Parametric design system for customising furniture

Kobble table and bench. Photo © Kobble. Used with permission.

Visit Kobble’s online store, and you can alter the size of any of their furniture pieces – within reasonable bounds – right there in a web browser, before purchase.

Kobble currently operates in one location, but the intention is to move towards a more distributed manufacturing process. As Kobble founder Kieran Zausmer says, “the idea is to make a reproducible model here and duplicate facilities in strategic locations”.

As with any small-scale manufacturing process, Kobble furniture can be made in smaller local factories than mass-produced furniture, but there is nothing inherently redistributive in the process alone – it could also be adopted within a centralised system. However, Zausmer believes the model offers significant advantages even for larger players such as Ikea:

One of Ikea’s great efficiencies is consumer pull. Customers come to their distribution warehouses, no shops or showrooms hold stock, and logistics are incredibly efficient. … Kobble is looking to take this to an even more efficient level. Customers essentially come to the factory. Like Ikea, no shops are stocked, but even further than this, if demand isn’t present for a product then it is simply never made. No capital is tied up in finished goods. By only stocking versatile raw materials, the risk is very low. Given Ikea’s current infrastructure network of warehouses, I think onsite manufacture could be very attractive.

How is it redistributive?

Kobble demonstrates how parametric design can allow customers to personalise products before manufacture. It provides a digital interface allowing non-experts to adjust simple design variations, such as the width of a table. The system integrates digital interfaces for customisation (the e-commerce website) with digital tools for design and fabrication (allowing for shapes in a design file to be changed in response to the customers demand, and then to be cut on a digital CNC mill).

This simple customisation options allow furniture to be sized for specific spaces, or uses. While it doesn’t offer dramatic flexibility, or deeply involve the customer in the design process, this system does show customisation can work within a digital design and manufacturing process.

What are the barriers to mainstream success?

  • Digital tools for design and fabrication offer new opportunities for customisation. Designs can be more fluid, constrained only by the physical properties of the materials and tools used. However, in many markets (including furniture), large-scale manufacturers already offer some level of customisation of size and finish, at lower prices. Can customisation be extended to allow for more radical participation of customers in the design process, or in new product categories or at lower prices?

Related projects

  • OpenDesk: furniture sold and customised through a digital platform, and then fabricated on-demand by a local maker with digital tools
  • Unmade: a simple customer-facing interface to allow customisation – in this case of knitted garments – within limited boundaries.
  • Pattern Web: taking the idea of parametric design to a systemic level. How can complex objects or systems of objects be designed with parametric tools, incorporating expertise about what will work and within the limits of variability?

How to exhibit

A series of Kobble furniture pieces at different dimensions.

Further Reading

Kobble website