BY Emily King in Profiles | 01 OCT 12
Featured in
Issue 150

A Lot of Small Things

Thomas Lommée’s inclusive approach to modular design

BY Emily King in Profiles | 01 OCT 12

The Belgian designer Thomas Lommée suggests we start ‘thinking inside the box’.1 Launched five years ago, his project OpenStructures (OS) proposes a potentially all-encompassing design system that is rooted in a unit of four-square centimetres. Lommée believes that the use of this common dimension will allow the growth of a modular design structure whereby individuals can make single parts that will fit together as a shared whole. In theory, OS could be the basis for designing both an object to hold in your hand and creating a structure to house hundreds of people.

The analogy for OS comes from the digital realm. The name is adapted from ‘open source’, a term invented in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s to describe software that could be shared by all, free of charge. Also inspirational to Lommée are objects in the physical world, specifically toys such as Meccano and Lego. Lego has changed a great deal over the last few decades, yet pieces made today remain compatible with those manufactured since the modern brick was first developed in 1958. As a result, it need never become junk; an outgrown collection can always be tipped in with one still on the go. 

OpenStructures work/shop designed by Thomas Lommée & Christiane Hoegner, Brussels, 2011. All images unless stated courtesy Thomas Lomée / OpenStructures

According to Lommée, the moment for OS has come for several reasons. In part, it’s because of the advent of technologies such as Google Sketchup and self-assembly 3D printers that ‘enable us, as non-professionals, to design and reproduce complex objects at home’.2 The idea that the end user might soon be able to draw and print anything from a missing screw to an entire kitchen has obvious appeal and is attracting a lot of attention from technological investors. That said, the only technology absolutely essential to the OS concept is the existing online network. Lommée’s website ( explains how the system works and is also home to a database where users can upload designs of their own, download those of others and review and rate all available parts. Lommée models the website on Wikipedia, ‘where different people all contribute to a bigger thing (rather than each building their own thing) with this difference that in the OS system people don’t contribute articles, but modular parts’.3 Another obvious distinction is that, while Wikipedia contains nearly four million entries, at the time of writing only 60 designs have been uploaded onto Lommée’s website, most by Lommée himself or by close acquaintances. Parts uploaded on the OS database range from 4×4 cm flat metal plates that could be used to join other elements together, to a 120×60 cm biogas digester – a tank that converts waste into cooking gas. As things stand, the leap from IKEA to OS is considerable: we’re not talking a collection of easy-to-assemble modules.

At present, the most visible physical outlet for OS is Lommée’s shop on a quiet road in a pleasant residential area of Brussels. Formerly a workshop for car parts, its large windows allow passers-by to see what is going on inside, but its lack of signage leave them uncertain as to the exact nature of that activity. I visited Lommée on a warm afternoon in late spring and we sat talking at the large worktable that fills most of the floor space, with the front door propped open to allow a breeze. Several times during our conversation I sensed that we were attracting the curiosity of people in the street. From the outside, the environment is obviously a workshop, but what is being worked upon is unclear. In theory, the shop would be a place to make, buy or exchange modular parts, but as OS is very much in a nascent stage, it’s a model for what such a place might be. ‘It’s not that it’s really operational,’ explained Lommée, ‘it’s like a prototype – it allows you to imagine what it would become.’

Cargo bike, 2009, designed by Jo Van Bostraeten with parts designed by Thomas Lommée. Courtesy Z33, Hasselt; photograph: Kristof Vrancken

When I quizzed him on the realism of his project, he admitted: ‘There will always be a group of people who will make and a group who will make if it’s easy – a group you could persuade to make – and then there will be a big group who will never make, but could take part in the system by returning and exchanging parts.’ Although much of Lommée’s project remains in the hypothetical realm, he has made plans for a system of modular children’s furniture that could be adapted to suit a growing child’s needs. ‘In that case the parent would be the engaged partner, making the chair into a rocking chair, and then later into a swing,’ he said. 

