The Designer’s AI Apprentice: Starck & Autodesk Create “AI Chair”

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principles, and societal goals, such as making elegant products affordable to large numbers of people.

But Starck was never just an artistic visionary, removed from the practical challenges of designing products for real-world use, according to a long biographical sketch on his website. The son of an aeronautical engineer and airplane builder, Starck opened his own industrial design studio early in his career, and over the years he has created products spanning furniture, toothbrushes, pre-fab homes, earphones, and external hard drives.

As the Autodesk project continued, the chair design was pared down through the process of “lightweighting,” or removing material not essential to the chair’s structural strength. The effort resulted in a final 13 “families” of design variations submitted to Starck, who picked the one below left to refine further into the eventual AI chair. You’ll be excused if you think it looks like a summer cabin seat crafted from tree branches, then coated with molten chocolate.

But the bone structure of that design, further simplified and smoothed, resulted in the final version of the “AI chair,’’ shown in the photo below right. You can still see the vestiges of that organic tree-branch look in the curving braces that support the chair’s arms and legs.

Codifying a designer’s style

Autodesk’s generative design software can be used for open-ended exploration of all product possibilities by a non-designer who simply types in limiting parameters, such as function, weight, materials, and price point. The computer can generate thousands of design models that the user might never have dreamed up.

But the Starck project raises some interesting possibilities that go in the opposite direction—to train the computer to think like a particular designer. As the Autodesk collaboration matured, Davis says in a company blog post, “the system became a much stronger collaborative partner, and began to anticipate Starck’s preferences and the way he likes to work.”

In a future version of Autodesk’s generative design software, it might more quickly adapt itself to a designer’s aesthetic sense and working methods, rather than requiring the designer to learn about the computer’s limitations, Davis says.

How far could that software adaptation process go in the commercial realm of product design? Could such an AI-assisted system someday review the output of a Renaissance master, capture the essentials of their design genius, and generate specs for a Leonardo da Vinci-style spice rack?

Davis says that’s not beyond the realm of possibility, though it’s likely to be far in the future. But he’s less interested in outcomes like the spice rack abomination than in the potential for product companies to articulate a strong, consistent “design style,” systematized by noting factors such as angles, materials, and ergonomics.

This could be “the mathematical representation of a brand,” Davis says.

Photos courtesy of Autodesk

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