound: design software and the internet.
Montreal, Que.-based architect Henri Cleinge agrees design processes have made leaps and bounds since the 1980s when drawings were sent out to make blueprints. “We were taught to design with models and drawings. They are still the best tools for me — tools that have been around for thousands of years. The rest (of technology) doesn’t mean you will design any better, but it certainly affects creativity and productivity I would say.”
Three-dimensional (3D) software applications have helped Albert design and communicate with customers, he says. “They have allowed me to think and draw in 3D in a completely fluid and intuitive way. Software has allowed me to design components and view them or show them to my customers the way we would look at an object or a space in real life. I still use it to this day when I want to explore new design ideas.”
SOFTWARE AND PRODUCTIVITY are big things, so you need to have some of the latest tools, according to Cleinge. “Clients expect now to present your work in a certain way. It doesn’t mean creatively that the tools are going to help you — but you can see the expectation.” Cleinge notes that in architecture you have 3D visualization software, Autocad for 2D drawings, colouring software and now virtual or augmented reality platforms.
“So it’s definitely changing. I don’t know what it will be like in 10 or 15 years.”
But being an early adopter of technology certainly takes a leap faith, according to George Kneider, principal and ceo, Kneider Architects of Toronto, Ont. Going back to the 1980s, his firm invested in three computers and software, but hardly knew how they operated. “When we finally did get to draw the first lines on the computers, we paid over $110,000 for them,” says Kneider. “In the early ’80s I bought a house for $50,000.”
Kneider still likes to create freehand drawings, but adds that his architectural firm is highly automated with software applications like Autocad and Revit that assist in both design and turning around design reviews quickly for clients.
Old fundamentals still apply — But new design tools energize pros and customers alike
For industrial designer Alan Harp, owner of one-man shop Alan Harp Design in Lilburn, Ga., using 3D visualization can be overdone in front of clients. He notes that high-end software can do very photorealistic renderings, but that can be dangerous. A simple 3D representation with a more “cartoon” look for the colours is a safer bet. “What I have learned with my clients that it is better not to give them a photorealistic rendering because it will always look better than the final product. As a friend says, ‘under-promise and over-deliver.’”
For Harp, the evolution of the internet and email meant that for the first time in 2013, he never even spoke with a client until the finished project was delivered. “One of the first big projects I did running my own business was building a ping pong table I designed,” says Harp. “A lady in New York contacted me — I’m in the Atlanta area. I did the entire project over email. I never spoke to her in person or on the phone until I delivered the project to her. That was kind of a weird experience.”
Harp adds that since this project, what was once “weird” is now normal, with most clients just communicating electronically, especially given that “dropping by” the shop just isn’t practical.
ALBERT SEES THE INTERNET as a platform for discovering designs, materials and hardware from around the world, but with a downside. “Everyone has access to all the information in the world at our fingertips,” he says. “There are no trade secrets anymore and people who would bank on keeping their knowledge secret have to find other ways to generate revenue — because their customers can find out how to do it themselves if they want to.”
On the flip side, there is also an opportunity to be exploited. “It is no longer about how good you are at your trade,” says Albert, “but rather how can you help your customer to achieve their goals.”
Harp has a strong social media presence on Facebook and Instagram, using the platforms to document the progress of any given project. Every time he starts a project Harp will create an album on the business side of Facebook. “Then the client can watch a day at a time how their project is coming along. It allows them a sneak peek into the shop to see the steps that I’m going through to make their project.
“Once I got into Facebook I could see that it made a great client relationship tool. And I can have documentation of what I did for later on.” Before starting his own business, Harp worked at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta for 22 years, and helped establish the Advanced Wood Products Laboratory. “That is where I started to learn about CNC technology — back in 2005 when it was still kind of new to the world of furniture design,” says Harp.
“After doing that for several years we started to use CNC. That changed our outlook on how things could be built. I’m not working in tech anymore, but I still have access to CNC design. It certainly changes the mindset about how you can go about designing something.”
Kneider notes that at Ryerson University’s architecture program, students are learning to use technology to communicate detailed shop drawings. “They have actual workshops in the architectural program that is getting them more and more in tune to what is out there in the industry,” says Kneider, “as opposed to trying to teach them something with a T square. I think they are making a lot of progress in that area.”
While Harp understands the benefits of advanced technologies, he also realizes their limitations. His business has a traditional table saw and band saw, but a local friend’s shop provides him access to a CNC machine as needed. “The project I just finished is a simple cabinet so it didn’t need any CNC work. I could have done some automation on it but it really wouldn’t have made sense. It wasn’t worth it for the cost of the machine time.”
HARP BELIEVES THAT CNC TECHNOLOGY “adds complexity in a good way or at least allows me to add complexity.” He uses the example of a fireplace mantel that his shop can produce. “It has a curve to it. It is doable in a traditional way but it’s just easier to let the machine do it.
“Just because of the geometry it just makes sense to use CNC.” It boils down to a matter of making use of appropriate tools for Harp.
“I am sure you have heard the argument that CNC is not real woodworking,” he says. “That is a futile argument. I just think of it as using tools that are appropriate for the job. CNC and related things are appropriate sometimes and not at other times.” The combination of internet, design software and CNC machinery has opened the commercial floodgates in terms of what was available 20 years ago, according to Cleinge. “You are getting all of these products that are a very reasonable cost because manufacturing has changed. So there are a lot more products and a lot more options,” he says.
“You have doors that open with particular hinges that slide and tilt. You have a lot of companies that have pushed the design of high end hardware.”
Technological advancements of the last generation have also been driven by environmental concerns, from recycling shop waste to the paint booth. But for designers, changing shop waste into pellets is outweighed by advances in coatings.
“There are different types of finishes that are available now that weren’t available before,” says Harp. “Specifically water-based coats and stains with less noxious fumes that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Having high-quality, water-based finishes has certainly given me options to think about that I wouldn’t have thought about then.”
Off-gassing from furniture like couches was a factor that, only a few years ago, “maybe nobody brought it up,” says Cleinge. “A lot of these products are toxic in houses. We need to take this into consideration and I have seen an increase in demand for non-toxic alternatives.
“You also have to have the knowledge that what you bring into your home is reflecting who you are. In cabinetry, too, we are getting into a lot of solutions for non-toxic products. You wouldn’t ask me that question about 10 years ago.” He credits knowledge gleaned from conversations with contractors and trades as helping his evolution as a designer.
IN THE END, the consumer — with all the access to social media and the internet for research purposes — can dictate how things will look in her kitchen, living room or bedroom. In the 1980s and 1990s, she had less access to divine design inspiration.
“Back then you had what we call the “Hero Designer,” one person who would dictate the trends and tastes of everybody else around,” says Albert. “Today, this concept has been flipped around where everyone is creative and able to assert their own creativity.”
At his firm, says Kneider, “in the early years when we decided to convert to computers, our guys were really mad at me. They said ‘it’s only a fad and it’s not going to last.’”