Future of Furniture
I don’t write enough utopia, and as a designer that’s bad news
The problem, the way I see it, is that mindfulness and being in the present are required for happiness but being in the future is required for being a designer.
Every interaction, every scrap of new information and existing infrastructure around us is ripe for being improved. That’s what design is: anything that annoys you currently is just lesser things begging to be solved better. As such, a designer is focused inherently on that bridge between annoyance and alleviation — the present and future. The space between zero and one.
Utopianism or soft sci fi or whatever you want to call it is that extrapolation into very unusual often impossible realms so that we can glean what the goal is and come back to it, work within reality to shoot in that direction.
So let’s talk about something that I’ve been stuck on for a while now.
LIVING and LIFESTYLES
It’s natural for young people to not really know what they want in life and naturally I’m in the same place right now. We look around and have no idea what we even like or don’t like or want to do with our lives.
I’ve graduated a handful of schools now and that feeling never really goes away: you’re handed a paper and you’re shaking some dean’s hand you’ve never met before but he’s ‘so proud of you’ and the brightness of those stage lights is comparatively dim to the existential glare of a train’s headlight in the dark tunnel you’re walking through called life.
But, you know. It’s fine; life goes on.
I don’t drink. I suspect this is why most people drink.
I draw houses and chairs and research Chinese laser cutters.
I made these this morning very early before getting to work.
The idea is just like, dirt cheap furniture that isn’t IKEA.
Because let’s talk about that blue and yellow monolith: no one actually likes it. I do — I go there like every week — and I help direct people through the sequel to Maze Runner and watch relationships crumble with fights over Swedish words neither of them can pronounce. It’s a glorious train wreck.
But practically, IKEA is actually just the default. If you’re a broke college kid (and who isn’t these days) you have the option of that or stores like Walmart which are about the same quality, a little more expensive even, and generally uglier and less convenient to ship. So the default is winning for a reason.
Winning though, on ubiquity rather than merit. I moved a few months ago and do you know how much of my furniture survived being taken apart and then put back together? One third. It’s just not designed for that. Once you plunge a screw into particle board, it’s structural until it has to come back out: you just can’t really re-thread screws into soft stuff like that and expect it to hold. Yet — after I moved, I went right back to The Maze and bought more!
The alternative is the “grown up” furniture stores. You know, the ones that have the word gallery in the name and you whisper instinctively when you walk around inside them for some reason. Nothing so vulgar as regular speaking volumes here in the furniture gallery.
It’s pricey. Feasibly I could afford anything in there but it just wasn’t really my style. I didn’t want or need or like solid mahogany heirloom bedframes. Suburban mom chic. The sorts of beds people stack 18 decorative pillows onto. As a generation we’re prone to nomadism, we don’t really want to own things that become burdens later on.
It’s not all bad though. I bought the FINNVARD trestle legs for my desk and they’re made of solid beech. Frankly, one of the best furniture pieces I could have asked for and I was willing to spend any amount at any store. IKEA totally had me covered there. So, rock on.
But why isn’t there more of that kind of thing?
Here’s what I want:
- quality enough that it works well in everyday living
- cheap enough that it’s not so precious as to limit my usage of it / leaving it behind later on
- not heavy / burdensome / heirloom that makes moving impractical if I do want to take it with me. I moved my IKEA queen bed frame in my MINI, but I’d sure hate to do that a lot or across country
- allows dis- and re-assembly without giving up and breaking
And I don’t think that list of requests is impossible.
We need to do a few things on the business end to allow this goal:
- Lean manufacturing both on the product side and the lineup side: offer as few parts as possible and make them as modular as possible, then enjoy quantity of scale benefits across lower sales volume (though, there’s not much scale pricing in laser cut wood anyway)
- No brick and mortar overhead, obviously. We like online shopping anyway.
- Distributed manufacturing if possible. Using materials and processes that can be set up and deployed anywhere rather than shipping everything across the world from a central factory. Furniture is heavy and expensive to transport, no matter how flat it is. Lasers exist everywhere metropolitan.
- Modern technologies for marketing and manufacturing. Leveraging new materials and methods that allow benefits the big companies will just start noticing in a decade. We can be faster and better than them easily.
You’ll notice my designs above have exactly two parts: there’s the board and the X, and the X is just made of two laser cut walnut plywood shapes slotted together. Super cheap material, relatively cheap manufacturing. Can be done on basically any laser of sufficient size and power.
It’s sustainable too, plywood is literally the scrap byproduct of all the other wood. They glue it together without formaldehyde like they used to, it’s great.
With those two parts we can make a daybed or a sleeping bed or a bookshelf. Probably a desk too, I didn’t even render that. With a third smaller board we could make coffee tables and bedside stands. Those same bookshelves could store boxes or drawers for clothes. Glass globe with a lightbulb in the X and we’ve got a lamp — you get the idea.
The idea is that everything is as flexible as possible.
I’m not married to the execution; I made and rendered those in like, three hours. There’s probably plenty of thought that can go into and improve them, but the idea is just for what we want our living spaces to be and how we can build them up with flexible blocks, whatever they are in the end.
And when we move, or when we need them to serve some other function, they’re obedient and can be used in those other ways just the same. They’re small, they’re real wood sturdy, you can drill into them and hack them up into other things, they don’t require power tools OR little allen keys to assemble.
That couch cushion could be like Casper mattresses: they ship to your door compressed and then you open the box and the foam expands into size. Imagine a whole couch in a 4L package that one person can easily carry through doors and up apartment stairwells and into any room they want.
So. Some ideas. It’s a work in progress of increasing grandiosity.
Part two is housing itself: building entire structures with these sorts of business tenets and tenants in mind. What does a nomad need in a building? What does a work-from-anywhere economy need? Demographically we’re going to have a ton of seniors in the next decades + a ton of young professionals delaying family-making. We don’t really need huge suburbs of family housing. We need a ton of two-person housing. What if we made really high end (but low cost) modern trailer parks that weren’t slums but instead apartments that are actually apart. Those sorts of thoughts.
Part three is economics of it all. What is income / social services needed for? Keeping bills paid and people off the streets. Where does a big chunk of our money go? Towards mortgages and rent. Why are the rents and mortgages so high? People buying more house than they need / non-ideal matching of people to buildings for their lifestyles.
You don’t need a massive basic income project if people could just live cheaper