Inside 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.