American designer Marvell Lahens has launched an app at NYCxDesign that enables everyday people with no professional training to design a piece of furniture and have it produced and shipped to them within three weeks.
As a parametric design tool, Self allows users to manipulate a 3D model before sending it off to be digitally manufactured using a CNC mill. Currently, the system is in its beta version and restricted to creating a side table in either steel or plywood.
But Lahens says the same logic could soon be used to make a variety of different furniture and homeware pieces from various machinable sheet materials in a bid to democratise the design process.
"That ability to tell someone 'I designed that myself', there's a sense of pride and ownership to that that we don't get with a lot of things anymore because everything is so mass commercialised and produced," he told Dezeen.
"You have the same thing as 10 million other people, so there's this lack of connection to the things that you own."
Using parametric algorithms, the Self app sets certain constraints for what the furniture piece can look like, which Lahens describes as shape parameters.
In the case of the side table, users are restricted to dimensions of 18 by 18 inches as well as four different leg configurations and six powder-coat colours for the steel version.
But users can have free reign over the tabletop, moulding it into a vast range of different shapes by adding up to 10 points to a polygon and moving them around as desired.
For those who prefer more guidance, there is also the option of picking between two pre-set shape types – one organic, one geometric – and then adjusting the radius of these shapes and the number of points.
"You have to kind of meet people where they're at," Lahens said. "When I first started working on this, I involved a lot of other creatives and it was more like: here's a blank canvas, design something."
"And that's just hard. It's even hard for designers," he added. "So for the average person who wants to feel involved, you have to give them a starting point."
These shape parameters can be co-created with different designers to give users different visual languages to work with. In the case of the side tables on display at NYCxDesign, this was American artist Norman Teague but Self has also worked with others including VSCO co-founder Greg Lutze.
The challenge in designing these starting points, according to Lahens, is balancing the freedom of the user with the need for the final piece to fulfil its intended function such as standing up or holding weight.
"What's interesting for me right now is to design the infrastructure or design the constraints so you can't make something bad," he said. "What do we trust people to fuck up but not really fuck up so it can still be a functional thing?"
This sets the tool apart from an AI image generator like Dall-E, which gives the user complete freedom in formulating their brief as it does not have to produce a functioning real-life product and thus generates hugely variable results based on the skill of the briefer.
Ultimately, Self's user-driven design process produces a 3D model that can be fed directly into the CNC mill in Lahens' Chicago studio. For a fixed price, the final side table will then be sent off to the user within three weeks.
With accessibility as a guiding star, Lahens is also exploring the possibility of having the pieces manufactured by local maker workshops across the US, with adaptive pricing based on their size and material use.
"So you'd have full visibility," he said. "If you make an adjustment and the piece gets X amount bigger, therefore the material costs X amount more."
At NYCxDesign, Teague's Self-made side tables were on display alongside various computers, where visitors could trial the software's beta version and even send their final design off for production.
"One of the happiest moments I've had is seeing a child as young as seven unboxing something they've designed and that moment of connection when they're like: holy shit, I made that," Lahens said.
New York design week hosted a number of other experimental furniture projects this year.
Design if your Self was on show at Sommwhere on Ludlow from 20 to 21 May 2023. For more information about events, exhibitions and talks taking place as part of NYCxDesign, visit Dezeen's 2023 guide to the festival.