Leaders of the flatpack: Self-assembly furniture is reinventing itself as clever, sustainable and stylish

If ever a type of furniture was in need of a brand makeover, it must surely be flatpack. It's loathed, the stuff of clichés – impossible instructions. No screws, just Allen keys. Most people will have a piece of furniture they've built, or attempted to cobble together at least, somewhere in their house, but most people will also have a horror story to accompany it.

Dr Miles Richardson, the programme leader in ergonomics at the University of Derby and the go-to man for the study of flatpack furniture, explains that we really do struggle with the stuff. "There is evidence that suggests that self-assembly furniture isn't just difficult to assemble, but can lead to frustration and damage to the product and injury," he says. Dr Richardson points to a 2006 survey which found that 67 per cent of 1,295 participants reported some form of difficulty during the self-assembly process. Some 40 per cent of brave souls attempting to construct a piece of furniture lost their temper before they completed it – perhaps because 33 per cent misread or misunderstood the instructions.

Fortunately, there are plenty of furniture designers determined to rehabilitate self-assembly style. Many of those experimenting with flatpack pieces today take a fresh, innovative approach. The Spanish company ABR has developed shelving which is actually made of chairs, neatly fitted on to each other and fixed with simple plastic cable ties. The size and shape of the shelving is up to you – and if an extra dinner guest pops round, you can even remove a few shelves and have yourself a fully functional chair instead. The Dutch designer Alexander Pelikan is pioneering digital furniture, where you buy the blueprint for pieces which can be fitted together, rather than buying the object itself. "The customer only buys the file needed for manufacture, steps into the closest milling facility and lets his piece be produced locally on the spot," Pelikan explains. His bold "ClicFurniture" fits together without the need for screws or glue, making a feature of the obvious joins. Pelikan says that his "immaterialised" product would "cut down a lot on transport and material costs, be very environmentally conscious, and above all it would broaden the freedom of design".

Flatpack furniture does have a history of innovation – it was certainly an original idea when Ikea pioneered it back in 1956. An Ikea employee was trying to fit a Lovet table into the boot of a car, so the story goes, when they came up with the smart plan of taking the legs off it. This simple but ingenious idea took off, and flatpack became part of the Ikea "concept", and was exported from Sweden around the world.

But somewhere along the line, innovation got lost among the Sunday afternoon self-assembly hell, and flatpack became synonymous with cheap, mass-produced rickety bookcases and desks.

One of the undoubted benefits of self-assembly, however, is its green credentials. It cuts down on size, which cuts down on shipping costs, which reduces the carbon footprint. Discerning designers have cottoned on to the fact that they can reap all the benefits of flatpack during transporting, while still producing interesting or beautiful pieces. Indeed, the self-assembly conundrum – how to make it simple to build but still sturdy – is one of those design constraints that may prompt imaginative solutions. The new flatpack furniture sometimes even advertises its status as such – consider the obvious slot-together stylings of Rawstudio's chairs, or the ClicFurniture loungers.

Jair Straschnow, a furniture designer from Amsterdam, won the Brit Insurance Furniture Award in February for his Grassworks collection of self-assembly furniture. It too offers self-assembly without the screws: Straschnow's designs use traditional interlocking woodwork techniques. He was looking to create a sustainable, but stylish, range.

"The Ikea concept is a genius one and a winning one, that is proven," Straschnow begins. "But the problem is that the price is the main factor, and cheap materials like chipboard, MDF and all sorts of other composite materials are not really durable, and are an ecological disaster. So what I tried to do is take that model, work with a quality green material – bamboo – and minimise the amount of metal and plastic."

While Pelikan's original ClicLounger was made of a high-pressure laminate, he's also been experimenting with eco-designers' favourite sustainable material, layered bamboo. "The whole line of ClicFurniture Bamboo was developed to get a more homely, cosy feel to the products. Bamboo grows five times as fast as the fastest-growing wood; you can virtually keep harvesting from a bamboo forest indefinitely."

Nick Rawcliffe, the man behind the UK-based Rawstudio, also wanted to do away with the nuts and bolts of furniture design. His slot-together chairs, and popular swing seats, which pack away flat but open out into a cocoon of wooden circles, come without complicated instructions or fiddly fixings.

"It makes sense to rethink the way things fit together," Rawcliffe suggests. "I was initially trying to be clever with geometries to eliminate glues and metal fixings. My hanging chairs get a really great response as people don't realise that they all pack flat when they are not hung up. The great thing is they require no assembly at all."

As with many new designers drawn to the flatpack approach, Rawcliffe is committed to producing sustainable products. "Usually there's no doubting the quality of fully factory-finished furniture but these days, the carbon footprint of the product itself is very much affected by the volume of space it takes up in transport and delivery. It makes sustainable sense for things to be as small as possible when they're being shipped around in vans."

His latest batch of furniture will be made using sustainable, UK-sourced sweet chestnut wood. Rawcliffe is committed to using quality materials, saying the most important considerations for his designs are "practicality, the batch-manufacturing process, and honesty in the choice of materials and aesthetic."

Because another problem with your typical flatpack furniture is that, well, it just doesn't look that nice. It's not just the wobbly construction – whether our fault for losing our tempers/a screw, or the manufacturers' fault for printing instruction manuals that look more like abstract art. It's also the materials themselves: chipboard, MDF, fake-wood finish, even cardboard for wherever it doesn't show. We live with our furniture day in, day out, and yet for years, we've been opting for stuff that feels disposable, flimsy, fake.

Some designers are making a tongue-in-cheek feature of flatpack's feeble materials. Skitsch sells grandfather clocks and slot-together kids' chairs that are obviously made of cardboard. David Graas' "finish it yourself", cut-out-and-keep card chairs and coffee tables see you actually making furniture out of its own packaging.

But whether your flatpack furniture is made of lovingly crafted sustainable wood, or disposable cheap-and-cheerful materials, contemporary designers are all trying to offer self-assembly solutions that are innovative and stylish, while still being sustainable and planet-friendly.

These intelligently designed pieces are not exactly stocked in Homebase, however, and can be pricey. But compared with ready-made pieces and their hefty transport costs, or even the faintly absurd trend for buying flatpack only to pay a company around £50 per hour to come and put it together in your home for you, the new flatpack may be a worthy splurge. And you never know – you might even enjoy assembling it.

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