Hands On — Router Aesthetics

Craft & Design
Digital carpentry: Unearthly elegance straight from the bargain basement. A park bench created by Dharmesh Patel and Marty McElveen.

The “blobject” was the design darling of the 1990s. Blob-shaped objects pushed the limits of what was technically possible: they married the fluidity of the new computer design to the amorphous qualities of high-performance plastic.

So everything from cellphones to major museums ached to be bulgy, bouncy, ripply, and radically curvilinear. The true joy of blobjects is that they’re ergonomic — people are blobjects too, so when our intimate possessions become more forgiving and finger-friendly, we feel more at ease with them.

The 1990s loved blobjects in much the way that the 1930s loved streamlining: for many good and sensible reasons and some silly ones. There was always something a little uneasy-making about streamlined coffins and pencil sharpeners, and blobjects have limits, too. Not everything can aspire to the complex, luscious, plastic curves of a half-sucked popsicle.

At a glance, there’s no way to tell if plastic will outperform cast iron or crumble like paraffin. It’s hard to fully trust a swoopy Vernor Panton plastic chair: it looks like it ought to snap violently under your weight and sever your legs at the knees.

So how do you get the huge advantages of computer-aided design and machining without a big, expensive cauldron full of treacherous, colored goo? You could try a fabricator — also known as a 3D printer, stereolithographer, rapid prototyper, or rapid manufacturer. But, these futuristic gizmos aren’t quite ready for the consumer prime time.

That leaves the humble router. The router doesn’t spit goo like a plastics shop or layer stuff up like a fab; cheap and simple routers are the humblest of computer-controlled shop tools, basically just a spinning, toothy bit on metal tracks.

A router can dip up and down through the thickness of a sheet of plywood, and also roam from side to side across that board, slicing complex curves like a print head traveling across a sheet of paper.

The upshot of an afternoon’s work with the router is a pile of crumbled router dust and a mess of complex 2D shapes, much like animal crackers. It remains to turn these shapes into something elegant and useful.

The Truss Collection is a commercially available set of chairs, benches, desks, and tables that all speak eloquently of their inherent routerliness. They were created by Scott Klinker of the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Like the other artists-in-residence at the Cranbrook Academy, Klinker works as he teaches. He and some Cranbrook students are determined to make the router speak its own design language. You might put it this way: now that “digital carpentry” has come to exist, how do you make it authentic? A routered thing shouldn’t be a mere downmarket knockoff of some earlier method of carpentry. A router is a new thing in the world, so a clever designer should master it and use it expressively.

According to Klinker, there are three known methods of construction where the humble router naturally shines.

The first and simplest method is the “stack of sections.” You take the routered pieces and pile ’em up like a towering stack of pancakes. Of course, these flat pieces have to be glued, locked, nailed, or screwed in order to stick together, but this digital aesthetic can be striking. Instead of the sinuous, slimy, whiplash-line of a plastic blobject, stacked router sections convey a rugged, pixelly, computer-primitives look. They seem uniquely suitable for, say, the 8-bit penthouse pad of a playboy Super Mario.

Router technique two is the rather more sophisticated “graphic profiles.” Rather than being piled and glued into a solid layered monolith, the flat routered pieces are turned on end and slotted together.

It’s easy to cut jigsaw tabs and slots with routers, and this “graphic profile” treatment turns a router’s stark cookie-cutterosity into a digital-aesthetic badge of pride. Tabbed and slotted structures of this kind have a Nipponese Superflat look, very angular and planar, perfect for the inhabitants of a pop-up book.

Then comes the last and most eye-boggling technique, the “fin model,” aka the “grid of sections.” This is a native router construction, that is pretty much nothing but slots and tabs: it transforms 2D into 3D by creating a reticulated honeycomb of intersecting wooden slices. The resulting constructions look finny and skeletal, like vector-graphic simulations deprived of their skin.

One Cranbrook pièce de résistance was created by recent graduates Dharmesh Patel and Marty McElveen. Their weird green park bench bulges out of the Michigan forest soil like a cross between a half-deflated toadstool and an overstretched tennis net. Like the famous Wassily chair of Marcel Breuer, it’s one of those far-fetched design fancies that turn out to be surprisingly comfortable.

A Wassily chair is a metal-and-leather designer skeleton that will cost you an arm and a leg. But a skeletal routered bench is a combo of software and plywood, two of the cheapest things in the modern world. It’s cheap enough to abandon on the spot.

So, along with its aesthetic virtues, Patel and McElveen’s bench is a futuristic advent that’s also biodegradable. It’s already sprouting spring weeds through its thousand open crevices, and melting slowly into the damp forest earth.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!
Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling is a science fiction writer and part-time design professor.

View more articles by Bruce Sterling
Maker Faire Bay Area 2023 - Mare Island, CA

Escape to an island of imagination + innovation as Maker Faire Bay Area returns for its 15th iteration!

Buy Tickets today! SAVE 15% and lock-in your preferred date(s).