An engineering challenge

The Surface Table has earned its makers massive acclaim. This extraordinary table is a truly beautiful articulation of engineering excellence and showmanship and now the Surface language has now been expanded to include a new design.

Page 28 1002 Surface Chair
Page 27 1001 Surface Table

EST: The Surface Table, which was a collaborative design between yourself and John Barnard, is an engineering feat. Where and when did the ambitions for this design begin?
Woodgate:
John Barnard and I met in 2006 during a series of Royal Designer for Industry talks at the RSA. John invited me down to see his composite company and I was very envious of the exotic materials they use in F1 car design. Some days later I explained this to Established & Sons and they suggested that I ask John to collaborate on a furniture project, which I did, and so the collaboration began. We sat down and discussed what we could do. A table seemed an interesting design and engineering challenge where both our talents could be exploited.

EST: Can you tell us, briefly, what the key characteristics of the table are?
Woodgate:
We both wanted it to look elegant and balanced. The idea of taking a normal table with legs at each corner and push it to the limit came about during our various conversations. (Conversations that mostly involved me asking John about his innovative designs for F1 and the people involved in the sport.) The definition of a table is a horizontal supported surface, so we decided to try and make it just that: a surface with no real thickness. The thinness of the table edge was very important, but as was the proportional slim legs. It was the light carbon fibre used for the tabletop that allowed us to arrive at the slimmest legs possible by taking the mass out of the top. If the tabletop was heavy it would produce an unacceptable wobble or rocking on such slim tapered legs. John specified unidirectional carbon fibre for the top skins. This is a material that you never see because it is really only intended to be structural. We both love the look of it though as you can see the billions of fibres of this unique material running the entire length of the table.

EST: What are the skills that both you and John brought to the project? And what was the dynamic like between you?
Woodgate: We are both interested in design and engineering and we realise you can’t have one without the other. We both also appreciate that it is only by experimentation that new and innovative design can be archived. Collaboration has been a lot of fun, we have enjoyed working together and are already working on new projects. I think we appreciate each other’s knowledge and skill base. Certainly John’s knowledge of composite material is second to none.

EST: And what elements of the table represent each of your individual design languages?
Woodgate: In a real collaboration I don’t think you can separate the input. It all happens so intuitively and it flows. Few engineers have the eye that John has; his cars are not just the most successful and innovative but they are also some of the most beautiful racings cars of all time. My point is he understands line and form.

EST: What was the experience of working with such a technically exciting material (carbon fibre) like for you?
Woodgate: It was very exciting. Experimenting with it can also be frightening as it is so expensive to use. It was wonderful to walk in and see the table exhibited in Milan last year as we had been working flat out to get it finished in time that I really only saw it for the first time at the show.

EST: The Surface Table has now evolved into the new Surface Chair. What are the characteristics that these designs share?
Woodgate: What is interesting is that both of these products start life as a roll of two-dimensional fabric and some very skilled people tailor the material to suit the three-dimensional design. The chair is more of a challenge that the table. The idea of taking a normal table and making it as aesthetically light as possible has driven the concept of the chair. To have a very thin edge and yet have the legs at that very thin edge is what they share. The design was strongly influenced by the Eames glass fibre chair designs of the 1950’s and the way they supported the body. In particular the way they look from the back, which is mostly how you see a chair. The chair is very light,both in weight and form and getting the material to work structurally with such small legs is very difficult.

EST: How has your extensive experience as a designer informed this project? And in what way did this project differ from/resemble your regular methods of working?
Woodgate: The one thing I have learnt over is that you need to put in the time to get something right. You cannot simply hope it will turn out OK. You have to care very much about your work and you have to be passionate about it.

EST: What do you get out, personally, of projects like these?
Woodgate: It is always a pleasure to have your work realised and to see the concept resolved as a real product.

Photography by Peter Guenzel

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