I want you to imagine a scene. You come home with a bundle of squished white fabric. You plug it into the wall like a heating blanket. And within 10 minutes, you have a new chair.
That’s the promise of a new materials technology being developed by Noumenon. Based on research into the ideal form of a self-deploying space antenna, designer Carl De Smet has been translating the latticework of pop-up metal into “shape memory polymers”–cheaper plastics that can be smushed for easy shipment, then popped back into their “remembered” forms later.
“The dream was to replace the ‘special assembling key’ from Ikea with the [popup] mechanism of the material,” De Smet explains. “The material is doing the work, wherein the packaging and the final product are the same thing, the same material.“
It’s the ultimate evolution of flatpack furniture in which the item and container are one. That’s not just elegant design for design’s sake, it’s a major coup for small furniture studios who want to reach a global audience. Flat packs allow shipping furniture quickly and inexpensively on planes. Bulkier furniture like couches circle the globe via boat, which is one reason it’s taking so long to get that loveseat you ordered three months ago.
Of course, the whole memory foam model only works if customers can control how and when this material comes to life as furniture. To control self-assembly, the foam is designed to be heat-activated. The transformation triggers at 70°C or 158°F–high enough, hopefully, to prevent turning a freight truck sitting in the sun into a Jiffy Pop on wheels. For domestic use, that’s a pretty high temperature to reach outside of an oven, which is why De Smet currently imagines a plug-in mechanism to trigger expansion.
So how far along is the project? At this point, the studio seems to be in small scale, proof-of-concept stage. The materials are still expensive, though like most polymers, they’d come down drastically with scale. And when I asked De Smet about the structural tolerances–could they make a dining room table, for instance?–he admitted that he wasn’t yet sure.
“If we talk about limitations, the best way to know them is to design them,” he writes. “We are still researching and fine-tuning the new possibilities/limitations.”