Anyone who has had to join two materials knows the struggle of tolerances in fickle weather—a hot summer rain or a frigid metal shop can drastically change the way two pieces fit together. So it's somewhat mind-boggling (and refreshing) to see a designer exploit this pain point and use it to his advantage. Paul Cocksedge does just that with a new collection of furnishings that use temperature as a way of expanding and contracting various materials to create bonds.
From a staircase wrapped in living plants to an auditorium constructed of string, the London-based designer is known for pushing the limits of what materials can do. For the Freeze collection, Cocksedge first approached Marc Benda, one of the founders of New York's Friedman Benda gallery, back in 2000. "It was something I wanted to show the gallery first because it was a huge undertaking and would require a level of commitment," he says. "It's taken five years." The resulting collection includes four dining tables, a bench and an aluminum side chair, all produced in limited-edition quantities.
With Benda's support, Cocksedge began experimenting, heading to Austria to test out his idea with a small team. "We took some copper legs and we took some planed aluminum surfaces and we buried the legs in the snow overnight, so that they could really be frozen as cold as technically possible," Cocksedge says. "We took them out and we inserted them into these holes, wrapping the aluminum surfaces in felt blankets to keep them as warm as possible." As the copper legs warmed up, they expanded and locked into the aluminum. "It was really exciting," Cocksedge says. "It was amazing."
The process has come a long way since then. Cocksedge now works with giant blocks of steel, aluminum, copper and brass. And he's no longer burying parts in snow. "We had to use modern techniques, as the pieces are so ambitious in weight and scale, so we're using liquid nitrogen, which is an amazing theatrical thing to experience," Cocksedge says. "There's a lot of smoke and bubbles and wonderful sounds. We freeze these metals to the coldest possible temperature we can achieve and then they shrink and we can join them."
The tolerances Cocksedge is working with are as little as two thousandths of a millimeter—too small for the human eye to detect. "But it's that invisible, incomprehensible amount that enabled everything to exist within our collection," he says. After being bonded together, the pieces are mirror polished to emphasize their construction.
While the idea of perfectly freezing and joining huge chunks of metal sounds challenging enough, Cocksedge says that the biggest hurdle was just finding a factory to work with. "There aren't many companies that can do it," he says. "The other thing is working with people who respect the metal. It sounds like a very simple thing, but it isn't, because a lot of people are used to just cutting metal and putting it in the back of a truck and sending it out. The metal pieces that we're working with are our children. These are so important, and every single piece of metal has to be cared for, looked after [by] a group of people that understand that any scratch, any blemish, any knock, any chip—it ruins the piece."
“We’re using liquid nitrogen, which is an amazing theatrical thing to experience. There’s a lot of smoke and bubbles and wonderful sounds.”
But if the Freeze pieces are bonded by super-cooled material expanding, does that mean that the tables will collapse on extremely cold days? Cocksedge assured me that this could not happen. The bond is surprisingly resilient, and nearly impossible to deconstruct. Even if the world freezes over or is engulfed in a layer of fire—scenarios I posed to Cocksedge—his pieces will remain intact. "Once you've frozen these materials and then they expand, you've created a lock," he explains. "If everything froze at the same time, then everything would shrink at the same time, which means they'd still stay bonded together. The only way you could get it apart is if you heated up one area or made one part expand or shrink, but that would be almost impossible because they're joined together at that point. Although, I like the idea that if there was an extreme disaster somewhere, what would happen to a table that I made for Friedman Benda gallery—and it would still be standing."
The initial inspiration for Freeze came from the impossibility of joining different materials together on an atomic level. "With the Freeze process, the idea is that we can create this cocktail of materials that are joined and they're incredibly strong," Cocksedge says. "It's opened up a lot of really exciting design possibilities to produce objects that unite these materials that aren't usually connected together by these seamless invisible bonds."
Cocksedge envisions this new process revolutionizing the way we construct furniture. "When I look around my own studio, I'm so used to seeing bolts and brackets and screws and glue lines," he says. "But with this technique, with this freezing, we can create these invisible bonds between metals and, more excitingly, the different colors and materials."
While Cocksedge's vision for the future is not impossible, it might be a bit far off. Liquid-nitrogen freezing is not exactly the most economical way to mass-produce furniture, relegating the process to high-end works for the time being. Part of that high price tag is the immense amount of custom handwork that must go into each piece. "My hands have touched every single piece," the designer says. "This thing is made by people; it's not made by machines."
