Produce Workshop “stitches” plywood for Herman Miller shop-in-shop

August 30, 2018



Angel Yulo

It’s hard to resist lingering at XTRA in Marina Square, Singapore. A billowing wood quilt embracing the space by the entrance of the new flagship store is too intriguing—as millennials would say most aptly: too “extra”—that one cannot just walk by. The structure was designed by Produce Workshop for Herman Miller’s shop-in-shop.

Is it a cloud? A cave? Pan Yicheng, Produce’s Chief Creative Director named it “Fabricwood.” This is the second time Pan has collaborated with XTRA for a showroom space. The brief given to him was to give Herman Miller a flagship presence and to retain the spirit of their 2012 project, but using less pieces.

The first version of the shop-in-shop also used a lightweight plywood shell structure. However, that was composed of 4,000 interlocking panels on a triangular grid forming a woven double-layered envelope. The current version makes use of only 280 parts to cover a 20-by-7-meter area, more than twice the size of the first showroom.

“Soft” is hardly ever used to describe plywood, but Produce set out to combine the diverging ideas. In an exploration of three months, the same amount of time it took for their clients to scout for a retail space, Pan and his team played with plywood. Playing has always been a cornerstone of the studio’s design process. They reviewed Herman Miller’s product archive and found inspiration in the company’s structural and material innovation—the use of molded plywood to produce light furniture that corresponds to the human body.

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Compared with the first grid shell, tailoring plywood allowed Produce to form a larger surface with a drastically lower number of modules. The installation of the Fabricwood panel is also comparatively much simpler and was compared by Pan to the hoisting of a sail.
The circular cutouts along with the cable ties and rivets, which allow for tolerance on the surface, are signature of this material system.

In the same light, Produce sought to develop a soft and porous “skin” for the shop-in-shop that is “molded” to its host. Moreover, with the new brief, Produce had to find a way to mold large pieces of plywood without heat-pressing or gluing. They found the answer in another craft that pays meticulous attention to the human body: tailoring. “Tailors have this technique called darting, where you remove some material and join two edges so the fabric falls nicely on a curved portion of the body. We exported that onto plywood,” Pan shared.

Desired curvatures were achieved by a combination of computer simulation and physical modeling. Leaf-shaped slivers from the center of plywood sheets were removed. The edges of that slice were then joined using rivets and cable ties, much the like the stitching of a dart. Circular cutouts are at the end the darts to avoid tears on the plywood. Some angles needed to be re-calibrated to anticipate the eventual physical changes in the material.

The darts on the plywood panels are first “stitched” using cable ties. Male and female wooden dowelled props are then attached onto the front and rear panels respectively. The front and rear panels are then attached together forming a double layered module, and the modules are then riveted together and attached to the arched frames. The result is a fabric-like surface that appears be pulled across the entire 8-meter volume.

At the end of the exploration, the team produced a 2.4-meter-high prototype. Upon assembly, the structure formed an undulated surface much like the ruching of fabric. It was also providential that the lines and dots resemble the nostalgic Eames Dot Pattern as Charles and Ray Eames have designed numerous icons in the Herman Miller catalog. More resonance with Herman Miller comes through the structure’s symmetry much like the brand’s official logo. The arches that frame the entrance and connections to the rest of XTRA store, the street, and the adjacent bar café are also in proportion with the company logo.

Fabricwood pushed the boundaries of plywood construction in a way that merited the world’s best interior award at the INSIDE Festival 2017. And when Pan got home, he was tasked to curate Singaplural 2018, an anchor event of Singapore Design Week which brings designers and manufacturers together. It was only fitting that the designer decided on “A State in Play” as the theme to celebrate the unfettered exploration stage preceding design. It was at this event that BluPrint sat down with the designer.

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The rippling on the surface increases the appearance of “softness” of the plywood making it appear like a stagnant moment of a sail caught in the wind.

“I felt it would only be natural to bring the way we practice out of the studio and share it with other designers. We first slow down and ask: what is the basic essence of the material, the context, the owner? We strive for insight in the situation. Then, the playing begins. In experimenting, there are no failures, just unexpected outcomes,” Pan ended our interview. That was our cue that fun was just around the corner as we began to make our way through the exhibit. 

This article first appeared in BluPrint Vol 2 2018. Edits were made for Bluprint online.

Photographed by Edward Hendricks

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