Novena Heirloom – a Laptop Computer

Novena Heirloom Design

I was approached by friend and collaborator Joshua Lifton of Crowd Supply to consider working on a design for a new laptop computer case. It took me a moment to realize he was talking not about a carry case but the actual housing for a computer system. Since we were already working on a specialized keyboard project, it seemed like a natural fit. The only catch – I had about three months to get it ready to photograph!

He provided the URLs for details on the hardware and as soon as I began reading I was hooked. Renowned hardware designer Bunnie Huang was creating an open-source computer with amazing specs and had already received much interest and positive feedback on the project.

I had been designing bespoke cameras for the better part of 25 years and was looking for a new outlet for my skills and design philosophy. As an Apple computer fan and an even bigger fan of Apple design precursor Dieter Rams, I was game for a challenge in the electronic hardware realm.

Right side open view - photo:Scott Torburg/Crowd Supply
Right side open view – photo:Scott Torburg/Crowd Supply

I jumped in and began work with excellent feedback from Josh and his partner Scott. The original concept more closely resembled a tablet without a touch screen – it was strongly hinted that the target audience was not in the touch screen camp! Before long I began working more closely with Bunnie on the project and the concept morphed in the laptop direction with a twist – the keyboard would be removable. Bunnie’s hardware is a hacker’s dream and easy access to the inner workings was a given.

Cables! – photo Scott Torburg/Crowd Supply

I considered a variety of approaches and finally settled on very familiar territory – the combination of metal and wood. My camera designs utilize this classic combination but with a more modern design character than the more common rectilinear forms. They often incorporate a fabrication technique similar to that developed for the British Mosquito bombers of WW2 and carried forth by the Eames design duo in their classic furniture designs. It is an effective means of producing the curved forms I admire.

I began a series of experiments with material combinations. It soon became clear that an alternative to my usual “cross-banded” wood veneer lamination might be useful in this instance. Leaning on my camera design experience once again, this time looking to the composite fabrication techniques used for some of my panoramic camera designs, I pushed harder on the experimentation and finally landed on a combination that worked. A hybrid not unfamiliar to contemporary surfboard makers, the Novena composite consists of outer layers of paper backed wood veneer over a high-density cork core with intervening layers of 5.5 ounce fiberglass cloth all assembled with a high modulus epoxy resin. The result is a very stiff and light weight material perfectly adapted to the vacuum-lamination process used to assemble them.

With this new material option in hand, I went to work on curves. Perhaps due in part to my background in luthery (guitar building) and my father’s career with Porsche, I have a great fondness for curves. And of course, a great advantage of curves is their inherent stiffness – expressed in its purest form in monocoque structures. In the case for the Novena, the structure relies on additional elements, perhaps qualifying it for the moniker “semi-monocoque”.

The final configuration of the Novena case relies upon this wood-cork composite material for the flat LCD bezel, the bent-laminated lower housing and an additional feature – a removable panel behind the lift-off keyboard that, with the keyboard removed, provides for full access to the interior of the system. A key feature of the design is the wavy pattern across the bottom of the case intended to improve rigidity and cooling from the bottom of the case while providing a unique visual element in the design.

Wavy bottom curves – photo:Scott Torburg/Crowd Supply

Completing the structure are machined side panels in 6061 aluminum with a simple facet at the top and bottom to emphasize the port array and articulate the overall form. The sides fit flush with the top components and transition around the front and back to extend beneath the curved wooden case at the bottom to protect the wood finish.

Left side with ports - photo: Scott Torborg
Left side with ports – photo: Scott Torborg/Crowd Supply

The design considers the ergonomics of the bluetooth ThinkPad keypad in continuing the keyboards’s subtle front curve down the front edge of the case to provide a comfortable palm rest. A simple cutaway at the center of the palm rest allows for the removal of the keyboard.

Removable bluetooth keyboard – photo: Scott Torborg

In an attempt to carry through a simple, artisinal quality in the design, I opted to show the friction hinges in a fashion reminiscent of lidded wooden boxes. A straightforward mounting arrangement will allow for a low-impact replacement procedure in the event of a very active user!

Novena-1010 section
Hinge and speaker/cooling port – photo:Scott Torburg/Crowd Supply

I chose rift-sawn white oak for the prototype but have an eye on options for the final version. An unobtrusive, hand applied finish will compliment the bead-blast-and-anodize finish on the aluminum sides.

I will be posting further updates on the design both here and at the Crowd Supply site during the campaign.

Kurt Mottweiler
Portland, Oregon

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