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Design: Flexible friends

The latest modular furniture systems can be stacked or linked to make unique combinations. Jessica Cargill Thompson played with some of them. Photographs by Oscar Paisley
The late great designer Verner Panton once said that his chairs should create "a kind of chair-landscape, which refuses to be just functional". Originally proposed in the Sixties, his idea of furniture as an interior landscape seems particularly pertinent today amid the late Nineties mania for flexibility, where domestic space is often required to take on more than one function.

While Panton's philosophy was captured most dramatically in his undulating Pantower (1968) - moulded polyurethane foam shapes which could be arranged to create benches, enclosed seating chambers, or even whole rooms - today's designers are adopting a similar philosophy, albeit with calmer results (white ceramic, bent ply, wenge wood and stainless steel supplanting moulded foams and plastics as modish materials).

Modular systems of stacking and linking elements invite people to play with their furniture, adding more and more to suit their needs. Meanwhile, aesthetic pleasure can be derived from watching individual items take on a new significance when duplicated and arranged as part of a group. Though the cynic might see it as a ploy to get us to part with more money, design-conscious shoppers are enjoying the dynamism of duplication.

Taking up where Ikea's Sten shelving system leaves off, Italian studio Zerodisegno has developed Silvergate, a stainless-steel shelving/cupboard system consisting of ladder uprights of various heights, stainless steel or beech shelves, and clear polycarbonate doors. This designer Meccano can create anything from a wardrobe to a cocktail cabinet, with far chicer results than the mass- produced pine sold in edge-of-town superstores.

The possibilities of the curve as an interlocking element have also been utilised to great effect in storage systems, witness many a coloured plastic CD rack. The most recent traveller on that bandwagon is Platt & Young's Blister cabinets for Driade. Tall, laminated MDF cabinets sport coloured plastic doors in a choice of orange, blue or cream, the undulating edge of one unit neatly locating into that of the next.

Shamelessly exploiting a desire to play are Jam's Freeforms, 68 cm-wide Zotefoam blocks made up of two U-shapes enclosing a square. Described rather loosely by the designers as "multi-functional objects", the elements can be combined to create benches, thrones, footstools, magazine racks, futon beds, coffee tables and even a rocking horse.

Modular units provide flexibility and interactivity, but when the same single element is endlessly repeated it can also instil a satisfying sense of calm. Werner Aislinger's Poro shelving takes a simple cube-shaped box and goes on to replicate it on the same grid ad infinitum; Michael Sodeau's white ceramic Scooped Brick, a wonderfully tactile object in its own right, can help form anything from an ashtray to a dimpled wall; Olgoj Chorchoj's beautifully smooth Matrjoska V laminated wooden lozenges balance unattached on top of each other; while Wonky's drum-shaped Tom-Tom storage units stack one on top of the other like giant bits of Lego to create a multi-coloured totem pole.

One of the most talked about pieces of furniture to emerge this autumn has been Nigel Coates' OXO chair for Hitch Mylius, launched at September's 100% Design exhibition. Originally created for his Oyster House, the futuristic housing prototype that caused a stir at this year's Ideal Home Exhibition, it was conceived as a solution to flexible living in an open-plan space, allowing you to create private seating areas. The organic O and X seats (covered in a wide choice of fabrics, with fashionable boucle already a best-seller) provide stylish individual chairs or can be fitted together in a line of O-X-O.

On a smaller scale, Jasper Morrison has created the long-awaited sequel to his much imitated stacking bottle rack for Magis - a hanging file. Made from the same jelly plastic in the same flat-pack configuration, the unit consists of two X-shaped side pieces with A4 hanging folders suspended in between. Moulded tabs on the top of each X correspond with holes on the bottom to allow a whole tower of files to be built up.

More noughts and crosses for Babylon's white moulded concrete OXO lights (no relation): O-shape from front, X from side, with the bulb set in the centre of the O. "The whole idea is that you can not only stack them, but you can lay them down and make other forms," say the designers. "When the light shines out of the top and out of the sides, you can achieve some really interesting effects."

Fernando Rihl of Procter-Rihl, designers of the Perspex Synapse vases, which can be linked together like a series of nerve cells, sees flexibility and stackability as an architectural way of thinking (not surprising, then, that both Procter-Rihl and Branson Coates are RIBA-registered practices). "A lot of architects now like to use sliding panels to create changeable space, and with our designs it's a similar idea of connections and flexibility," he says. "Some designers create pieces that are just to be looked at, but we like to create an interaction with the object. It's like having toys that you can play with and link together to create different structures." So whether it's an interior landscape you are looking for, or your own giant toy box, bypass the garden centre and Hamleys and head straight for your local design store

Stockists for items not pictured

Scooped Brick, pounds 6.50 each, by Michael Sodeau, from Same (0171-247 9992). Wardrobe/shelving system, from pounds 1,600, by Zerodisegno, from UFO-Modern Living (0161-819 2880). Freeforms, approximately pounds 300 for a three-part block, by Jam (0171-278 5567) at Same. Poro shelving, from pounds 183, by Werner Aislinger, from Same. Tom-Tom storage system by Wonky, pounds 76, from UFO-Modern Living