LA Design Festival – Modernica

The LA Design Festival was this weekend and I had the opportunity to check out some neat events. First on the calendar is tremendously informative tour of Modernica, a furniture (& more) maker whose factory is in Vernon. (An industrial city south of downtown Los Angeles.) Our tour guide was Frank Novak, one of the founders and owners of the company, who started the tour with a quick overview of what we’ll be seeing.

Modernica 10 - Frank Novak

One of their major products is their line of fiberglass shell chairs. A category that is closely identified with mid 20th-century, it has mostly been replaced by cheap injection molded chairs. But there are still people who are willing to pay the premium for thinner, lighter, stronger fiberglass chairs. Modernica keeps the designs fresh by leveraging one advantage they have over the cheap plastic chairs: they can mold complex patterns permanently into the shell. Unlike injection-molded plastic, which could only print on top of the plastic in a way that would wear out with time. By collaborating with different artists they can continually deliver fresh variants on the classic chair.

Modernica 20 - Fiberglass Shell Chairs

The magic starts with spools of fiberglass that is shredded by this machine.

Modernica 30 - Fiberglass strands

The shredded fiberglass is blown on top of a piece of perforated steel approximately the shape of the chair. To my eye this seems to be quite an inexact process: a lot of shredded strands never make it onto the form and are scattered throughout this building. Workers are constantly sweeping to keep the floor clear. I suppose fiberglass is cheap enough it isn’t terribly important to make sure they don’t end up on the ground.

Modernica 40 - Fiberglass to mat

When the first machine has completed its task, out pops a loose fiberglass mat in the general shape of a chair.

Modernica 50 - Fiberglass mat

This general shape is reinforced with patches at strategic locations before visiting the heated hydraulic press. A sheet of the chair’s surface design is placed on the bottom of the press. Then the chair-shaped mat of loose fiberglass strands is placed on top of the sheet, and resin poured over the mat. Finally another sheet of the surface design is placed on top of the mat + resin combination before the machine goes to work pressing everything together.

Modernica 60 - Hydraulic press

Several minutes later, the shell is removed from the press and its edges trimmed.

Modernica 70 - Hot off the press

In an adjacent room, we watched chair base mounts get installed.

Modernica 80 - Chair mounts

With the fiberglass workshop tour complete, the tour group walked over to the wood shop.

Modernica 90 - To woodworkers

Due to the layout of the building, we saw the process in reverse order. The first thing we saw were the workers sanding and finishing wooden parts. This was a surprisingly labor intensive process in our automation heavy world. But this kind of fine surface polish is something people can still do better than machines. As long as there is enough of a market for hand crafted quality, there will be companies like Modernica to supply it.

Modernica 92 - Manual finishing

In contrast to fine surface finish sanding, machines are better at holding big heavy cutting tools and running them on a consistent path. These 5-axis CNC machine take in molded plywood forms and carves out the shape of the product.

Modernica 93 - 5 Axis CNC

To hold molded plywood forms in place, these machines have a vacuum hold-down system using wooden tooling designed specifically for each project.

Modernica 94 - Vacuum fixture

But where did these molded plywood objects come from? That’s the next section, where we see many stacks of thin wood veneer and big vats of glue.

Modernica 95 - Thin veneer sheets

They are glued together into desired shapes by this machine, employing a high-frequency gluing process. I had hoped to learn more details, but sadly Frank is not familiar with the nuts & bolts and the experts who operate this machine is not present today.

Modernica 96 - Veneer press

Behind the machine is a storage area filled with multi-part molds which are loaded into that gluing machine to form each of the molded plywood products made by Modernica. Knowing how to design these molds – where they meet, what order they apply forces on the wood, knowing how much stress wood veneer can take before breaking, are all interesting to me as engineering problems. Frank said they have a piece of software that handles it… and that’s all the detail he was able (or willing) to share. Oh well, something to research later!

Modernica 97 - Multipart molds

After the tour there was a question-and-answer session. One item that caught my interest was about the grounds. Modernica bought it from a glass products company who had built a concrete bunker for their X-Ray inspection equipment. Modernica has no specific need for a concrete bunker, but it does provide a great background for many of their product photos and it seems a natural place to store their chemicals on site. After the Q&A session I went back to take pictures of this bunker.

Modernica 98 - Bunker

How heavy is the bunker door? They don’t know, but it rolls on train tracks and wheels.

Modernica 99 - Bunker door

I attended the tour because I was interested in manufacturing and engineering sides of the operation. Others came to the tour because they are fans of the company’s products. For these fans, Modernica held a little flash sale on select products which made some people very happy. I was here to learn and not to shop, so I passed on the sale.

Modernica 99a - Sale

Another item in the Q&A was that Modernica has a division catering to show business. Film productions that desire a particular look can rent furniture from Modernica Props, and it sounds like they also occasionally custom build furniture for use on set. Frank’s favorite anecdotes around this collection are mostly around pieces that are memorable in a “it was so hideous I had to buy it” way. The stories were fun and while I don’t intend to rent anything for filming, the Modernica Props showroom is open 6 days a week and it might be fun to browse through.

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