Factory Tour
Oskar Zieta’s Metal-inflating Facility

When Oskar Zieta was given the honor of creating a site-specific installation in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s sprawling central garden during this year’s London Design Festival, he had a fairly significant advantage. With his own high-tech metalworking factory in Poland capable of producing large-scale inflated-steel structures, he had the means to fabricate whatever flight of fancy he and his team might possibly dream up, no matter how ambitious. And yet standing in his way was an obstacle far more prosaic in nature, one it would take ingenuity moreso than technological muscle to surmount: teeny tiny doorways. “The doors were really small, and all the ideas of getting to the garden by a helicopter or by a crane had to be rejected because of the risk of destroying the museum’s façade,” he told the fair’s bloggers at the time. But for someone like Zieta — who’s spent the past eight years monomaniacally experimenting with the proportions of the metal sheets he welds at the edges and then blasts full of air — it read like an intellectual call to arms, inspiring him to develop the very first rolled-steel profile capable of unfurling like a cheap balloon animal when hooked up to an air pump on-site. “Imagine these being sold at IKEA by the meter,” he mused at the time. “I think this idea will change a lot in heavy industry.”

Like most designers who have come as far as Zieta has in his young career — his charming three-legged Plopp stool, produced by Hay, is well on its way to becoming a contemporary design icon — he’s made a habit of running headlong into challenges like these. After graduating from architecture school in 2000 and three years later finding himself having invented the metal-inflating method he now calls FiDU, he presented his first Plopp stool prototype in Milan only to realize there was no one out there who could actually make it. So by 2006 he’d convinced his father and sister to help him open and run his own factory, and now it’s both a manufacturing facility and a laboratory of sorts. “We use the production of small products and furniture objects to help us develop the technology,” he says, pointing out how long it took him just to work through the complexities of creating a tight seal around the edges of his pieces. “I work like Jean Prouvé, testing my ideas on a small scale. But I’m an architect, so ultimately I’m thinking on a bigger scale.”

It’s not that Zieta is necessarily itching to give up the benches and coat hangers in favor of writing his name into the skyline, just that his ambitions for FiDU are much larger. Because architects and designers typically need purpose-built molds to stamp out metal furnishings and facade elements the way his machines can — which is prohibitively expensive for anyone without huge economies of scale on their side, and doesn’t allow for mass-customization — his enduring quest is to help democratize this corner of industrial production, giving lesser folks than Gehry their own shot at a Bilbao. If he can eventually increase the technique’s precision, it might even serve the car industry, home to FiDU’s closest cousin, IHU: Used to shape elements of a car’s body, it entails blasting metal sheets into molds using high-pressure water jets. For now though, Zieta’s still focused on more basic problems, like tiny doors, and he let us peek in on his factory to see all the novel ways he’s solving them.

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Zieta may be a designer, but he’s first and foremost a researcher: He’s spent the past eight years working on his PhD while refining the industrial processes behind his FiDU technology, the fact that he ended up with a hit furniture line on his hands being merely a bonus. At least part of that focus can be credited to his geneology: “My grandpa was a metalsmith, in a very, very old way," he says. "He made horseshoes, and we make this very innovative and modern art.”

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Much of that research has been put towards developing what he calls the “FiDU alphabet,” which is essentially the set of criteria that govern the outcome of the often-unpredictable process. “We look at what happens with various geometries, or when we use a very strange angle, or when we make everything very smooth, or when we change the size of a section, the way a tailor does when he takes the dimensions of a person and then has to translate them into a 3-D form.” Here, Zieta holds an element he calls a “seahorse” — primarily an experiment in finding the proper angle for corners that can inflate without deforming or twisting.

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Practically speaking though, since he trained as an architect, Zieta’s ultimate goal is to develop FiDU to the point where it’s useful for larger-scale applications like facades, a realm in which the high costs of mold-making and tooling puts standard industrial techniques out of reach for small firms. Furniture like his stools and the table legs shown here are stepping stones along that path, along with the mid-scale work he’s done lately, like a 10.5-foot-tall installation piece he produced with Architonic and showed at the DMY festival in Berlin.

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Everything — from the smallest coat hanger to the Architonic piece — is made in either Zieta’s main production facility in Poland, which used to be a carpet factory, or a smaller satellite facility in Switzerland, where he teaches. And the majority of the work he does can be accomplished with lasers. “In the five years after I graduated with my masters, I learned many different ways to manipulate metal sheets,” he says. “The most flexible technique was laser-cutting, because you can use the same tool for cutting and welding. So then my goal became to connect a new technology like lasers with a very traditional material like metal sheets. That was the starting point.”

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The laser cutter is also the first step in the FiDU production line. Each shape has to be cut out twice, to exactly the same parameters, for later welding and inflation, one with a hole where the air valve will eventually be inserted. Each sheet is used to its maximum potential; the machine slices smaller pieces for other jobs and prototypes out of the used scrap metal from bigger forms.

