A new material technology displayed at Salone del Mobile in Milan means the future of flat-pack furniture, and a host of other industries, may become much more easy and efficient for the end user (unless you enjoy fiddling with IKEA wrenches). The Programmable Table, a collaboration between Italian design company Wood-Skin and MIT's Self-Assembly Lab, literally assembles itself out of the box, utilizing pre-programmed textiles to snap wooden pieces into place. According to Wood-Skin's Stefano Baruffaldi, energy is stored in a fabric mesh, a bi-elastic composite of neoprene and latex, that activates when someone unpacks and touches the table.
"Think of a flower, a complex structure and living being that already knows the blueprint it will follow," he says. "A skyscraper has a million pieces and takes years to build. Compared to nature, it's not smart. A leaf has so much complexity, so much information. We're still in the Stone Age of this process."
The Wood-Skin concept came after years of experimentation and design development by Baruffaldi and the Wood-Skin team, who met in school at Polytechnical Milano in 2010. Their product, a complex, computer-generated sheet of wood with the properties of a textile, was influenced by their studies in stop-motion animation. To refine the possibilities of this flexible material, they reached out to MIT's Self-Assembly Lab about a year ago, seeking to collaborate and utilize that lab's experience developing and working with programmable materials that can shape themselves.
According to Skylar Tibbits, Director of the Self-Assembly Lab, the collaboration referenced work the lab had previously done with textiles to make Wood-Skin jump and transform. They prestreteched an embeddable membrane then laminated it with wood; based on how they cut away joints, the designers could dictate the final shape the table would take.
"People see our work as abstract," says Tibbits. "It paints a picture of what's possible with materials in the future, and we try and develop technologies around those spaces."
The group's focus spans numerous industries, from sportswear and apparel to orthodontics and packaging materials, and Tibbits sees numerous possibilities within the furniture and architecture industries, including self-assembling modular construction.
"I think there's a spectrum of uses," he says. "We have a project with 36-inch diameter weather balloons that assemble themselves in the air. So you can go all the way to the Archigram/Buckminster Fuller idea of proposing new ideas of construction, buildings building themselves. The other end of the spectrum is much more humbe, things that adapt, transform and mediate environments, such as adaptive lighting, adaptive acoustics, adaptive temperature control, furniture that morphs based on different needs, flat-pack furniture that you don't have to assemble it. There are many things on that end of the spectrum that are about smarter environments."