Self Assembling Furniture

We’ve seen demos of this technology from MIT and elsewhere, we finally have a public announcement of a “self-assembling” flat pack furniture product (in conjunction with Italian firm, Biesse). As Liz Stanton says in Wired, “this time it’s for real”. They call it ”Programmable Furniture – The Programmable Table”, though it definitely isn’t “programmable” by the user, and I’m not sure that it is “programmable” in any way at all.

As far as I can tell, the technique depends on a composite material that is a sandwich of wood and stretchy fabric (Wood-Skin®) Clever origami-like design creates a shape that lies flat and springs into the 3D shape of a (not especially nice) table. Kind of like a popup book. It’s really cool!

Actually, the computer assisted design is one of those so-simple-its-clever algorithms [1].  Part of the process is in the form “start with the shape you want, and step backwards into a flat pack configuration”.

There are many questions that can’t be answered from the images and papers.

How much weight will it bear? How wobbly is it? Is the table-top slippery? Easily scuffed or stained? Can I paint/stain/varnish it? Is it washable?

It’s difficult to know what the environmental accounting actually is. The product is made out of a combination of processed wood and exotic fabric and glue. Just what are the inputs and waste in this process? What oes the end of life look like for this material? Inquiring minds want to know.

What can be said about the design of the product?

I’m sorry to say that it looks like it is pretty much useless as furniture. A low, small working surface, with no place for your feet. A pretty poor table, no matter how cool the ‘pop up’ delivery mechanism.

Even more broadly, this magic “flat pack” delivery solves no problem that is particularly important. This is a really great innovation for furniture manufacturers and some retailers. But the benefit for consumers and workers is negligible.  Mass produced furniture with no assembly required:  this eliminates all the production workers.  Delivered direct to consumers by drone from computer eliminates the retail and distribution worker.

Eschewing the spirit of open and public research (not to mention crowd sourcing), MIT went directly from lab to commercial production. With patents and secrecy, hacking this technology is pretty difficult.

I wonder if we would have much better ideas for products if this material were widely available to hackers.


  1. Raviv, Dan, Wei Zhao, Carrie McKnelly, Athina Papadopoulou, Achuta Kadambi, Boxin Shi, Shai Hirsch, Daniel Dikovsky, Michael Zyracki, Carlos Olguin, Ramesh Raskar, and Skylar Tibbits, Active Printed Materials for Complex Self-Evolving Deformations. Sci. Rep., 4 12/18/online 2014.

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