For nearly a decade, Andrés Reisinger, a graphic designer by training, had been rendering dreamy pastel-hued environments on Cinema 4D, OctaneRender, and Redshift. One of his animations depicted giant rippling CDs slouching against the walls of a big, bathroom-like setting; another imagined a pink Le Corbusier–style daybed perched in a spa, a cotton candy sunset in the distance. In 2018 the Barcelona native hit his stride when Instagram took notice: His account, overflowing with these fictional wonderlands, suddenly amassed thousands of enthusiastic followers. “I try to deform reality, but not too much,” the 29-year-old jokes of the strange yet familiar quality of his images. “It’s instantly dismissed if it’s too weird; if it’s not strange enough, it’s absorbed into reality. That’s where I discover the surreal.”
His Hortensia chair (2018), a gracefully rotund seat swathed in pink petals, suggests a millennial take on a Pierre Paulin classic. Reisinger came up with the texture after poring over samples of hydrangea leaves and discovering “the beauty of a hydrangea in full bloom.” Its viral success on Instagram was undoubtedly propelled by the burgeoning popularity of neotenic design—fleshy, childlike furniture that sparks a smile. Soon after he posted it, three people placed orders. Reisinger’s delight was dimmed only by the thought that he had no idea how to make one in real life.
Though he had always hoped to design furniture and space, “dealing with physical processes instantly flattens my creativity,” Reisinger says. 3D software, with its minimal constraints, allows him to be prolific. To make the chair, he spent six months presenting concepts of it to manufacturers, but all pretty much said the same thing. Due to the chair’s complex textile structure and unusual form, the rendering could not be made real.
And so Reisinger embarked on a yearlong journey to make Hortensia himself. Teaming up with textile designer Júlia Esqué, the pair devised a fabric covered in clusters of individually laser-cut polyester modules that feel as organic as their hydrangea counterparts. The chair was made real once they upholstered a foam-covered wood frame with it. Hortensia debuted at Barcelona’s Montoya event space in late 2019 and will go on display this week at the Collectible fair in Brussels.
On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, the old saying goes. Today one might add that on Instagram, nobody knows that your chair is actually make-believe. As a result, when demand materializes, designers are rushing to render them physically.
Instagram has helped level the playing field for digital designers, who nevertheless still have to learn to manage the expectations of buyers who want hardware from software. For example, Utkan Gunerkan, a Turkish architect based in Milan, found a sizable audience online for his images of color-rich, conceptual interiors, so he decided to turn them into his inaugural furniture collection, set to debut at Salone del Mobile in 2020. “When we show clients a rendering of a material but can’t find it in the marketplace, we have to call tons of manufacturers to find the closest match, which may not even exist,” he says. And colors tend to differ between rendering and reality.
Some 3D designers prefer to alleviate the risk by securing backing from an established company. That was the case for Tom Hancocks, a self-taught New York artist and designer whose collaborators have included lighting powerhouse Roll & Hill, the online art marketplace Twyla, and Australian furniture purveyor Dowel Jones. Dale Hardiman, a designer for Dowel Jones, approached Hancocks in 2017 to visualize sets for the brand’s tubular steel furnishings after becoming entranced with the surreal environments Hancocks shares on Instagram. Ultimately, the brand commissioned him to design a limited-edition collection. Hancocks had long dismissed the notion that his creations would ever enter the physical realm, but working on the collection for Dowel Jones presented production challenges that he never before needed to consider. “It’s exciting to work within barriers and try to achieve something interesting within those restrictions,” says Hancocks, who is debuting his own brand of furniture later this year.
Why the pivot to physical design? “Having worked in 3D for so long, I’ve had the urge to do the exact opposite,” Hancocks says with a laugh. “You can do so much with 3D, but it lacks humanity—you end up creating utopian environments that are super clean and empty.” In other words, humans need human spaces in which to live.
Even as the line between digital and physical design blurs, the question remains: What is good design? For Reisinger, the answer is basic. “To create great things, you have to be a rational optimist,” he muses. “The easiest way to figure out whether or not something is viable is by doing it.”