Even though the design of our CNC-bent steel tube trestle, of which more than 500 units were eventually produced, meets the initial briefing that basically asked for a “sturdy and stackable” table trestle, it would be inaccurate to consider it a direct answer to these rudimentary requirements. Over the course of the project new requirements and challenges emerged as a result of design rather than design providing immediate answers to preconceived conditions.
For example, the requirement to provide the greatest possible legroom under the table arose during a presentation of a prototype that took up exactly this room. The same prototype also made apparent that the conversational dynamics in teaching situations often require that two persons are able to sit and talk across a corner of a table. Requirements and constraints evolved along the evolving artefact (cf. Jonas, 2007, p.195), and so did our own ambitions as designers.
We wanted our piece of furniture to not only enable its users to build a table, but to inspire the creation of further spatial arrangements. Instead of dictating concrete possibilities of use, our table trestle should trigger its own appropriation and reinterpretation, what can be considered an inescapable reality of design anyway, as “[t]ools are born as challenges to existing concepts of utility” (Colomina & Wigley, 2016, p.52). In order to provoke this, we deliberately designed it in such a way that it does not clearly communicate what it should be used for.
Its ambiguity (cf. Gaver et al., 2003) makes it flexible and adaptable. The thought of a semi-finished product, that is provoking its own appropriation for purposes that are still to be discovered by its users, became a leading principle in all further design decisions. Although the targeted budget of 50 euros per unit was probably the most significant constraint, most decisions cannot be explained in a linear fashion or based exclusively on one single criterion (Komar, 2008, p.54), but are the result of weighing up a wide range of aspects.
The tube diameter, for instance, was already narrowed down due to the required stability of the trestle, but the decision to use an exactly 32 mm thick tube was also based on the fact that there are standardised electrical installation pipes of the same diameter available in every DIY store. These plastic pipes come with a large number of fastening solutions, like clamps, connectors and other add-ons, which can be utilised for our table trestle as well. Our artefact would thus literally be ‘connected’ to a whole range of already existing artefacts.
As it became clear that the company L&C Stendal, which already produced the original furniture for the Bauhaus Dessau, would be commissioned to produce the table trestles, the dimensions also had to be compatible with the moulding tools and manufacturing capabilities of this project partner. In addition, the diameter of 32 mm proved to be comfortable to hold in the hand which potentially enhances the portability of the object.
The hot-dip galvanised surface of the steel tube is a direct reference to the facade of the new building, which is clad with hot-dip galvanised steel panels. As a purely formal reference, this would certainly be a rather superficial argument, but in the course of the project this argument proved to be quite convincing, as the demand for memorability and iconicity of the product was thereby satisfied. […] As it is a surface coating that is commonly used outdoors for reasons of corrosion protection, there is no need to be overly careful with the object and it can be turned on its side without fear of damaging its surface. Thus, the choice of this particular surface coating potentially increases the appropriation of the object.
As a research assistant at the Folkwang University of the Arts, I have not only seen the trestles move into the new building (and some of them already mysteriously move out again), but I have now had the opportunity for more than three years to observe if the daily use of the table trestles meets our previous speculations about it. This gave me some valuable insights on how the product is actually used and adapted.
It is a rather rare occasion that a product designer is able to make this kind of close-up and long-term observation as the use of one’s products often happens in an unattainable private context. Seeing the consequences of my design work can be both a blessing and a curse, but is above all a great opportunity for design research. A main observation is that hardly any table trestle is still in the spot where it was originally placed as they are constantly being moved through the building.
It is as if the table trestles became a ‘common good’ for all the students, teachers and staff of the university, who collectively reconfigure and redefine their working environment by appropriating an undefined object.
This object is, of course, often used as table trestle or exhibition furniture, but apart from this core application one also finds it being used in plenty of other ways “created out of necessity, convenience and play” (Brandes & Erlhoff, 2006), which could be described as ‘Non-Intentional Design’.
Albeit it was not foreseeable it was certainly intended that our table trestle would be used as a barrier, to create a ping-pong table or a football goal.
Brandes, U., & Erlhoff, M. (2006). Non Intentional Design. Daab.
Colomina, B., & Wigley, M. (2016). are we human? Notes on an archaeology of design. Istanbul Tasarım Bienali, Zürich, Switzerland. Lars Müller Publishers.
Gaver, W. W., Beaver, J., & Benford, S. (2003). Ambiguity as a Resource for Design. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 233–240. https://doi.org/10.1145/642611.642653
Jonas, W. (2007). Design Research and its Meaning to the Methodological Development of a Discipline. In Design Research Now: Essays and Selected Projects (p.254). Birkhäuser.
Komar, R. (2008). Grünes Bauhaus: Wir brauchen völlig neue Formen; Dokumente eines Diskurses. Deutscher Buchverlag.
The text above is an excerpt from the paper ‘Designing Beyond the Common Good – an Evolutionary Process between Speculation and Reality’ written by Dustin Jessen and Simon Meienberg in 2021. Read the full paper here.
© Dustin Jessen 2023