Into the fold
Think 'flat-pack' furniture, and what comes to mind are bleached pieces of wood stuffed into a box made by a certain iconic Swedish firm, or cheaper Taiwanese imports. But the notion that furniture - or accessories - can be dismantled and rebuilt easily, taking up little space in shipping or storage, is being increasingly explored by cutting-edge designers worldwide. In a major step forward some have created pieces that can be reassembled in minutes, a refreshing change from their predecessors, which required engineering degrees just to get started.
Designers say the burgeoning interest in the field is perhaps due to the frequency with which people move homes, or even countries. Also, says Milan-based designer Alessandro Loschiavo (www.aled.it), who with colleague Michele Russo created a table that can be taken apart in minutes, the trend taps into a desire for lighter, easier pieces. 'People love to move their furniture from a room to another, from indoors to outdoors and from one house to another,' he says.
His WaTable, essentially a circular acrylic top on a translucent container base that can be filled with 12 litres of water, meets these criteria. A carbon-fibre tube connects the top and bottom and, dismantled, the separate pieces allow for easy transporting. 'It has been conceived for areas straddling the indoor-outdoor border, whether at home [porticos, terraces and patios] or for temporary or seasonal public settings,' says Loschiavo. The WaTable was launched at the end of December, and production negotiations are under way.
Jumping on the bandwagon, Finnish company Artek (www.artek.fi) last year introduced its Quick Ship/Carry Away programme, which allows its more popular items - stools, coat racks, chairs - to be dismantled and placed in flat boxes with handles and carried out of the store. Online retailers such as Unica Home (unicahome.com) carry the pieces, which range from US$300 to US$500 and come in traditional birch veneer as well as black or red linoleum or white laminate.
Flat-pack furniture's affordability is something else that can no longer be taken for granted. Dutch designer Charlotte van den Brand's Pattern Cabinet (www.lots-work.com) can be custom ordered for a cool Euro14,000 (HK$150,000). Van den Brand developed the cabinet, which can come apart and be put back together in minutes, as part of a graduation project in 2009 for her design school, Design Academy Eindhoven.
'I became inspired during my travels and volunteer work in Africa by the rhythmic patterns in textiles, wall paintings and body decorations,' she says. Those references can be seen in the Pattern Cabinet, which is constructed out of a series of four parts in walnut and wenge wood that fall into place like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. 'In its closed state, it is a sideboard with a typical African pattern,' she says. 'Pull the loose elements upwards and you create a much larger cabinet with additional space and new patterns.'
The piece has caught the eye of design critics, who appreciate its inherent playfulness and versatility. 'People like the way you can build it up in all different kinds of positions,' she says.
The trend is also seen in accessories. The Airvase by Japanese company Torafu Architects (www.torafu.com) is an ingenious little item that looks initially like nothing more than a drinks coaster. But made out of a surprisingly resilient paper 'fishnet', it elongates into a vase, bowl, even lamp. Flatten it again, toss it into a purse and take it anywhere.
Swedish designer Jesper Jonsson (www.jerperj.se) was going for the same sort of practicality when he created his Soul Cell collapsible lantern, a solar-powered lamp that squishes down to practically flat. The item, which was designed in 2009 but whose production is still being finalised, is essentially a micro version of a stage lighting system Jonsson designed for a chamber orchestra, allowing musicians to have a flexible light while touring. His focus, he says, is solar-powered lighting, and that eco-friendly ethos translates to his affinity with collapsible and flat-pack furniture. 'I think we'll see more of it on the market in the next couple of years,' he says. 'There is an increasing awareness of sustainable furniture design. Flat packaged is more economically and environmentally friendly to ship. I also think there is a need for furniture that is easy to store and put away, when we get more used to compact living conditions.'
Still, no matter how convenient a flat-pack piece of furniture is, it still needs to be sturdy and strong. New Zealand designer Roderick Fry solicited the advice of a retired bridge engineer in creating Pi, his three-piece dining table sold through French furniture retailer Moa Room (www.moaroom.com). The angled legs allow for a table top to slide through and be held firmly in place.
There appears to be no limit to what is being produced in the field of flat-pack furniture. At international design collection Arcademi, (www.arcademi.com) designer Burkhard Schaller created the Magdalena Gravity, a kitchenette that can be dismantled in such a compact way that the whole lot - sink, counter, utensils - can be thrown into the back of a car. There are slots to hold sieves, detergent, paper towels and scrubbing brushes, but with the use of bent wire components everything can be folded up into a 90cm by 105cm by 70cm piece. More's the pity the dirty dishes can't be similarly downsized.