The craze for flat-pack furniture continues, but will it prove as fragile as a house of cards?
Portable"? "Easy-to-assemble"? Hardly the most glamorous of adjectives, true. Yet they're the ones most commonly used to sell the idea of flat- pack furniture. Headier still are the manufacturers' tributes to the stuff: "cost-effective", "handy for distribution", "easy to ship", and so on. But don't all yawn at once; a number of up-and-coming designers are giving it a humorous twist, which shouldn't surprise us. For these designers are experimenting with such low-tech, throwaway materials as cardboard and plastic and therefore don't take it too seriously.

Drawn to the obvious flexibility of flat-pack furniture, many of these designers take things a stage further, creating pieces that are also playfully multifunctional or modular. For example, London-based Roy Sant's flat- pack Dromedary table (price from pounds 750) has a well in its centre to store wine and sauce bottles, while drawers can be attached underneath. His Divider shelving, meanwhile, is modular: it can stand vertically or sprawl horizontally, depending on how you arrange its building-block units. Digby Vaughan's table, Instantable (pounds 500), inspired by origami, is made of a translucent plastic sheet that becomes 3D when you fold its pre-scored lines. A light fitting clipped on underneath illuminates it. "It would make an innovative lightbox for a photographer," quips the Glasgow-based designer. "But it's up to the owners to decide how to use it."

Despite its democratic appeal, flat-pack furniture was originally more gung ho than groovy. As the designer Michael Marriott points out, its roots are in "campaign furniture", the trestle tables and camp-beds used in military campaigns in the days of the British Empire. Habitat popularised the concept in the Sixties, and 75 per cent of its furniture is flat-pack today. IKEA's is all flat-pack. So, too, is a high proportion of furniture stocked by the London shop Aero. "The advantages for the manufacturer are that you can store a greater volume of furniture, distribute it more easily and reduce production costs," says Nazamin Kamali, designer and creative director of Aero. "For the customer, one rarely mentioned bonus is that it's easier to get a spare shelving component from a manufacturer, as flat-pack furniture comes as a kit."

Despite the trend for witty flat-pack furniture, much of it looks conventional and its appeal is primarily attributable to the ease with which it can be dismantled and taken with you when moving house, or stowed away to save space. Marriott, a London-based designer who is best known for his ergonomic and ecological furniture (it is often made from recycled materials), has produced a glass-topped Fast Flat-pack table and shelves.

"Flat-pack stuff is not as cold as some modern design classics," he says. "By assembling it, people can understand how it's made, which helps to demystify the design process."

Robert Kilvington, who is based in Barnstaple, has designed a flat-pack chair in seasoned oak, suitable for indoor and outdoor use. It looks traditional, yet it is made of three slabs of wood ingeniously held together by a stainless- steel pin.

Magma is another popular flat-pack seating design. This is a vinyl, three- seater sofa by Rock Galpin, of the London design company Orange Studio, and consists of several components, allowing it to be made into a sofa with or without armrests. Remove the backrest, for example, and it becomes a bench. Available at Liberty from early February, it costs pounds 1,778.

Next month, Liberty will also stock London-based Alex Macdonald's free- standing Display Shelves (pounds 425). Four 6ft vertical struts in springy plywood expand into an M-shaped unit when stretched apart by the shelves slotted between them. Pull the shelves out and the uprights concertina together. "You don't need screws and it can be put up in minutes," he says. Also easy to assemble is the London product designer Peter Forbes's CD-and- tape storage system, Isokon. Each unit can be wall-mounted and costs pounds 24.95.

Even Joseph is getting in on the flat-pack act with Black Jack, a collapsible, tent-shaped clothing rack made of super-chic wenge wood and leather (pounds 450).

Meanwhile - witty pieces by Vaughan and Sant aside - at the quirkier end of the spectrum the rising star Matt Wingfield creates chunky coffee- tables made of sheets of garish geometric patterns reminiscent of Sixties wallpapers (from pounds 65).

At the hip London shop Same, you can pick up Porro's Endless Plastic modular shelving system, comprising milky-white, Tupperware-like plastic boxes supported by metal poles (from pounds 1,720). Same also stocks Ron Arad's serpentine Bookworm shelf (pounds 195) - OK, it's not strictly flat-pack, but comes in a roll you can unfurl and hang in whatever arabesque takes your fancy - as well as Goods' folding rubbish bins made from recycled posters (from pounds 5).

Collapsible speakers? Yes, Pioneer has produced a set, available from the London shop Browns Focus, at pounds 45 per pair.

Even lighting comes flat-packed these days. Sant's Loop light, for example, is a pop-together polypropylene affair, and for Aero, Kamali has designed paper pendant lights (pounds 9.99 each) which she described as "a modern equivalent of the Chinese lantern", but these are tame compared with the Edinburgh- based designer Clementine Hope's pounds 40 "lightLight", "the world's first flat-pack chandelier". An image of a baroque chandelier is screen-printed on to four semi-opaque plastic panels that slot together to form a shade. Hope has also created a flat-pack trompe-l'oeil Louis XV table.

Some fear that the flat-pack craze will be as transient as the stuff is collapsible. "Shipping costs have come down so there may be less of an incentive to produce it," says Kamali. But she believes that cardboard tables and lamps have a less flimsy future. "They're always going to be hip."

Stockists: Aero (0171-221 1950); Browns Focus (0171-514 0063); Peter Forbes (0181-699 2756); Rock Galpin (0181-444 4707); Habitat (0645 334433 for nearest store); Clementine Hope (0131-221 1700); IKEA (0181-208 5607); Joseph (0171-590 6200); Robert Kilvington (01598 760356); Liberty (0171- 734 1234); Alex Macdonald (0171-729 7079); Michael Marriott (0171-923 0323); Same (0171-247 9992); Roy Sant (0171-704 1592); Digby Vaughan (0141- 221 8751); Matt Wingfield (0181-874 3001)