In writing, Lommée adopts an evangelical tone. ‘Join us in designing the most diverse modular system in the world’ is the headline for the leaflet of the project’s launch exhibition at Z33, a public space devoted to laboratory-style art and design exhibitions in Hasselt, Belgium. In person, however, he does not proselytize. ‘The nice thing about OS is that it has potential to really become something – that’s what makes me explore it further,’ he said. ‘The ambition is not to be the biggest modular system, but to understand the components and the economy around them and to work out what could happen.’ Apart from discreet invitations to his colleagues in design and related disciplines to contribute parts, he does not actively drum up support for his modular system. Nor does he insist that his students at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, where he teaches on the social design course, follow his lead. Jan Boelen, who is the director of Z33 and Lommée’s co-teacher in Eindhoven, told me that Lommée’s approach is simply to ‘present it and say, “Look, this is here.”’

Lommée’s shop is strikingly elegant. All well-ordered workspaces have a certain aesthetic appeal, yet the designer has created a utilitarian minimalism that exceeds the purely functional. The furniture and storage are built from pale, light-grained wood and the walls are covered in pinboard of the same material, drilled with holes in a four-centimetre grid. Lommée’s tools are attached to the walls, hung on hooks or placed in rails in neatly graded rows, and his power tools and clamps are positioned on the worktops in a way that lends them sculptural presence. At the back of the shop, Lommée has a kitchen built of wood recycled from an exhibition he presented at the Milan Furniture Fair in 2011. The units conform to the standard size – 60×60 cm – and he has a deep square ceramic sink taken from a dismantled science laboratory at an old school, a Catholic boarding school in rural Belgium. This sink is fed by high arched taps joined in a makeshift fashion with a length of translucent plastic pipe to make a mixer. Lommée’s preferred aesthetic shares a great deal with the British designer Jasper Morrison’s pursuit of the ‘Supernormal’. Both designers appear to have a desire for ordinary form that goes beyond what is ordinarily available (set out with the aim of buying a ‘normal’-looking tap or door handle and you’ll discover just what an elusive quality ordinariness is). 

Assembly diagrams for the OpenStructures Cargo bike, 2009, designed by Thomas Lomée

Boelen is wary of the aesthetic appeal of Lommée’s work. He described it as ‘the potential Trojan Horse of the project’ – a prettiness that could prove its undoing by placing the emphasis on OS style above OS substance. Joseph Grima, editor of Domus magazine and a supporter of Lommée’s work, on the other hand, sees OS’s attractiveness as a ‘powerful tool’. Grima has argued that the project of taking the open-source ethos from the production of software to that of hardware has so far been ‘an underground – almost hippy – movement, creating useless gadgets such as MakerBot [a make-it-yourself 3d printer] and its ilk’, which has been largely discounted by the ‘mainstream design establishment’. ‘What Thomas did in his exhibition in Milan that really stood out was to leverage this idea of creating a system or platform as a design project, rather than creating specific objects, and to give it certain rules in aesthetic terms that made it acceptable within the design community itself. Its aesthetic value makes it digestible to the high design crowd that was represented by the Salone’, Grima told me. 

Grima put Lommée’s work in the Domus exhibition ‘The Future in the Making’ at the Palazzo Clerici in Milan during the furniture fair in April this year. Exhibiting in the 16th-century Tiepolo-ceilinged Palazzo alongside several other designers, Lommée showed a modified bicycle design that began life in 2009 and, with the input of a group of peers, has evolved into a ‘cargo-bike’ that holds a square plastic box between the handle bars and front wheel. This autumn, Lommée will also be included in the Istanbul Design Biennial, which Grima is co-curating with Emre Arolat. Lommée is developing the design of an electric water boiler that he has constructed from modular parts in collaboration with craftsmen in Istanbul. The intention is to arrive at a design that is compatible with OS’s universal modular system, but is specific to its locale. 

Thomas Lomée and Jesse Howard, OpenStructures, Waterboiler parts and components, 2011; photograph: Kristof Vrancken

Before he developed OS, Lommée studied at Eindhoven Design Academy in the late 1990s, where he enjoyed the interdisciplinary approach, but found himself craving more formal teaching in mathematics and engineering. Drawn to graphic design, he graduated with a book titled 2.5 D in which he explores the potential of the borderline between the digital and physical. On graduation, Lommée worked as a graphic designer in the Shanghai office of the Dutch architect Neville Mars. In theory, the idea of standardized design already appealed to him, but in practice what he experienced in China was an oppressively top-down model. ‘People were numbers, and I realized it was the opposite of what I wanted to do,’ he told me. Chancing upon Canadian graphic designer Bruce Mau’s ambitious illustrated primer on multi-disciplinary innovation, Massive Change (2005), Lommée was inspired to enroll in the Mau-founded ‘Institute Without Boundaries’, which was based in the George Brown College in Toronto. There he spent a year researching ‘system patterns in housing’, an idea derived from the architect Christopher Alexander’s radically conservative thesis about the evolution of traditional systems of building called ‘Pattern Language’. Organizing information about 13,000 years of domestic history, Lommée became very interested in the life cycle of objects, which in turn led him to the insight that a modular design system could stem the creation of junk.

