Have you noticed how ambitious furniture has gotten these days? An easy chair that is simply content to be a place to sit is taking the easy way out — why shouldn’t it also be a table? Bookshelves are reinventing themselves as couches; prim, buttoned-up benches lead secret lives as voluptuous sofas. The Calypso Chair, a contraption more functional than a medical exam table, can be configured in so many different ways it should probably come with its own on-board help system.
Such aggressive utility is not unprecedented. In 1866, an Ohio man named Charles Hess obtained a patent for a piano, that along with all the standard piano parts, also contained a trundle bed, two closets, a four-drawer bureau, a writing desk, and a sewing area. In 1927, a pair of cousins, Edward M. Knabusch and Edwin J. Shoemaker, founded the Floral City Furniture Company and began producing The Gossiper, a telephone stand with a built-in seat and storage space. Two years later, in further pursuit of furniture innovation, they created a chair that would eventually be known as the La-Z-Boy recliner.
Compared to Charles Hess’ invention, the La-Z-Boy recliner was a fairly modest magic trick: It functioned as a comfortable chair, and then, thanks to its integrated reclining mechanism, it transformed itself into an even more comfortable chair. Unlike the one-bedroom piano, however, the La-Z-Boy actually made it past the patent stage and into the nation’s living rooms. In an effort to duplicate its success, manufacturers started producing copycat recliners and other kinds of technology-enhanced, multi-tasking furniture, like the Sears Studio Couch and the Simmons Hide-A-Bed.
Given our current economic woes, the vogue for double-duty furniture seems obvious: If we can get a coffee table that moonlights as a loveseat for the same price as a coffee table that merely sticks to the functionality promised by its name, why not? And certainly, we’re interested in any space-saving opportunities available to us. In 1980, the average American house measured 1,700 square feet. By 2008, it had increased to 2,438 feet. Not even Barry Bonds has bulked up so extremely, and yet who among us doesn’t feel squeezed? In 1980, there were just 276 Wal-Marts in the country. Home shopping channels didn’t exist. Neither did eBay. You could only buy used golf clubs on Saturdays, if your neighbor happened to be having a garage sale and you had enough cash on hand to complete the transaction. We had less space, but we also had way, way less stuff. So relatively speaking, we had more space.
But does anyone who can afford to buy a $4,750 coffee table that turns into a loveseat need to pinch pennies? And aren’t they probably living in an apartment or a house big enough to accommodate a coffee table and a loveseat at the same time along with, say, a full-grown couch, an armchair, an ottoman, and multiple tables of varying heights and widths?
More important than the actual utility afforded by desks that turn into beds or a chair that becomes a desk that becomes a lectern is the luster of utility they imbue our lives with. Plain old chairs, tables, and desks are so 15th century. They might have worked for Leonardo da Vinci, but we lead busy, complicated lives and can’t have furniture that just sits there like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, doing the same thing over and over and over again. We are on a spiritual quest to attain higher and higher levels of seamless efficiency and fruitless productivity, and our iPhones can’t shoulder the burden of our dreams entirely by themselves, can they? We need furniture that is as promiscuously versatile as Swiss Army knives — chairs that are 300 percent more chair-like than normal chairs, coffee tables that blossom into dining tables, stoves you can sit on without setting your ass on fire.
Many of these household chameleons never make it past the prototype stage, of course, and that’s all right. In fact, it’s fantastic. Simplicity and sustainability are part of the appeal of multi-modal furniture: A bookcase that also functions as a dining table presumably clutters your life less than a stand-alone bookcase and a stand-alone dining table, and it takes fewer resources to build. But an imaginary bookcase/dining table is even simpler and more sustainable than a real one. No resources are required for its manufacture, you don’t have to throw out your current bookcase and dining table to make room for it, and you’ll never find yourself agonizing over the notion of selling your vintage paperback novel collection just because you’d like to make it easier to set the table every night.
Best of all, even as mere ideas, such innovations can still inspire us. Say, for example, that you’re a subprime mortgage lender contemplating a new career as a diagnostic medical sonographer. Or a journalist thinking about becoming a plumber. Such radical transformations may seem daunting, but, hey, if a couch is resourceful enough to reinvent itself as a bunk-bed in a matter of seconds, surely there’s hope for you, too. In these hard times, multi-tasking furniture gives us the sort of comfort and support even a Saarinen Womb chair can’t provide. At $1,630 a pop, wall décor that transforms into a folding chair may be unaffordable to all but a bailed-out and bonused AIG exec. But as long as the unemployment rate flirts with double digits throughout much of the country, such stuff will continue to enthrall us. • 18 March 2009