Soft Thonet

Brief: This was an industrial design project. The requirement for the project was to turn an ordinary object into something extraordinary.

Solution: A supportive armrest to ease the process of getting in and out of the dining chair for people with limited mobility. 

Recognition: Selected as part of Cooper Hewitt exhibition of student projects proposing design solutions to improve accessibility or inclusion in 2018.

Individual project

Duration: 3 months


Define the problem

I started the project by observing people and their activities in my daily life.


Through the contextual inquiry, I found that many people, especially the elderly, encounter a limit in dexterity and mobility. These people often need some form of support to ease their daily activities. For example, a senior may rely on a strong armrest to get in and out of a dining chair. However through my observation, I found that a lot of the dining chairs in our daily life are not friendly to these users who need extra support.

How might the design enhance the experience of getting in and out of dining chairs for users with limited mobility?


My Design


Easy access to the chair

A foam-covered armrest that blends seamlessly with the classic lines of a Thonet bentwood chair to create a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing adaption that allows for improved stability for users getting in and out of the chair.




Understanding the context

Since the user group was people with limited mobility, I started my research by visiting senior centers. One of the problems I immediately identified was that the dining chairs in some of these centers did not have armrests. The seniors instead had to hold on to the dining tables for stability when getting in and out of the chairs. 


Market research

Dining chairs in the market may or may not have armrests. Based on the earlier research, the ones with armrests are more friendly to the elderly. Within the dining-chair-with-armrest category, there are various types of armrests. I have investigated different forms and materials of these armrests to identify their pain points. 


Idea of an extended armrest

In order for the users to grab the seat more easily, I came up with the idea to have a slightly extended armrest. 


Since my focus was on the armrest, I decided to adapt an existing dining chair to improve the experience of getting in and out of the chair.


Form development and material exploration

At the beginning, wood was used for the armrest due to its warm feeling. As the form developed further, stainless steel bar became the ideal material because of its roundness, sturdiness and pliability. The cold feeling of metal could be compensated by installing soft foam onto the metal bar.


Selecting a dining chair to be adapted

In order to find an ideal existing chair to work on, I compared various dining chairs and sketched their possible adaptions. The one that stood out was the one that resembles the well known Thonet chair.


Quick mock-up on Thonet

The Thonet chair was selected to be the original model before adaption. Foam was directly attached onto the chair to help me visualize the curvatures of the armrest. The foam also allowed the armrest to appear seamlessly integrated to the Thonet chair.


Final prototyping

After the curvature of the armrest was finalized, I brought the technical drawings and a mock-up to the metal workshop. A foreseeable method of mass production is CNC metal bending. However in this case, the final prototype was made by hand with the assistance of Adam, who is a metal shop technician at Pratt Institute.