Lommée’s first step in creating OS was to define the basic unit of the system. He had a false start with 5×5 cm, but soon realized that using 4×4 avoided the problem of .5, the divided unit that immediately makes design more complicated. The project was still in its very early stages when he took it to Z33 with the hope of finding funds to pursue his ideas and space to show them to the public. Boelen told me: ‘Though I didn’t completely understand, and the project didn’t even have a name yet, it was clear that the ideas Thomas was formulating would be inspiring to a lot of designers.’ Boelen offered Lommée a stipend to continue research and produce an exhibition. Still involved with OS, Boelen is excited about recent developments, in particular those relating to scales of production. Taking the water boiler as an example, Lommée has produced series of diagrams exploring the networks and costs involved in producing the design in quantities ranging from one to several thousand. 

OpenStructures Waterboiler & parts and components, 2011, designed by Thomas Lommée & Jesse Howard, containing parts designed by Fabio Lorefice

As well as models borrowed from the design and distribution of software, OS has a significant antecedent in Enzo Mari’s 1974 project ‘Autoprogettazione’. Roughly translated as ‘self-made’, it consisted of a collection of designs for furniture that could be made using minimal tools and off-the-shelf materials. Mari was, and is, a militant figure and the project was more noteworthy in ideological terms – as a protest against industrially promoted inequality, than as a practical method of making furniture. Simple though they are, executing Mari’s designs would take a degree of craftsmanship well above that which most of us possess. While acknowledging the radical nature of Mari’s proposal, Grima told me, ‘the complexity of the system was much reduced by the fact that Mari was being willfully naïve. It was fine for Mari to be ranting about creating open design, a system by which everyone makes their own and he doesn’t make any money out of it, because at the same time he was working for all of the big Italian manufacturers.’ By contrast, Grima argued: ‘Thomas has a very hard-nosed realism, which I think is one of the most interesting characteristics of this generation of designers. He is trying to create a system where the professional designer still has a role, but is part of a larger eco system of production. The open source hardware movement is based on a desire to create new economies of production.’

While Mari’s project was decidedly gestural, whether Lommée’s suggestions are actually more practical is a moot point. In terms of its quality, the OS proposition lies some way between the art associated with ‘relational aesthetics’ and straightforward activism. However, it differs from the approach of superficially similar artists such as Tobias Rehberger, who sets up participatory models but is unconcerned as to whether people participate or not. MoF 94.7% (2007), for example, is a sculpture that looks something like a cartoon fireplace, which Rehberger invited viewers to copy on the proviso that, on the purchase of a certificate issued by the artist, the remake would become a piece of the work. Nor is it deeply practical, extensive and piecemeal in the manner of a non-profit organization such as Architecture for Humanity that draws on a network of 50,000 professionals who are willing to lend their expertise to help people in need. Asked about the criteria by which OS could be deemed a success or a failure, Boelen replied: ‘Don’t judge something for what it is, but imagine what it can become.’ Pointing to the example of Volkswagen, who, following a synchronistic but unconnected development, have just begun to manufacture all but one of their cars according to a set of standard parameters called Modular Transverse Matrix, Boelen argued that: ‘Old and new systems of production are coming together and Thomas is important in exploring the ideas behind this. He’s not showing the way, but a way.’ Lommée agreed: ‘I don’t think the whole world should be modular, surely not – I think diversity is the most important thing. But I do think that we could use a bit more modularity, and for me the most important thing is learning.’ Returning to the text of the Z33 leaflet, Lommée’s prediction for ‘the next big thing’?: ‘A lot of small things.’

1 Unless otherwise stated, all quotes taken from a conversation with the author
2 OS Manual 3.0, published on the occasion of the exhibition ‘OpenStructures’, Z33, Hasselt, Belgium, 2009
3 Ibid.

Emily King is a London-based writer and curator with a specialism in design.