Good news for lazy people: We’re one step closer to buying furniture that will assemble itself. I know, I know, we’ve heard this before. We’ve been teased with tiny self-building chairs and phase-changing materials that might someday eliminate the need for a toolbox. But this time it’s for real.
In its most recent project, MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab joined Italian design studio Wood-Skin to create the Programmable Table, which transitions from flat to fully built with a gentle tug. The goal was to find a way of shipping a flat-packed piece of furniture that would spring to life, like a pop-up book, when taken out of its box.
In the video, you see a hand gently bump a half-erect table causing it pop upright. In another clip, a man gives a flat table a gentle tug and, voila, the legs pull inward to create a self-stabilizing shape. Tibbits says when the legs are fully stabilized, the table is strong enough for a grown man to stand on.Milling out the skeleton of the table. Wood-Skin
To understand how the Programmable Table works, you must first understand how Wood-Skin makes its product, which is best described as a sheet of wood that behaves like fabric. Each piece of Wood-Skin is comprised of three layers: Two pieces of wood sandwich a layer of a strong, flexible synthetic textile. Using patented software, the designers generate complex tessellated geometries that fold into shape, like origami. This computer-generated pattern is milled into the wood, creating creases that allow the material to bend thanks to the textile hidden within. “Every line you see is a hinge,” says CEO Giulio Masotti. Where you put those hinges determines what shape is made.
The Programmable Table uses this same process, but replaces uses an elastic textile pre-programmed to pull the wood skeleton into shape once it’s out of the box. Tibbits “programs” the textiles, first by stretching them and then applying a sort of skeleton that dictates how the textile will behave.
“If you stretch textiles then release it, it will just jump up in a ball or some messy thing,” Tibbits says. “You have to figure out shapes and mechanisms that allow it to transform in a predictable way.” In the case of the Programmable Table, the skeleton is its wood frame. Pulled taut, the fabric lays flat, but when introduced to energy—say, a nudge or a tug—the textile springs into its originally programmed shape, kind of like releasing a taut rubber band.
The table is the most realized example of Tibbits programmable textile work, and hints at a future where assembling flat packed furniture will be as easy as pulling it from the box. Masotti says Wood-Skin plans to commercialize the table and wants to use the same concept to design chairs, shelves and bigger tables. When that will happen is yet to be seen, but you it’s not hard to see the appeal. As Masotti aptly put it: “Anything that moves by itself seems like magic.”