image of a disassembled cane chair that can be flat-packed

Is the Future of Furniture Flat-packed?

Designing for easy assembly is back in vogue, because it’s a fast way to achieve manufacturers’ carbon-reduction goals.

Design for assembly (DFA) is hardly new. Thonet’s 1859 No. 14 chair, when disassembled, could be shipped in batches of 36 per 40-square-inch box.

Those cost savings tied to DFA are still valuable. And as it helped revolutionize shipping in the industrial era, it now carries prestige as a powerful carbon-reduction tool. In fact, DFA is currently the distinguishing feature of at least six highly visible product launches among commercial furniture manufacturers in just the past year. Notably, Huntingburg, Indiana–based manufacturer OFS earned a MetropolisLikes NeoCon award this year for debuting a dining chair that assembles “with a single screw”; Shanghai-based Stellar Works last year unveiled its Pagoda chair by BassamFellows, which it ships flat-packed in six pieces; New Zealand–based Resident launched a line of coffee and dining tables by Allbirds’ head of design Jamie McLellan that break down into six planks of wood at this year’s Salone del Mobile; Spanish brand Andreu World debuted its three-piece Adela Rex chair as the first in a series of easy-to-assemble plywood seating collaborations it has rolled out with designer Philippe Starck; and Loose Parts, a new manufacturer, has developed all of its products to fit together as a single kit of parts that users can reconfigure at will to make new furniture. To illustrate that capability, the company “reassembled” seating, tables, and storage daily during 2022 furniture fairs in Milan and Los Angeles. “There’s something empowering [for the user] about building your own furniture,” says Loose Parts founder Jennifer June.

a disassembled plywood chair in three pieces
Designed by Philippe Starck for Andreu World, the Adela Rex chair (above) consists of three pieces of molded plywood that can be assembled “like a puzzle. . .without fittings or screws.” Comprising six pieces and minimal hardware, BassamFellows’ Pagoda chair for StellarWorks (top) was partly inspired by Michael Thonet’s bentwood seating. TOP: ALICE GAO, COURTESY OF STELLAR WORKS ABOVE: COURTESY ANDREU WORLD

For manufacturers, there’s also something demonstrably sustainable about designing for easy assembly, because when that is the goal, a direct result is fewer parts and shorter production—cuts that naturally remove carbon-emitting steps from operations. In fact, few other carbon-abatement methods seem able to slash embodied carbon, shipping, and transportation for building products as quickly as flat-packed, easy-to-assemble goods can.

“Easily disassembled furniture has never been more important, given the need to reduce carbon footprints and [cut costs to] transport goods,” says Allbirds’ McLellan, explaining that “minimal [shipping] volume and maximal impact were both considered” in his design for Resident’s Plane tables.

A wooden table that can be taken apart
In its flat-packed state, the Plane Table by Resident “is a fraction of its assembled volume,” says designer Jamie McLellan. COURTESY TOAKI OKANO

Andreu World CEO Jesús Llinares says ease of assembly is also central to achieving a circular economy: “We’re developing our products to achieve 100 percent circularity by 2025.” This year, the company earned Cradle to Cradle certification for its entire product range.

To put DFA-driven achievements in context, consider that a report coauthored two years ago by senior professionals at McKinsey & Company and Barclays Investment Bank found that less than 25 percent of surveyed companies described their carbon-reduction efforts as being on track. Yet in order to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement’s global warming cap, greenhouse gas emissions would need to be halved every decade until 2050, the report says.

parts of a flat-packed bookshelf laid out on the ground
Three-year-old Loose Parts sells all of its furniture as a system that users can reconfigure into their own designs across the collection. Individual components in the system are registered Declare and Red List–free. COURTESY MADELINE TOLLE

If those efforts can be sped up by DFA, Loose Parts’ business model sets the highest standard. Its collections’ intense malleability seems built to feed a circular system that emphasizes recycling, reuse, and the right to repair. 

“The pandemic revealed the awkwardness of [people] reengaging with public life,” Loose Parts’ June says. “I wondered how our relationship to the office, restaurants, and retail had changed. That’s when I started to think goals for commercial furniture could be realigned toward adaptability, recombination, continuity, ease of storage, and healthy materials. I designed my company to be a creative partner as we adapt to those new requirements.” 

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