Why you should care
Because with rent prices this high, your sofa really should be pulling its weight.
As a young mom-to-be who loved Vancouver’s city life, Alison Mazurek had a choice: She could go further in debt for a larger apartment, give up urban living or find a way to squeeze baby into her 600-square-foot apartment. “Doubling our mortgage didn’t seem like the right answer, so we started looking for out-of-the-box ideas,” she says. So Alison and her husband, Trevor, opted to think small and shell out big — for a $3,500 bed. But not just any bed. This model folds into a wall, giving 21-month-old Theo his own playroom by day and Mom and Dad a place to sleep by night.
Thanks to a growing demand for transformable furniture, designers are now better able to help folks like the Mazureks stay in their tiny abodes, no matter how big their family grows. Thinking of adding a second bedroom to your home? Why bother when you could toss in a $30,000 Tango Sectional, complete with sofa, shelving, queen-size wall bed and cabinetry instead?
Of course, dual, multifunctional and transformable furniture has been around for centuries — medieval monks, for example, made stunning oak benches that folded into tables, and boats as well as mobile homes have long sported tuck-away furnishings. But demand for smaller, beautiful and multifunctional pieces is hitting fever pitch, fueling increasingly clever designs in the furniture and furnishings market, which topped $101 billion in the U.S. alone in 2013, up from $85 billion in 2010, the data portal Statista says. Ron Barth, co-founder of Resource Furniture, the exclusive North American distributor of transformable furnishings giant Clei, tells OZY sales of the Italian brand’s products are 71 times what they were in 2007.
This demand for multifunctional pieces is fueling increasingly creative — and sometimes whimsical — designs.
Chief among the push for shape-shifting solutions is the rise in urbanization. The proportion of those living in cities is likely to chime in just below 80 percent, on average, by 2050, the United Nations says, up from just over 60 percent in 2007. At the same time, rents and real estate prices are rising, and people are finding “space is getting smaller,” says Irish designer Orla Reynolds. She and her peers are therefore banking on more consumers like the Mazureks looking for greater functionality to retain their metropolitan ways of life, hence her plan to provide customers with shelves that remain shelves even when the embedded table and chairs are pulled out.
The shiny object syndrome also plays a role. “Adding features to something makes it more appealing, almost like when you buy a car,” explains Lothar Windels, an associate professor at Rhode Island School of Design’s department of furniture design. Windels also points to the merging of life and work within the home, and this changing living scenario — with the advent of telecommuting — has consumers looking for furniture that can be quickly transformed from work to living mode. And Seth Stem, Windels’ colleague at RISD, thinks such furniture is more popular with younger generations, driven partly by a growing environmental awareness.
This demand for multifunctional pieces is fueling increasingly creative — and sometimes whimsical — designs. Most are practical, like Austrian designer Verena Lang’s picture frame-mirror that folds off the wall into a detachable dining table for six (around $2,800). Then there’s Coupé, a sofa-to-bunk-bed solution from the Greek firm Proteas that young children can transform within seconds (about $1,450). Clei also offers entertainment centers that slide to reveal beds and that pricey Tango Sectional, while other offerings out there include under-stair storage and stair drawers, hollow chairs seating both bums and books, knives hidden within knives, chairs hidden within chairs and extendable dining tables that let modest apartment dwellers entertain like kings.
And why shouldn’t our coffee tables expand like a Transformer to seat 18? After all, we’re demanding more from everything these days at home and at work — from watches that track our health to laptops that serve as televisions. But some would say that the thinner something is spread, the less effective it becomes. True dual-purpose furniture is rare, so most of those pieces entail giving up one function for another: You can’t use both the sofa and bed at the same time, in other words. We “don’t want to rearrange our furniture constantly,” says Windels.
The other obstacle, of course, is all the zeros. Prices on many of these items are sky high, which, as Reynolds freely admits, is a problem for designers who want to commercialize high-end, affordable solutions for the apartment market. Barth is less apologetic, though, noting that his solutions are far less expensive than buying an extra bedroom in urban hubs like New York City or London. “In one 12-by-14 room, they can have four people sleep, have their home office and their den, and have their cake and eat it too,” he says.
There’s likely to be a trickle-down effect in coming years, experts say, with the best multifunctional designs being adopted by mass manufacturers such as IKEA. Meanwhile, designers like Clei are blazing ahead, looking to add multifunctionality to every corner of our lives — they’ve even begun working on a collapsible kitchen.