Simple and smart design catches the eye upon entering the Foyer of UP Fine Arts Gallery. Designer and UP professor Tito de la Peña converted the small space into intimate study and recess areas as he unveiled his array of flat-pack furniture prototypes. The furniture prototypes offer practical solutions for people in need of affordable and ready-to-assemble products.
The industrial designer puts the emphasis on functionality without underplaying quality. The flat and wide furniture are presented in sets with each piece effectively demonstrating its purpose.
“By exploring the use of the flat-pack model as a key design method, designers can innovate conventional furniture into ready-to-assemble designs that cost less and are more space-efficient. These can be customized and made sturdier for everyday use,” shared de la Peña.
Tito de la Peña graduated cum laude with Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Industrial Design from UP in 2005 and earned his master’s degree in Industrial Design from the National Yunlin University of Science and Technology in Taiwan. For his first exhibit, he chose to prototype flat-pack furniture, the designs of which can be further developed to use locally sourced materials to make them resilient, pro-poor, and eco-friendly even for the tiniest of interior spaces.
Production and machinery
The entire production process took de la Peña about six weeks, from embodiment to assembly and testing. Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) machine was used to mill 8 ft. X 4 ft. X .5 in (2.44 m X 1.22 m X 12 mm) sheets of medium density fiberboard (MDF). These are then seamlessly joined and retrofitted to become sturdy desks, chairs, bench, and stools. According to de la Peña, the most labor-intensive part was the finishing stage wherein the designer would prepare, seal, and sand the wood pieces.
Laser CNC and other similar machines cost hundreds of thousands in pesos. Only a few shops and laboratories in Metro Manila offer CNC services at a cheap cost in spite of its popularity. Located in UP Diliman’s College of Fine Arts is the newly built Fabrication Laboratory, fondly called “fab lab,” housing state-of-the-art equipment such as 3D printer and scanner, CNC machine, and more.
The CFA fab lab is under the Shared Service Facilities (SSF) Project of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). It was built through the leadership of another industrial designer, CFA Dean Leonardo “Doi” Rosete and made possible with funding from the government agency. DTI data show there are 10 fab labs in the Philippines amounting to a total project cost of P88.15 million as of November 2016. Interested students and artists may inquire with the host institution to avail of the fab lab’s services.
Initially envisioned as the vertebrae of revolutionizing ideas for emerging entrepreneurs, hundreds of fab labs have grown in more than 40 countries as platform for learning, developing, and sharing projects. Fab labs are capable of digitally fabricating almost anything. They also provide educational and technical foundation to scientists, artists, educators, students and researchers. The design materials can be made widely accessible through a global network because all fab labs share common tools and processes. At its core are the design principles essential for collaboratively responding to the needs of communities.
“Through digital design development and production, designs can now be implemented more quickly and at significantly less cost, providing people and their communities with more economical options,” said de la Peña, who is also the project coordinator of CFA fab lab.
In recent years, there has been a surge in support and advocacy for community resilience, socialized housing and furnishings. Application of various tools has improved the designs of a wide range of strategic approach to strengthen communities most affected by natural hazards and poverty. These innovations include flat-pack furniture, which is designed and fabricated in flat parts and is typically easy to assemble. Being easily transportable, the products can be efficiently deployed to communities in disaster-affected areas and offsite places recovering after a disastrous calamity.
Though de la Peña’s flat-pack, self-assembly furniture serve as a breath of fresh air, they also call forth that community resiliency is too enormous of a responsibility for a designer alone. It requires political will at the national level and grassroots empowerment. Mainstreaming community resiliency and disaster preparedness remains a challenge, particularly in indigent communities. Millions of lives continue to be at risk because poverty and disaster-related crises are left unaddressed, while rehabilitation efforts lack adequate forward and backward linkages.
Reorienting technology to people’s needs
The increasing popularity of fab labs is viewed as a strategic boost to the creative industry, particularly the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Fab labs are funded through corporate grants or through government projects. The danger in these types of arrangement is that a project may easily be terminated when a donor decides to cut or eliminate funding, or when a government project reaches its end duration (think Project NOAH). A more concrete and sustainable solution is to allot greater state subsidies to national universities and state colleges. Community-based, non-profit fab labs and research spaces can be institutionalized in learning centers while cultivating a nationalist, scientific and mass-oriented education.
Community-based, non-profit fab labs can help the Philippines and other countries prone to landslides, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, typhoons, floods, droughts and other calamities to better respond to disasters. The philosophy and technology behind fab labs takes advantage of open source programs, removing technological barriers, eliminating discrimination and democratizing access to replicable designs. In non-catastrophic instances, fab labs can be used as resource for communities to develop products and tools that promote and strengthen local capacity in order to combat poverty.
Academic institutions on the other hand play a vital role in disseminating and propagating a culture of awareness and preparedness through community education, research, policy proposal, and product innovation. The CFA fab lab and the University of the Philippines must embrace the tradition of nurturing ventures in sciences and the arts that benefit the marginalized and improve the quality of human life.
Reorienting computer-aided manufacturing to transform designs into simple, smart, and sustainable products fosters a more inclusive system. Digital fabrication shows that scientists, engineers and designers while solving problems, are also building linkages to the communities. With de la Peña’s flat to functional work, the public is subtly acquainted with the science, functionality and artistry in industrial design for the people as well as the challenges in achieving a systemic change in design education. The kind that could also reach and be functional on the countryside.
Flat to Functional: An exhibition of flat-pack, self-assembly furniture by Tito de la Peña is open to the public on March 10-31, 2017 at the Foyer of UP Fine Arts Gallery, Bartlett Hall, E. Jacinto St., UP Diliman.