When it comes to addressing the one-of-a-kind/mass reproduction conundrum, Kram/Weisshaar’s blue sky thinking is perhaps most evident in Breeding Tables, for which they designed a genetic algorithm that pairs – breeds – the designs of tables with each other, spawning new generations of unique offspring. First initiated in 2003, the tables are still breeding to this day, and members of the project’s second and third generations are held in the permanent collections of Paris’s Centre Pompidou, and the hallowed archives of the Vitra Design Museum in Germany.
The intervening decade or so has seen Kram/Weisshaar’s approach of “redesigning design”, as they describe it, span the fields of robotics, software development, architecture and interior design, and take form in places including the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, where robot arms traced messages from the public by light in the night sky; Prada’s flagship stores in New York and Los Angeles, with the kind of hanging LCD displays made ubiquitous by Apple Stores a few years later; and in private homes across Europe, where they’ve designed motion-sensitive mirrors that react to the waves of an indoor swimming pool, and a digital fresco that charts the night sky on a ceiling.
“Álvaro Siza, the great Portuguese architect, said that an architect should be able to design anything from a spoon to a skyscraper. And that was in the 1950s,” says Kram, who as a student co-founded the Aesthetics and Computation Group at the MIT Media Lab before beginning his professional practice at Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). “Part of our practice is to start every project from scratch: we start over and over and over. That’s one of the reasons why if you look at our work it can seem like a group show. We don’t have a style – aesthetics only make sense as a result of process and never the other way around.”
One of their most recent projects, the SmartSlab Table – a razor-thin ceramic-topped table embedded with sensors that can heat plates, cool glasses and even cook a one-pot dish – left design critics drooling during its debut at the 2016 Salone del Mobile furniture fair in Milan. The reaction was most likely due to both the table’s groundbreaking symbiosis of form and function, and also because Kram/Weisshaar enlisted the three-star Michelin chef Massimo Bottura to host a couple of dinners demonstrating the table’s applications in the banquet hall of the seventeenth-century Palazzo Clerici.
Describing the process of working with Bottura, whose restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, was number one on the 2016 World's 50 Best Restaurants list, Kram says the chef helped reign in some of his and Weisshaar's "crazy ideas". When they began experimenting with the heating, cooking and cooling elements, it was Bottura who knew that for heating plates you need 42.5 degrees Celsius, no more, no less, so you can put your hand on the table without it burning you. And with the cooling, you need a temperature of -5 degrees Celsius to keep a glass of water or a bottle of sparkling wine cool.
By integrating sensors for touch control, heating, cooling and induction cooking in a single composite slab that acts simultaneously as a circuit board, structure and surface, the SmartSlab Table is also an exciting and tangible example of what the Internet of Everything can offer in the coming decades – a production version of the table will be available to purchase in mid-2017.
"The long-term possibilities, when you break down the traditional divisions between materials and electronics, are enormous," says Kram. The duo have already set about designing a 'smart' motion-sensitive LED street light which turns on and off only when someone, or thing, is in its path. Not only do these lights offer the benefits of energy efficiency and the reduction of light pollution, their motion sensors also have the ability to detect spare parking spaces, with the potential to reduce road traffic – an issue Kram/Weisshaar explored with Unite, the shared-car ownership initiative they designed and trialled for Audi in Stockholm in 2014.
It's all part of a drive to imbue some optimism into how we think about cities and ourselves within a brave, new, networked future. "There will be at least 50 billion connected 'things' by 2020," Kram explains. "And cities are real-time systems, but rarely run as such. The challenge is to create systems that respect human liberties and privacy, and hardware that enhances the aesthetic qualities of its surroundings," he continues. "These new, connected things need to be designed with human beings in mind, to raise our quality of life and provide new opportunities for pleasure."