In the final part of our series, new and innovative designs illustrate the trend towards transformative and flexible furniture. Something, according to Marcus Field, the Nineties generation needs
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The Independent Culture
If you want to identify the Zeitgeist of the Nineties, look no further than furniture. While 10 years ago pieces at the design end of the market were all twiddly metal and baroque, for the IKEA generation furniture is fresh and flexible, attributes which reflect our more diverse and demanding lifestyles.

"This is a time of great optimism in Britain," says Craig Allen, buying manager for The Conran Shop. "It is more Europeanised, and for the generation of people who were educated in the Eighties, there's no way they want to be in merry-old-England-style houses."

Instead, the urban chic and knowing townies are once again knocking their rooms through and filling them with what the organisers of this year's Milan Furniture Fair (the equivalent of the Paris catwalk for chairs) identified as "democratic products ... furniture, lamps and fittings which respect the new relationships between men and women, parents and children and people from different races, cultures living together." But if this new liberal mood has really been translated into furniture, how does it look?

Just on the border of Clerkenwell, home to some of London's coolest creative talents, is MY 022, the catchily titled showroom of the celebrated young designer Michael Young. Sca-ttered around the floor are a bunch of brightly coloured "Smarties", the neoprene-covered cushions he sells as seats. "I'm a floor-sitter myself," says Young, "and they're an alternative to chairs. But they do demand a certain amount of space and you couldn't put them on a chintzy carpet." Other furniture in the super-low, super-laid-back Michael Young range includes his new "Fly" sofa. "But I don't care about questioning what furniture is," shrugs the designer. "I just want people to think, `hey, I could sit on that'."

This casual, non-dictatorial app-roach to products is also present in the latest work of Tom Dixon, one of Britain's best-known makers of fashion furniture. Where in the late Eighties he was renowned as a leading exponent of welded salvage, his new piece is in the coolest rotation-moulded plastic. Call-ed "Jack", after the eponymous children's game from which it also takes its form, the piece is described by its maker as a "sitting, lighting, stacking kind of thing." Each "Jack" is fitted with a light bulb giving it a soft glow, and the units can be stacked up in the corner of a room to form a lighting tower. "Then, when you've got your friends around you can take down your light and sit on it," says Dixon. Its plastic form is surprisingly comfortable, "you soon forget you're sitting on something ridiculous," he adds. With an optional circle of glass on top, "Jack" also makes the illuminated base of a coffee table. Take the top off again and it's durable enough to kick around a loft apartment.

As an example of the multifunctional tradition in manufactured modern furniture - a lineage which can be traced back through post-war Italian designers like Joe Colombo to the Modern Movement, and further to the ingenious inventions of the 1851 Great Exhibition - "Jack" marks the shift away from conventional solutions like sofas and chairs and a renewed quest for innovations. But what differentiates these pieces from their more complicated forebears is that they are simple and unequivocal in both use and form. "If `Jack' had loads of mechanisms to transform it, people probably wouldn't use it for more than one thing," says Dixon. "You don't have to do a great deal to make it into something else."

This demand for flexibility in contemporary furniture reflects the unpredictability of modern life. Via-duct, a leading showroom and supplier in this field, recently introduced the "Four Times Table" which seats two for everyday use but which can roll out to seat 12 or 14. "The market is for the busy couple who suddenly remember they have lots of people coming to dinner," says Viaduct director, James Mair. "The second table can be rolled out on castors from under the first to make it bigger, or they can be used as two separate tables."

But in a world driven by commercial viability and the limitations of existing manufacturing technology, the most radical challenge to conventional furniture comes from the work of recent graduates and student designers. "I wanted to make something that was useful and charming," says Tomoko Azumi of her "Chest=Table", the small folding piece she showed in her final show at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in 1995. The table contains storage compartments so that when the whole thing is folded it looks like a simple chest of drawers. "We live in a small space so we needed a folding table, but this allows us to store things in it, too." Together with her husband, Shin, Azumi has set up a London studio where the pair concoct their ingenious solutions. The latest piece, again inspired by compact living conditions, is called "Bench=Bed". This takes the form of a simple wooden casket containing a soft mattress. "But it is more than a sofa," explains Azumi, "because you can sit on it and put a tea tray on it, so it is a table as well. And if you put small cushions on it you can take a nap." When the casket is opened up and the mattress unfolded, the bench becomes a full-scale bed.

"There is a tradition of designing furniture to meet new functions and lifestyles," explains Floris van den Broecke, RCA's Professor of furniture design. "Think of Eileen Gray's work in the Thirties. People have to design for new circumstances and contexts."

RCA students certainly live up to the challenge. "I don't think there was a single piece in this year's show that didn't have a double function," says van den Broecke. Among the works on show were two pieces by Thomas Hall, the first an intriguing chair which folds out to become a table and the second a cafe table which, when folded and hung on the wall, doubles as a photo frame.

Even more provocative is the conceptual work of a current RCA furniture student, Gitta Gschwendtner. In her Kingston University graduation show last summer, Gschwendtner show- ed a chair/chest of drawers on which you can't sit comfortably because of the drawers protruding from its back; a rug/magazine rack which challenges you to walk on and around it; and a stool/lamp which dares you to sit on the bulb projecting from its centre.

According to Michael Warren, head of furniture and product design at King-ston University, the quest to engage users with the furniture they see is the tonic for the uncertain Nineties. "There is an uneasiness about the digital world, but young designers grew up with computers and feel a strong need to put people back into contact with things." One of his former students, Lawrence Garwood, this summer showed his "Plastic Handbag Chair", the legs of which unscrew and pack away into the seat forming a bag.

A good example of an everyday object which courts human interaction is the "Dromedary Table" by Leeds Metropolitan University graduate, Roy Sant. This dining-table incorporates a series of movable shelves and cupboard units under its surface, while a covered recess in the centre is designed to accommodate anything from a dish of soy sauce to a bottle of ketchup.

If this desire for interaction, flexibility of use and familiarity of appearance could be summed up by a single piece of furniture, then that product could be "Plyable", the appropriately named object that is at once table, stool and chair. Designed by Gordon Russell of Detail, the company he set up after graduating in furniture design 10 years ago, the principles behind the product are that it should combine broad utility with good looks for a low cost. The result is a simple piece in birch ply with an unbleached cotton seat. "But it fulfills many other functions," says Russell. "It is useful as a side- table, you can eat off it while you're watching television, you can put up the back to make a chair and you can stack it up for children to reach the level of a dining-table."

In addition to its flexibility, "Plyable" is good value at pounds 69. "It takes 30 seconds to assemble if you're clever and one-and-a half minutes if you're not," claims the designer.

But if you really want to know what makes this piece of furniture the most friendly, the most urban, the most Nineties of all, then get this: it comes winging its way to your door packed in the familiar flat cardboard box of the home-delivered pizza.

Marcus Field is deputy editor of `Blueprint'

! `Smarties' and `Fly' sofa at MY 022 (0171 837 7125); `Jack' at Space (0171 229 6533); `Four Times Table' at Viaduct (0171 278 8456); `Chest=Table' and `Bench=Bed' at Azumi's (0171 435 5398); `Dromedary Table' by Roy Sant (01829 781473); `Plyable' at Detail (0171 488 1669); `Plastic Handbag Chair' by Lawrence Garwood (0171 713 0404). `Stool/lamp' and `Chair/chest of drawers' by Gitta Geschwendtner (0171 590 4285).