When Finland’s Lasse Virén fell in the middle of the 10,000-meter final in the 1972 Olympics, he didn’t quit. He rose up and—after dropping to the back of the pack—rallied to not only win a gold medal but also set a world record. A half-century later, Finnish energy company Fortum took that inspiration and created a chair designed to be just as resilient in its form and function. When the Virén Chair is toppled, it too pops back up on its own—without any robotics.
“We wanted the chair to reflect [Virén’s] legacy with a design that is both aerodynamic and organic and takes its inspiration from running motion,” says TBWA\Helsinki’s Umberto Onza, the chair’s lead designer.
Using its own recycled plastic, Fortum worked with a team of engineers and physicists from Aalto University to sketch out concepts and assess viability, then turned to TBWA\Helsinki to help design the prototype. By applying computer-aided design simulations and iterating working concepts, the team was able to zero in on requirements for weight, geometry and arm shape.
The trials helped the team establish a precise center of gravity that would give the chair its signature self-rising feature. Then, of course, the team had to make sure it could withstand stress, support weight and reset itself in a real-world environment.
Along with the engineering magic, the chair has another standout innovation: a new take on plastics. During the research phase, the team discovered that only 9 percent of all plastic waste has been recycled, and that, even today, only 14 percent is collected for recycling, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Project leaders proclaimed the chair’s construction should “stand up for plastic as a material.”
“Plastic is in many ways a superior material that is hard to substitute,” says Anniina Rasmus, brand sales manager at Fortum. So the team didn’t even try. Instead, it reinforced Fortum’s recycled plastic compound with a cellulose fiber that absorbs carbon. The result? A material with a carbon footprint that’s about half that of virgin plastics, Rasmus says.
Fortum hired additive manufacturing firm Maker3D to generate a prototype, which was unveiled in February. However, the company has no plans to put the chair in production. Rather, the goal is to demonstrate how recycled plastic compounds can add an element of sustainability for products that are particularly challenging to create, such as the Virén Chair—showcasing the power of resilience.