Flat-Pack Design: Past, Present, and Future

Twice in the last few months I have been out to FabLab Baltimore, at CCBC Catonsville. Last week, I took the introductory workshop that is a prerequisite for using the facility. At home, I've been hard at work on the CAD files that will translate my Ziptie Lounger into some form that a CNC router will understand. All of this is in preparation for prototyping my first machine-made piece of furniture, which I've posted over at OpenDesk, a platform for distributed design. Distributed design, in its simplest form, operates something like Instructables -- a central online repository of DIY manuals that folks can follow to make their own products. However, making something from scratch still presents significant barriers to entry, namely skills, tools, and time.

OpenDesk, along with similar startup Assmbly, are challenging (or, to use a current term of art, "disrupt") the traditional design-manufacture-wholesale-retail model that the furniture business has operated on for a hundred years. Designs are uploaded to the OpenDesk site, where they can be downloaded directly for free or, for a fee, sent to a local networked fabber who will cut, sand, and drop-ship the parts to the consumer's doorstep. Everyone in the chain -- OpenDesk, designer, and fabber -- make a small profit. Due to the nature of both the fabrication machines and the distribution network, all of the products are flat-pack.

 An exposition of Mr. Lambert Hitchcock and  his famous chairs. 

An exposition of Mr. Lambert Hitchcock and his famous chairs. 

The story of flat-pack begins with the story of interchangeable parts and mass manufacturing. Lambert Hitchock, a Connecticut Yankee, opened a factory in 1818 that made chairs with simple, repeatable pieces. Presumably, they were made with jigs and patterns -- common in woodworking already -- machined with water-powered saws and lathes. At its peak, his factory produced 15,000 chairs a year. However, such a system still required the shipping of whole, assembled chairs to distant markets, no mean feat in an era of horse travel and primitive railroads. Chairs, in particular, are bulky, be-legged items that take up a lot of space and refuse to pack tightly in confined spaces. 

Sears Roebuck pushed into mail-order mass production in the 1890s, selling everything from guns to instruments to furniture. In 1908, they began selling entire houses in flat-pack form, selling 70,000 25-ton units over the next 30 years. Each kit was shipped by boxcar, and came with every part needed for assembly, down to the nails. Sears pioneered the use of drywall, asphalt shingles, and, most importantly for the evolution of housing in the U.S., balloon framing. Following in their footsteps, open-source startup WikiHouse is attempting to design a flat-pack house for the 21st century. However, for all their advances in the art of production and shipping, Sears Roebuck overlooked flat-packing smaller consumer goods, continuing to build furniture in conventional ways. 

 Sears flat-pack home ad,  via Boing Boing . 

Sears flat-pack home ad, via Boing Boing

According to U.S. patent records, the first true flat-pack furniture design, a side table, was invented by Erie Sauder in 1951. A woodworker, Sauder had been using scraps of nice hardwood leftover from bigger jobs to craft small spec pieces. One was handsome enough to garner an order of 25,000 at a trade show, forcing him into mass-production. Sauder lives on today, employing 2,500 in a small Ohio town making ready-to-assemble consumer goods as well as commercial casework. 

However, there is abundant evidence that folks were exploring flat-pack before Sauder. Michael Thonet's iconic No. 14 chair, first mass-produced in 1859, was made of eight pieces of steam-bent wood and ten screws. It could be shipped disassembled to save space in boxcars. Box Furniture, by Louise Brigham, was published in 1910, detailing how to make simple furniture from the bones of wooden shipping crates. While not strictly pack-flat in nature, her designs used a set of conventions -- butt joints, bypass connections, simple tools -- that are still in use today. Architect Kem Weber released his Airline Chair in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression. It shipped flat, ready-to-assemble by the consumer, but was likely too expensive and poorly marketed. Only about 300 were ever made. 

And then, of course, in 1943, Ingvar Kamprad founded IKEA.

 Fine example of Kem Weber's Airline Chair, via I Antique Online.

Fine example of Kem Weber's Airline Chair, via I Antique Online.

Ikea produced its first flat-pack design, the Lövet Table (I guess they've always been fond of umlauts) in 1956. According to legend, designer Gillis Lundgren had to cut the legs off of the table to fit it in his car and was struck by a hex-key shaped thunderbolt of inspiration. From there, IKEA has grown into a massive, many-headed beast, inflicting its particular brand of bland, obtuse modernism on 590 million customers a year. Some estimate that Swedwood, Ikea's milling and lumber processing operation, consumes fully 1% of the world's wood each year. That number is set to grow as Ikea pushes into China, the world's largest consumer market, and, coincidentally, the largest timber importer. 

Flat-pack design is pitched as a modern, sustainable solution to the bulky and difficult business of furniture production. It is materially efficient, compact to ship, and made of sheet goods that make economic use of timber. However, all of those things are also drivers of flat-pack's unsustainability -- cheap enough to encourage mass consumption, distributed by a vast fleet of fossil-fuel-powered machines, and made of flimsy particleboard larded with toxic glues. IKEA, in the search for profits, made furniture a disposable commodity instead of a durable good, and has turned its ravening appetite on the world's forests as a consequence. 

 Vintage IKEA catalog, via Nordiska Style. 

Vintage IKEA catalog, via Nordiska Style. 

Co-option by massive corporations doesn't necessarily invalidate flat-pack as a design method in and of itself. Flat-pack disrupted traditional furniture design and production methods extremely effectively. However, the lessons of Sauder and IKEA also point to some of the perils of success -- mass adoption turning into planned obsolescence and unsustainable consumption. 

OpenDesk, Assmbly, WikiHouse, and Ponoko are tweaking this paradigm, using new technologies to bend flat-pack towards more democratic ends. Using a free and open network, they are able to set up shop and market themselves for very little upfront investment. Moving digital files over the internet to distributed manufacturing centers, they cut down on fuel-intensive shipping. Tapping into local designers and local fabbers breaks down traditional hierarchies and distributes profits more equitably. By utilizing digital technologies, they are able to offer true mass customization, including the use of more sustainable plywoods

Of course, there are huge challenges in rolling out these businesses, but I find them to be extremely encouraging for the future of design and manufacturing, and I will be keeping close tabs on their progress.