The Modern Revival of Steam Bending Wood

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By Nikki Janda / Published by Nikki Janda
The process of steam bending wood has been around since the early 1900’s. Heating wood strips to temperature while bending to conformity was a necessity in making furniture, boats, ships and musical instruments. Over time the designs may have changed, but the art of the process has not.

When I think about the Medium of (wood) furniture, I think about texture, forms drawn from materials, and purpose of space. Honestly, I do not give enough thought to process behind form. 

The science of steam bending is similar to breathing life back into something that has been disconnected from its life source. Think about a twig or branch, freshly torn from the torso of a bush or tree. It is easily bendable from being fed moisture through the root. As time passes, the severed twig or branch loses its flexibility and snaps from dryness. Steam bending temporarily restores moisture and flexibility back into the wood, and allows bending of the wood to its desired shape.  All wood cells contain lignin, a self produced substance that sustains the wood’s strength. With non-pressured steam set at a certain temperature, and certain origins of wood, the lignin softens, causing plasticity of the wood. Of course, since not all wood is created equally, certain types of air-dried wood plasticize well with steaming, such as Oak, Ash, Beech Hickory and Walnut. 

The Modern Revival of Steam Bending Wood - Photo 1 of 7 - steam box / chamber

steam box / chamber

Once the wood is removed from the steam chamber, the maker has seconds to minutes to bend the wood strip to the desired shape before it hardens again. The shape is set, clamped and supported with metal to keep the wood from buckling, and set for up to 8 hours, depending on the thickness of the strip.

The Modern Revival of Steam Bending Wood - Photo 2 of 7 - Bending and clamping

Bending and clamping

The history of steam bending dates back to Michael Thonet ("Thonet"), a furniture maker who, in the 1840’s, started steam bending wood.  As most designers have that one design that brings them notoriety, the "Chair No. 14" or also called the Bentwood Chair, is what did it for Thonet.

The Modern Revival of Steam Bending Wood - Photo 3 of 7 - Thonet Chair No. 14 

Thonet Chair No. 14 

Made from Beech wood, the chair’s significance is the almost backless loop design functioned to still fully support. It is said to be the "chair of chairs", and correctly so. To this day you can find the Michael Thonet chair design in almost every high-end modern furniture gallery, restaurants, and museums. One can see the Bentwood chair design variations incorporated into modern American and Scandinavian furniture designs. 

The Modern Revival of Steam Bending Wood - Photo 4 of 7 - Thonet Chairs

Thonet Chairs

Modern furniture designers make no exceptions when applying steam bending to their designs, and their commitment to process is clearly reflected in their furniture designs. New York based artist, Matthias Pliessnig ("Pliessnig"), takes this process and creates these amazing sleek pieces of functional art. the way Pliessnig uses steam bending in designing his furniture sets the tone for contemporary modern design. The aesthetic of his furniture physically reflects the very process he invokes to create them.  

The Modern Revival of Steam Bending Wood - Photo 5 of 7 -

With his studio based in Cornwall, England, Tom Raffield’s designs reflect the life he lives. His contemporary furniture and lighting designs are simple, strong and honest. There is a purity in his work that will keep you engaged, as he is mindful of his responsibility of using local timber and reducing waste. 


The Modern Revival of Steam Bending Wood - Photo 6 of 7 - The Butterfly Pendant

The Butterfly Pendant


The Modern Revival of Steam Bending Wood - Photo 7 of 7 - The Butterfly Pendant and Arbor Chair

The Butterfly Pendant and Arbor Chair

As we celebrate designers and modern design, we also celebrate the old processes that induce quality into the finished product. Process, it is a designer’s journey.  It is a designer’s story.

Story by: Nikki Janda

HeadShot by: somamagazine.com

#Process #WoodBending #Wood #SteamBending #Design #Furniture #Modern #Thonet #TomRaffield #MatthiasPliessnig #TheNikBit

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