In the meantime, New Yorkers can pretend they live in a hardware-free future by checking out Cocksedge's exhibition, Freeze, at Friedman Benda Gallery until December 23.
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They're very attractive pieces but does anyone know how they prevent galvanic corrosion joining two dissimilar metals? The article doesn't seem to mention it.
As Mark Thomas says, keep 'em dry. Like, really really dry. Even moderate humidity will enable galvanic corrosion, and after a few years, ugh. (I personally wouldn't even serve steamed vegetables near those joints.) Better, anodize the aluminum after all machining, and take good care not to damage the insulating aluminum oxide layer while joining the pieces.
I didn't realize it first but even a drop of water at the joint would form a closed circuit and corrosion.
Keep them dry. Galvanic corrosion requires an electrolyte.
The round aluminium table part is not forming a closed circuit, no corrosion. The other furniture does however form a closed circuit if they stand in saltwater for example.
Some of you commenters are missing the point. Sure, this method has been used in other industries, but likely not furniture. The backbone to design is innovating artistic and interesting ways to problem solve, which this designer has done. Sometimes that means cross pollinating techniques from different industries. Think of it as an artistic expression, not a mass produced engine block. This is the core differentiator between Design and Engineering.
You could also have simply machined in a very small lip on the copper leg/s of most these designs and done the whole thing with a simple press-fit. Unless someone actually measured the upper and lower portions, you'd never know.
A slight taper, not noticeable by eye, would eliminate the need of tight tolerances and shrink/press fitting. It would be cheaper and faster to manufacture, easier to assembly due to self alignment and just as aesthetically pleasant. A slight tap with a hammer would be enough to lock it but not to release it, just as your bench drill press Morse taper.
Reminds me of fitting bearings to shafts of Induction Motors when you don't have a press. The non-press technique (if offshore for example) involves putting the motor 'shaft' in a freezer overnight (to contract it) , and heating up the bearing in a pan of oil (to expand it).
I wonder if heating the table part of the design in oil, would have any advantages in this design, as it does when fitting motor bearings?
PS: Try the bearing fitting method described above, at you own risk (hot oil!)
I watched the video, which is where the two thousands of a millimeter reference is apparently from. In the video he says "when you freeze metal, it shrinks by two thousandths of a millimeter". Of course he has to dumb it down for an art gallery, but what he means (if he actually understands it) is that metal will expand or contract about .0002mm per cm per degree of temperature change. So with say a 200 degree temp delta on the about one foot diameter cylinder, you have about half a millimeter clearance between the parts.
As many others have already pointed out, the 'artist' is either ignorant or overselling his 'innovative' methods. Yes, the items are basically beautiful because of the contrast of materials and the basic beauty of minimalist forms. The process, however, is long established. Cylinder liners are press fit into engine blocks the same way. Anyone who has worked on an automotive suspension has used the method to install bearings. Leave it to an 'artist' to be all pretentious about doing something the hard way that others have long figured out how to do with much greater efficiency and economy. Sorry Carly, but this entire article is a non story.
It's nice to see this method applied to furniture joinery, which I'd not seen before. And the tables are handsome, even though I wouldn't want to be the person assigned to keeping all that copper shiny.
Dope , maybe i'm lazy but... no video of this awesome performance!
You're right Toby B, no bonding occurs it is a simple interference fit.
It is all simple contraction and expansion. I remember my Dad teaching me this when I was a kid. We were changing the bearings on a piece of farm machinery before we started the bearings went in the freezer, making them smaller. Once the old bearings were pushed out, the machinery went out into the hot sun, making it larger.
We came back later in the day with the cold bearings, they slid right in.
Then the bearings warm up to the same temperature as the metal around them expanding to become a snug fit.
Loctite make an awesome product called freeze and release which is essentially liquid nitrogen mixed with penetrating oil. You could use that to replicate Cocksedge's more dramatic assembly process
It would be interesting to know if any bonding occurs where the materials are in contact. My instinct is no, that these are just held together by friction (like some jewelry settings), on a large scale. They are visually appealing, though I suspect you laser-weld or even silver-solder most of them without ruining their simplicity. But then you wouldn't have such a good story to tell...