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Flat-Packed Foldable Chair: Innovation From Constraints

I made this task chair with one of my best friends in a product design class, but it's emblematic of a design philosophy I apply to everything I make.

The chair is laser-cut out of a single 1/2" thick piece of oriented strand board, packs flat in a 1" interior box, and unfolds directly from its packed state into a full usable chair. See how we turned the assignment's constraints into inspiration for clever design.

A Philosophy On Design

As far as I can remember, I've always derived innovation from constraints in design.

Like most engineers, I played with a lot of LEGO as a kid (and still now, if we're being honest), and my favorite creations are miniatures. Figuring out how to convey complex, organic shapes at such a small scale pushes me to use pieces creatively, making the resulting object more beautiful than anything I could make at a larger scale.

A series of 3" tall LEGO Birds I made with forms inspired by their miniature scale.

This has now become a philosophy for me with design - whenever I start a new project, I ask myself, how might I allow my constraints to inspire an innovative design?

The Flat-Pack Constraints

For this assignment, we were asked to make a task chair with the following constraints:

  1. Water-jet cut from a single 29" x 47", 1/2" thick Oriented Strand Board (OSB) slab
  2. Shippable within a 1" interior thickness box
  3. Minimum seat height of 16" off the ground
  4. Easily assemble-able by a consumer with hardware or friction fit (no glue)

Guided by this philosophy on constraints, I pushed us to add "minimizing the assembly complexity for the consumer" to the list.

Design, Prototyping & Production

We went through four 1 : 4 scale hardboard prototypes to arrive at our final design - each time asking ourselves, "what critical flaws need to be addressed in our next version?"

Our four 1 : 4 scale laser-cut hardboard prototypes.

We initially opted for the minimum number of parts with no hardware, achieving as low as three interlocking elements. However, we realized this assembly would still be too difficult for people with disabilities, so we pivoted to a pre-assembled, foldable-out-of-the-box chair.

The constraint of cutting it out of a single, limited size board drove us to add a geometric cutout pattern on the back of the chair, as we needed to make a rectangular part cutout not look out of place.

Although we meant to use larger hinges, the final chair was still strong enough to hold a seated person!

Our final design showing the chair unfolding. Also shown: the water-jet cut pattern that created the chair.
A short demo of the expand and collapse of our chair, using a 1:4 scale prototype.