Scott Bennett

Former Indy 500 Auto Engineer Discusses Design After Dark

On Friday, February 5, 2016 Design Council of the Denver Art Museum presents the 12th annual Design After Dark, one of Denver’s most highly anticipated parties for its ever-changing theme and innovative, design-inspired atmosphere. The heart of Design After Dark has been reinvented to give form to its unique 2016 theme: AMASS. Inspired by the concept of gathering and collecting, sixteen Colorado-based artists and designers have been invited to create an imaginative, one-of-a-kind artwork for a one-night-only exhibition and silent auction.

I recently sat down with past and present participant Scott Bennett, a former Indy 500 auto engineer and the founder of Housefish, a Denver-based furniture design and manufacturing studio. Scott spoke with me about his object for Design After Dark | AMASS and his inspiration. Here are the highlights from that conversation.

Darrin Alfred: Can you tell us about your Design After Dark | AMASS object?

Scott Bennett: I kind of subverted the theme of amass. Rather than thinking about building something up, I wanted to take the opposite approach and remove the mass. The most important part of my career in designing racecars was getting weight out. A reduction in mass gives you greater acceleration, and greater acceleration means you go faster. This principle applies to all sorts of different objects. On airplanes, reducing mass improves your cargo carrying ability and range; on road cars, it improves performance and fuel efficiency; and in buildings or other objects, it reduces the amount of material used.

Traditionally, making an object as light as possible requires the designer to use their best judgment at an initial guess, analyze the design to make sure it’s strong enough, and make changes as they go. It's a slow process.

In recent years, a lot of progress has been made with genetic algorithms that automate this process. The designer starts with a basic outline, defines the forces and constraints involved, and then the computer starts gradually removing material, analyzes the results, and then tries something different and compares it to the previous version. The process repeats thousands of times until it converges on an ideal shape. It's very similar to the way natural selection uses genetic mutation to shape living things into an ideal form to suit a given set of conditions. The resulting computer-derived shapes tend to look a lot like natural forms like bones or trees.

The chair I'm designing for Design After Dark uses this process to remove the unnecessary mass from a wooden chair. The resulting shapes will be carved by computer-controlled equipment, then painstakingly joined together using our signature digital joinery. The finished chair will be about 70-80% lighter than its rectilinear solid wood equivalent, with no loss of structural integrity.

– Scott Bennett
Scott Bennett

DA: This is your third year participating in Design After Dark. What is your process when designing an object for the event?

SB: The themes and guidance for DAD are always excellent. I usually have an idea straight away after reading the invitation. This year was harder because there were a couple different ways I could have gone. I looked at doing lighting and a table, but creating another chair seemed like a good idea. I usually let an initial idea roll around in my head for a couple weeks, then sketch out a few alternatives, until I iterate it into the concept I want to pursue. This year, I had to research different software and see which would work best. Even though it sounds like the computer is doing all the work, the setup of the initial conditions and targets has a huge impact on the final shape, so having someone steering the ship is critical.

Computer-controlled equipment

DA: In 2014, you created a series of five chairs for Design After Dark | CAST that were made of a thinly cast concrete reinforced with carbon fibers. One of those five prototypes is now in the DAM’s architecture, design and graphics collection. Did you learn anything new or interesting from that experience?

SB: The CARBON chair was a huge learning experience, and actually continues to be. Reinforcing concrete with carbon fiber isn't something you can look up in a book somewhere, so it takes a huge amount of research to get it right. Feedback from some of those chairs that ended up in people’s homes showed that we aren’t quite there yet on the ideal formula. I’ve been running more tests on that material and we’re getting close to something that will work under a wider range of conditions. Eventually that product will end up in our regular product line, hopefully later this year.

Everything I've done for Design After Dark was done with an eye toward possible production. I just recently sketched out a four-legged version of our one-legged chair from Design After Dark | CIRQUE (2013), the CARBON chair will eventually be available, and so might this year’s chair. The event to me is a great way to force us to try new things and think laterally. I love doing it as much for selfish reasons as I love supporting Design Council and the Denver Art Museum.

CARBON chair

DA: Besides a production version of the CARBON chair, what else might we expect from Housefish in the future?

SB: Lots! I've spent the last year or so developing a process to 3-D print sawdust, a waste product we produce vast quantities of. After printing we infuse the parts in resin, so they are strong and structurally useful. The material has some really interesting properties - it has an almost suede-like texture and color, and it’s translucent under bright light. I’m working on a couple of lighting designs to show it off.

prototype of a storage bed

DA: Lastly, do you live with your own work?

SB: I feel like most designers live in a state of constant dissatisfaction with the world, so every time I see something I've made I only see its flaws. We mostly keep the prototypes (which are usually full of flaws). The original Key prototypes that started the company are in our living room, and I just built our daughter a storage bed that will probably end up in the product line in some form. She hasn't noticed that the drawer alignment is about 1/32" off, but I do...

Since its debut in 2005, Design After Dark has showcased Colorado’s creative talent. Funds raised at this annual mid-winter party support a wide range of acquisitions, exhibitions, and design-related programming for the Denver Art Museum’s department of architecture, design, and graphics. We invite you to join us on Friday, February 5!

Darrin Alfred is curator of architecture and design and co-curator of Serious Play.

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