It’s got some fantastic potential, ecologically and economically.
Although it is affordable and versatile, as anyone who has wrestled with it will know, flat-pack furniture is not usually associated with quality, sustainability and intuitive assembly.
‘It’s got some fantastic potential, ecologically and economically, but it’s not viewed very well,’ says Emma Fox, a senior lecturer in industrial design at Massey University’s College of Creative Arts.
In a bid to challenge these associations, Fox is looking at new possibilities for flat-pack furniture using experimental and unfamiliar materials and intuitive assembly methods. ‘The associations with flat-pack furniture are that it’s poor quality, cheaply made in a way that exploits people or resources, and that it’s throwaway furniture not usually associated with lasting design. Those are the things that I want to challenge with my work because there are huge advantages; for example, because it can be shipped in a small volume, it costs less and has a significantly smaller environmental impact. Those aspects are important to maintain, but elevating it into a different market area is what I’m interested in. It’s making it more desirable, enjoyable and intuitive to assemble from good materials, meaning meeting ecological, experiential and economic challenges that are facing designers.’
Flat-pack furniture’s established principles have been in use for quite some time, and a particular panel of materials is also typically used, explains Fox. In a bid to loosen these restrictions, she designed a ‘Cloak’ cabinet, which explores principles of ‘clothing’ an object or furniture by replacing hard materials and traditional doors with textile-based magnetic ‘cloaks’. The cabinet’s cloaks are made from a composite material which Fox developed specifically for it.
The project has attracted much international interest and has won several awards, including the German Design Award 2017 for Excellent Product Design, and the Interieur Award Winner Object Category at the Interieur Biennale 2016 in Belgium.
Fox has exhibited the cabinet at the London Design Festival, at the Milan furniture fair, and also in Belgium. ‘It’s definitely an interesting way to test your product,’ she says. ‘The reactions are very visceral and usually pretty good — and if not, you learn a lot from it. The furniture gets viewed by both experts and the public, so you get a huge variety of people, which is an intense real-world way to test your work. In Milan, a lot of children come to the design week and that’s really interesting as well.’
In a real-world test of its portability, Fox travels with the cabinet, packed flat and taken as luggage on flights. ‘It can be challenging with the airline weight restrictions but that can be useful in some respects. It led to a whole lot of development around weight reduction.’
Now, Fox is working on a new project, a zero-waste flat-pack chair made from up-cycled material, with fashion designer and zero-waste expert Holly McQuillan. ‘Up-cycling is taking waste and bettering it — to make something that is of higher value than what it started out as — whereas recycling tends to stay the same thing, or become something of lesser value in some cases. It’s definitely something that needs to happen more.’
Making use of the international connections she forged while exhibiting overseas, Fox is working with a Danish company which produces up-cycled textiles out of waste or end-of-life textiles sourced from industrial laundries in hospitals or hotels, including bed sheets and towels. The fabric is minced into a fibre and reconstituted into a felt material, which can itself be up-cycled again, forming a closed-loop system.
A lot of my new research is finding a balance between the input of material and the end of an object’s life cycle.
‘A lot of my new research is looking into designs that are flat pack but also involve circularity in manufacturing, finding a balance between the input of material and the end of an object’s life cycle, removing it from the waste stream so you can remake the product or new ones using the same material,’ Fox explains. To test this concept, the chair will be made entirely from the up-cycled textile, and at the end of its life the chair itself will also be able to be recycled back into the raw material and remade. The production of the piece of furniture also uses all of the fabric, producing no waste textile material, and taking the ecological aspect of the design to another level again.
As well as her work at Massey, Fox is also the co-founder of furniture design company Well-Groomed-Fox, which she runs with partner Nigel James. The company has produced award-winning furniture, including ‘Notch’ porcelain lighting, which is handmade using slip-casting and highfire techniques, and ‘Apt’ shelving, a modular shelving unit crafted from ash timber and folded sheet steel. Recently, she established Studio Emma Fox to publish and delineate her new research work developed through her role at the College of Creative Arts, including her cloak furniture.