Polish designer Oskar Zieta has developed a technology that turns sheet metal into an ultra-light yet stable construction material — he inflates it.
“The visual idiom is entirely defined by the production technology — that’s what makes it beautiful. Plopp is the true face of sheet metal!”
It’s no easy task finding Oskar Zieta. The Polish hamlet of Zielona Gora is 180 kilometers from Berlin. There, in the industrial district, wedged between motor mechanics’ and other tradesmen’s workshops, is an unspectacular hall which houses the metalworking shop opened by the native of Poland after graduating from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. While it doesn’t have a nameplate yet, it does boast a state-of-theart laser-cutting machine. So you just have to keep asking for directions to reach Zieta Prozessdesign, where an effusive Oskar Zieta sits in a room full of prototypes, boxes and laptops. The designer holds a white metal object vaguely reminiscent of a bone in his hand. Zieta gushes, “Just look at how beautiful this shape is.” Painted in bright colors, the curvy sheet-metal products that are shipped from Zieta’s business have the cuddly appearance of children’s blow-up toys, the playfulness of Jeff Koons sculptures and some are so light they could be suspended from a fistful of balloons.
Oskar Zieta is, however, a long way from seeing himself as a designer. “I prefer process designer, as I don’t create the contours of my products but rather the technology that gives us control over their finished forms.” When they fi rst see the Pole’s Plopp stool, most people find it hard to believe that it’s made of metal. The fact that it weighs only three kilograms but can support a weight of 2.5 metric tons is even harder to swallow. It’s the technology behind Plopp that immediately captures imaginations. In Oskar Zieta’s hands, sheet metal is not folded, bent or bolted but inflated.
The puffy look created by putting the metal under pressure doesn’t originate on the drawing board but results from the nature of the manufacturing process, which transforms sheet metal only a few millimeters thick into a stable, multipurpose material. “The Plopp stool isn’t cambered because I’m especially fond of generous curves or complex forms. Quite the contrary - my preference is for minimalism. Instead, what makes it beautiful is that the visual idiom is entirely defined by the production technology. Plopp is the true face of sheet metal!” enthuses Oskar Zieta.
The Plopp production chain entails the following processes: Two metal sheets are placed in the laser-cutting machine, which is programmed by a computer to carve out a particular shape and weld the edges together. Next, a tiny valve is inserted at a small opening and attached to a compressed-air hose, which is used to infl ate the product like a fl at bicycle tire. All it takes is a bit of wrist action to bend the legs to the right angle, then the sharp edges are ground down — et voilà, your Plopp is complete. After many years of experimentation, Oskar Zieta has had the technology — christened FiDU from the German for “free internal pressure forming” — patented. As an architecture student in Zurich, he researched ways of developing ultralight sheet metal constructions.
Zieta began experimenting with metalworking in 2001, bending, folding, welding, joining and rolling sheets. Eventually, he stumbled on internal high-pressure forming (IHF), a technology used in the automotive industry for the construction of cant rails, among other things. Watching the metal sheets bulge under pressure fascinated him. But because this process requires a special mold, very expensive equipment and two dies, it is only cost-effective for high unit numbers such as those found in automotive production. For the smaller production runs that characterize architecture or furniture manufacturing, it’s prohibitively expensive. But the idea of using internal pressure had stuck in Oskar Zieta’s mind and in 2003 he began forming sheet metal of all kinds in this way. “Sheet metal is like pizza dough,” muses the researcher, “you can always add something different to produce a new result.” Refining the process was a long road littered with almost 600 prototypes before Zieta hit upon the right combination of material, air pressure and form.
In 2007, Zieta exhibited Plopp at the SaloneSatellite, the hall dedicated to young talent at the Milan international furniture fair. The response was fantastic and a number of sales opportunities presented themselves. But no manufacturer was prepared to take on producing the stool. Metalworking shops regard infl ated sheet metal with skepticism. But that only made Oskar Zieta all the more determined. With Stephan Dornhofer from the German designer retail chain Magazin promising to buy up the first 100 stools and Danish furniture manufacturer Hay off ering to include Plopp in their catalog, the innovator decided to open his own metalworking factory in Zielona Gora.
It was the birth of the family business Zieta Prozessdesign. Zieta senior manages operations while Oskar’s sister handles sales and his mother sews fabric covers for Plopp. The product palette has expanded to include chairs, benches, coat hooks and table frames as well as custom pieces such as pavilions, exhibition booths and even a foot bridge.
Excitement surrounding Zieta’s FiDU technology has also spread to the art world. In 2010, the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum in London invited the designer to conceive an installation for its courtyard. The brief was simple — it should be the biggest object that Oskar Zieta had ever created. But the catch was in how to transport a giant inflated metal artwork through the museum’s galleries to the courtyard. The challenge triggered the architect’s brainwave. He welded metal strips together and rolled them onto spools. These could be trundled on wheels into the courtyard and infl ated on site with an ordinary bicycle pump. In September 2010, light-as-a-feather metal arches spanned the pond in the V&A’s Madejski Garden. This opened Oskar Zieta’s eyes to the possibilities of using FiDU technology in spaces where material needs to be as compact as possible during transportation and then infl ated following delivery. A potential application is the framework for the installation of antennae in space, which leave Earth rolled up and are infl ated to form a stable structure while in orbit. And this is far from science fiction — the first such frames will be on board a rocket by as early as 2020.
Innovator Zieta has achieved his goal — his technology delivers a fl exible, ultra-lightweight material. Early in 2011, his determination was rewarded when he was nominated by A&W Designer of the Year Tokujin Yoshioka for the Audi Mentor Prize. In its third edition this year, the prestigious Audi Mentor Prize recognizes young designers. As Head of Design at AUDI AG Stefan Sielaff commented, “Time and again, the solutions that appear the simplest and most obvious prove to be the most diffi cult to design. Oskar Zieta’s genius is in creating objects so self-evident that they belie the complex process behind them.” At art fairs such as Design Miami/Basel, Zieta has been showcasing how he makes light work of shaping metal. And his limited edition copper, inox and aluminum pieces are compelling proof that his “get more from less” philosophy is more than just a lot of (hot) air.
In his youth, the 36-year-old Pole was a talented athlete and wanted to become a professional sportsman. He only embarked on his architectural studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich in order to ensure he also had a good qualification behind him. In 2007, he founded Zieta Prozessdesign and its sister company Steelwerk Polska, which manufactures the design teams’ creations. It’s here that Zieta’s products such as the new Koza table frames (right) and the Tatarak coat stand, which customers can infl ate themselves at home, are produced. Oskar Zieta has earned a series of design awards, including the 2011 Audi Mentor Prize by A&W, jointly conferred by the carmaker and German magazine Architektur und Wohnen.
For more information on Oskar Zieta and to visit his online-shop, go to: zieta.pl.
Dorothea Sundergeld (copy) & Frank Bauer (photos)