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Stacks of cut-metal sheets destined to become Zieta’s Kamm coat hangers, made of a black steel that will be powder coated once the product is inflated. “With the stools and chairs, we don't have total control over the shape, but when you see our new products, like the bench or the Kamm coat rack or the ladder, you see that we can also work very precisely,” says Zieta. “We basically have two ways of presenting or developing our projects: One way is more artistic and free-form, and the other is more technological or industrial.”

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Cut pieces for Zieta’s circular Pin wall hooks, stored and waiting to be transported to a welding robot.

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The welding robot, which seals together the edges of two cut-metal pieces so they can be blasted full of air, eliminating the need for an expensive mold. It sounds like a simple idea, but it took Zieta a lot of problem-solving to refine. His first experiments in 2003 were with water pressure rather then air; either way, there was the issue of seaming. “We have many different metals we can use in the welding process, and I tested all of them,” he says. “We had to make the connection strong enough, and without any small holes.” When he began to move on to larger sculptural pieces with dozens of separate FiDU elements, he then had to figure out the connections between those.

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His Chippensteel chair, though, can be fabricated in a single piece. Its two halves are laid down into a carriage made of thicker cut-metal sheets that hold the welding target in position.

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In the case of the Chippensteel, it’s not only the edges that are welded but the small perforations in its back and seat, which help stabilize such a large span of material during the inflation process, giving Zieta slightly more control over its shape.

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Of course, he also cherishes the lack of control he has over the inflation process. “The form isn’t always exactly the same one we want to have, but that can be very positive for our product when you see a piece like Plopp,” he says. “All the small but important impacts on the material happen in the last production step, in the blowing up. We call it controlling the loss of control.” The inflated Chippensteel chair shown here is one of Zieta’s first prototypes of the piece.

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After the inflated Chippensteel has its legs bent to the proper angles, the finishing process includes grinding and polishing it until its sharp edges disappear and its surface becomes shiny. Some of those processes are done by machines, but some require more precision, especially the limited edition pieces made in Inox steel or copper, which aren’t painted or powder-coated.

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One of the biggest leaps forward in FiDU technology came earlier this year, when Zieta developed his Blow and Roll installation for the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The larger idea is to make pieces that can be shipped in flat, pre-welded steel rolls and inflated by the end user — either in a local facility or even using an ordinary bike pump, depending on the dimensions of the piece. “Transformation is a very important concept for us, so to have the end consumer be a part of creating the objects himself is incredible,” Zieta says. “It’s a very futuristic vision.”

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Each welded-metal roll Zieta used in the V&A installation was up to 98.5 feet long and eight inches wide, proportions he arrived at by way of thorough stability testing. Laser-cutting and welding a piece the length of two basketball courts, however, wasn’t so much of an issue. “You can’t make everything in FiDU — we have very strong production process rules — but scale isn’t really the constraint for this technology,” Zieta explains. That said, the factory’s machine-building specialists did have to create a special tool for actually rolling the sheets as they were being welded, seen here.

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Zieta and his team inflating a test-roll to make sure it unfurls properly.

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The final Blow and Roll elements were ingeniously coiled around an axle stretched between two bicycle wheels, making it easy for them to unroll perfectly into place during the inflation process in the museum’s garden.

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Other experimental projects Zieta has done recently include this 13-foot-tall FiDU soccer ball, which was the designer’s way of testing his factory's precision capabilities: “We had to put together 120 sections, and if only one section doesn’t fit you can forget the whole thing,” he told Architonic in an interview this summer. “But they all fit.”

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In addition to such experiments of his own, Zieta also experiments on behalf of clients, exploring how the factory can produce things like metal shipping containers and even public furniture like benches, bus stops, and road signs. Pictured above is an example of a road sign being polished. “Most of the experimental work is done by hand,” explains Lukasz Krupinski, Zieta’s studio assistant. “If a larger amount were produced, it would be done by the robots in an automatic assembly line, but preparing a new object in FiDU requires more attention. The team needs to check what the form looks like and how the shape behaves while it’s inflated, making small corrections before more pieces are produced.”

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Various pieces of those extracurricular tests alongside the cut sheet-metal profiles for Zieta’s Plopp stool, which he produces and the Danish company Hay markets and distributes. When it was introduced, it was a breakthrough in the movement towards mass-customization, where objects that are unique and seemingly handmade can be produced on a factory line.

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Pictured here is the Plopp under a weight-capacity test — each stool can carry up to 2.5 tons. “Plopp isn’t just a piece of furniture, it also serves scientific research purposes,” says Krupinski. “In order to develop future applications for FiDU technology, including in the construction industry, each existing object needs to be tested for standard parameters like weight capacity.”

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As a piece of furniture, though, Plopp is quite a looker. Its surface can be finished in numerous ways: polished, lacquered, powder coated, rusted, or covered with gum, Teflon, or other materials. Here, it’s being sandblasted.

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The Plopp stool alongside the family of commercial products it's spawned since 2003.

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This week only, you can enter to win Oskar Zieta's Plopp stool in stainless steel, worth more than $700, the grand prize in Sight Unseen’s Perfect Present Giveaway! Click here to visit the sweepstakes entry page, and don’t forget to come back daily to increase your odds of winning!