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BBC - Culture - Is the future flat-packed?

Minimalist Scandi furniture is ubiquitous – and addiction rates continue to be high. Wherever you live, the chances are your go-to supplier of unadorned, pallid, wooden chairs/beds/bookcases is Ikea. The Swedish firm has cornered the market in cheap-and-cheerful furniture with an inoffensive aesthetic.

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But while such pieces don’t force us to dig deep (financially speaking), they come at a hidden cost: hours spent on hands and knees in front of sheets of instructions, struggling with myriad parts and the dreaded Allen (or hex) key. Because Ikea is the champion of flat-packed furniture, and has been ever since the launch of its simple, stable, circular Delfi table in 1953.

The ‘joys’ of self-assembly have become familiar to many of us around the world

For Ikea, the system was a solution to the high costs and damage rates of transporting furniture via mail order. The Swedes had hit on something else too: by cutting down on their manufacturing costs, they could pass along some of the savings to the customer.

Plenty of other manufacturers followed suit. So much so that in recent decades, the ‘joys’ of self-assembly have become familiar to many of us around the world.

However, many in the design fraternity have mixed feelings. “We love Ikea because it’s cheap and efficient, but it’s reduced the quality of our environment,” says Tom Lloyd, co-founder of London product design practice PearsonLloyd.

John O’Leary, design director of new UK flat-packed sofa company Swyft, echoes this: “now, we all just expect more in terms of quality, design and production, compared to when the flat-pack revolution first evolved.”

Increasingly, designers around the world are creating ranges that distance them from the flat-pack’s low-quality image. And they are applying as much design thinking to the crafting of these pieces as they are to the aesthetics. In some cases, like PearsonLloyd’s Cross Chair for Danish company Takt, the stylish look of the chair is informed by the intuitive way it is put together.

Lloyd explains the thinking: “We took the idea of the wine box, where two bits of cardboard slide together, with a slit to make a structure. We imagined that any customer would see two notches cut out of the cross frames and would see how it would work.” Each of the cross parts comprises one front leg and one back leg diagonally opposite each other. “As soon as you drop those two elements together you have a stable structure to start with,” he adds.

Other ventures hoping to push design up flat-packed agenda include Swedish manufacturer Hem, Mexico’s Luken, and Nomad in the UK.

Most of these products boast of needing no or very few fixings, and of having a design which makes assembly pretty self-evident. At Swyft, for example, O’Leary developed special fasteners of cast aluminium and folded steel, which allow the base, arms and back of the sofas to slot together quickly and securely.

Box fresh

Some designers see flat-pack as a way of tackling issues around material wastage. Luken’s Mecedora chairs are made from recycled plastic milk bottles. For founder Paola Calzada, “the origin and commitment of the company is not measured in sales or revenue but in the quantity of reused product”. The high-density polystyrene panels are flat, “therefore our products are born flat,” and slot together, says Calzada. And because this material lasts a century and “is so resistant to the elements, we did not want screws or glue to run down with the passing of time”.

Likewise, Nomad’s prototype Ocean Plastic Chair is cut out of a sheet of 100% recycled ocean plastic. The five pieces slot together with no tools or fixings, explains London-based architect and designer Henning Stummel, who is behind the Nomad range.

Likewise, Nomad’s sofa is made of just one sheet of ply, and a roll of fabric or hide, “maximising the efficiency of Nomad and eradicating any wastage from the production line”, Stummel says.

While some pieces hint at or even flaunt their self-assembly, Takt’s Cross chair takes a more subtle approach. “What’s surprising with this chair is that when it’s assembled it doesn’t inform you of its flat-packed nature,” says Pearson Lloyd, co-founder Luke Pearson.

Creating good-looking, good-quality furniture which is easily assembled at home involves many hours of testing and prototyping. This extra design effort is possible in part because of the distribution model such companies are using: selling direct to consumers rather than through shops. “You can afford to spend more time and money making these products because there’s less of a mark-up (than going through a wholesaler or retailer), so you get a higher quality product,” says Lloyd at PearsonLloyd.

This suits digital natives who are more and more comfortable with buying such items online. And its eco-credentials – transporting smaller boxes rather than bulky ready-built items results in a lower carbon footprint – makes flat-packed furniture particularly appealing these days. Swyft’s sofas are transported in a box that takes up a fifth of the space of a sofa that arrives already assembled, and Nomad’s Ocean Plastic Chair flat-packs into a standard pizza box. What’s more, furniture that is as easily disassembled as it is assembled makes sense for light-footed Generation Rent.

While individual customers have an increasing array of good-quality, good-looking flat-packed furniture to choose from, the world of contract furniture – which produces items for commercial settings such as hotels, offices – has been in on the act for years. However, instead of being put together by the end-user, assembly is usually carried out by specialist fitters.

Danish manufacturer Carl Hansen & Søn has recently got in on the act with Preludia – its first range created specifically for the contract market. Preludia’s designer, New York-based Brad Ascalon, explains: “We’re not attempting to dumb down the quality or the design in order to fit into a smaller box.”

If good design can help self-assembly shake off its shoddy image, then the future is flat-packed

As an alternative to relying on specialist fitters, who can charge high fees for this service, UK manufacturer Allermuir has a chair for the contract market which is simple enough for anyone to assemble. Designed by PearsonLloyd, Folk chair’s wooden legs screw into the aluminium frame elements. The curved back is then trapped into place, with no visible fixings.

Meanwhile, Ikea has also been trying to improve the lot of the self-assembler. The solution: a wedge dowel, which was invented by prototype engineers at the Ikea pattern shop in the Swedish town of Älmhult. It’s a small ribbed fitting that’s milled on the end of wooden legs. Meaning that back at home, customers can click them directly into a matching pre-drilled hole in the underside of a table top.

If good design can help self-assembly shake off its shoddy image, then the future is flat-packed. As Keiran Hewkin, founder of Swyft, puts it: “I think the question really should be, if the build quality is just as good, why would you want something that is bulky, in one piece and can’t be moved or potentially taken into your new place? That’s actually a compromise and a limitation on your lifestyle, not the three to five minutes it takes to assemble the piece.”

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