The future needs adaptive products

Can a rectangular cuboid win a design prize? Yes, of course, said the Focus Open jury in 2018 – and gave the Xbrick a gold award to prove it. That might seem surprising at first, but it’s worth taking a closer look, because it goes without saying that the Xbrick is so much more than a banal box. It’s a stool, shelf, bench, stand-up desk, throne, stage – in a word, multifunctional. And it’s made of expanded polypropylene (EPP).

Simple, reduced to the essentials and therefore multifunctional: the Xbrick can be used in all sorts of different contexts – and is the nucleus of a series of meaningful add-on products with additional functions (photo: Bernd Kammerer).

The thoroughly smart product was developed by Michael Daubner and his small team at wd3 in Stuttgart. Daubner is a master cabinetmaker and wood technologist, and took a master class with renowned industrial designer and interior architect Arno Votteler. In the 1990s, he received a talent scholarship from the Baden Württemberg Office for the Promotion of Trade and Industry.

A conversation with Michael Daubner about reduction, ingenuity and technological know-how.
Interview: Armin Scharf

Was the Xbrick as easy to design as the product tempts you to believe?
No, definitely not. I’ve always been interested in simplicity, but it’s no secret that simple often means difficult. We put about a year of intense work into its implementation and got very deeply into the issue of which material to use. Ultimately, what we wanted was a lightweight product that was made of a single material, toxin-free, sustainable and suitable for combining in a multitude of ways so that it would be adaptive. Because we’re not aiming for large quantities, certain production processes are out of the question right from the start, so when we decided on EPP we thought we’d found a problem-free solution. But in fact we soon ran up against reservations on the part of potential production partners.

Why? EPP is a pretty well-established material.
Yes, you’re right, but we wanted a product with crisp, precise edges, low tolerances, and a precisely textured, robust surface – that’s not standard with EPP. On top of that, we wanted the brick to be hollow and consist of two identical parts that can be connected in such a way that the joins are virtually invisible. A lot of producers said no right away. But eventually we found a company that was willing to accompany us on the implementation journey. It was a challenge for everybody, because we tested and optimised the process parameters directly on the machine.

The Xbrick is a proprietary product that wd3 distributes itself. How do you manage that?
We have good, very flexible partners. At the end of the day, we can’t make large quantities to stock, so we produce based on demand. Our production partner delivers the half-shells to the Remstal sheltered workshops of the Stetten social welfare organisation in Schorndorf, where they’re assembled by hand ready for distribution. The Xbrick was a steep learning curve for us; it meant we had to take care of things like quality specifications and marketing as well. But having your own product is a good thing, especially as we’ve applied for patents and are expecting to sell up to 10,000 Xbricks a year.

Just now you mentioned the word “adaptive”. What did you mean by that?
In my opinion, a product’s adaptability is of key importance. Good design doesn’t just need to encourage adaptations by the user, it has to signal its adaptability as well. As designers we factor that variability in to the concept, we provide a kind of options cloud that users can help themselves to. Obviously that’s a challenge we designers need to be more responsive to. The more pared down a product is, the easier it is to adapt to any given situation. That’s one aspect of sustainability too.

In what way?
A product with a variable usage scenario is more universal and makes specialised products superfluous. Take the Xbrick: we’ve created a whole series of add-ons for it that widen the scope for using it even more – things like backrests, seats and connectors. The basic product is always identical. We have to start thinking differently when we talk about sustainability; it’s about things like materials, logistics, production and the supply chain. It won’t be long before that’s a key customer requirement, which is why we’re already giving the issue intense thought and developing solutions.

photo: Bernd Kammerer (flomo Xbrick), Uwe Kassai (roof_loop)

What does that mean in concrete terms?
We designers need to acquire a lot more technological know-how, a better knowledge of materials. What I mean by that is a broad basic knowledge and the ability to expand on it quickly for specific tasks. There’s more to design than the forms we choose; it has to do with aspects like mono-materials, separation, footprint. At wd3, we think in broad-based terms and can transfer our insights to other projects. That’s one of the reasons why we designers should be included in development processes. SMEs in particular are often in search of different ways to use their potential and know-how and need our expertise for that. That’s because a lot of companies are trapped in their own technical perspective, they need an agile partner from the outside who thinks beyond the norms, tries things out and is curious. That’s creative work too, just on a lightly different level. For us, that also means looking into what possibilities our partner has and which solutions are a good fit with them.

The Xbrick can be paired with other mobile products like the flomo board shown here in various positions – ideal for agile project sprints (photo: Uwe Kassai).

Is that why you refer to wd3 as a development office as well?
That’s right. We’re a design firm, but not a classic one, because as I just said we look into our clients’ skills in great depth. We see ourselves more as developers, as partners for design engineering, technology and implementation. We keep a careful eye not just on the interface with production, but on the feasibility of every single facet of the product. And we observe what’s changing in the market.

Can you give me an example?
Right now we’re seeing in real time how the established office model is disintegrating. Office work is becoming a lot more flexible – and above all more decentralised. A lot of firms will largely shift their work to the home office, and people will only meet at the company premises on a temporary basis – in project groups, for instance. And that will happen in a more informal setting, like working spaces, which have to meet different requirements when it comes to things like the room and its equipment than the classic office we’ve been used to up until now. That’s the kind of scenario we see not just for the Xbrick but for lots of other products that we’re developing for Karl Westermann GmbH + Co. under the wp westermann products label. Here too, it’s a question of things that can be adapted to different uses.

The vertically mobile Tisch A Plus table features a steel frame and motorised height adjustment (photo: Bernd Kammerer).

That’s probably going to be just as important for the home office.
The products have to be suitable for both the company office and the home office. We need furniture that’s highly functional and variable but still has an aesthetic that fits in with the home environment. We always look at the interaction between space and human; we want to adapt the setting to the user’s requirements, not the other way round. Multi-use products have a major role to play in that. Why can’t a bed double as a desk, for instance? We’re already moving in that direction and starting to think about a new product that would serve the purpose.

wd3 GmbH

The Stuttgart design and development firm was co-founded by Frank Westermann and Michael Daubner in 2016. Westermann is head of Karl Westermann GmbH + Co. in Denkendorf, a company that has its roots in the fit-out and interiors sector and is now increasingly positioning itself in the office furniture market too. The ideas and concepts come from wd3, but the firm also works for other clients.

The core team of wd3: Santiago Bloise, Helen Scholz, Michael Daubner and Rebekka Reeber (photo: wd3)