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MIT’s Self-Assembling Table Could Change The Way You Build Ikea Furniture

Imagine never having to waste a day interpreting confusing instructions again.

MIT’s Self-Assembling Table Could Change The Way You Build Ikea Furniture
[All Images: Wood-Skin S.r.l, Self-Assembly Lab, MIT]

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We’ve seen the remarkable programmable materials coming out of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab for years–things like magnetic chairs that could snap together in a fish tank, or textiles that could flex themselves into various shapes–but it’s always been research-level work.

But now, the lab has teamed up with Wood-Skin to produce a table that slides out of a flat pack box and, within seconds, pops into shape with no screws, nails, or glue required. On display at last weeks Salone Del Mobile furniture fair in Milan, it’s rated to hold up to 220lbs of weight. And the best part? It’s consumer-ready.


“I’m happy to say what we have in our hands is more than a prototype,” explains Wood-Skin’s Giulio Masotti. “It’s an actual product that could be on sale tomorrow.”

The partnership between MIT and Wood-Skin began about a year ago. It’s what the Self-Assembly Lab’s Director Skylar Tibbits calls a perfect marriage, and for good reason. Wood-Skin makes wooden panels that bend into virtually any polygonal shape. The Self-Assembly Lab makes textiles that can be sewn or “programmed” with a sort of muscle memory. Put the two together, and the result is something like their new table. It’s a jointed wood skeleton, connected by fabric muscles. Out of the box, the muscles pull the flat skeleton into shape. And once it pops into table form, the skeleton is arranged in a self-supporting geometry. The fabric has done its job and the payload falls to the wood.


For now, the duo has created a single table. But the core physics and materials at play–what the team calls a series of “smart hinges” that snap structures into place–could be implemented with other furniture.

“We’re creating a new design grammar made of hinges. It works a little like origami,” Masotti explains. “If you understand the grammar, you can design any type of furniture you want–a chair, lamp, or bookshelf.”

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Wood-Skin

With a company like Ikea, which took over the world with its cheap-to-ship, flat pack furniture, the chief criticism–beyond sometimes questionable quality–is the difficulty of building the stuff. You buy something you love, and then waste half the weekend putting it together. But Wood-Skin’s approach could eliminate assembly altogether while keeping everything else about the flat-pack model intact. Heck, putting together a living room of furniture could be simpler than setting up a camping tent.

But though it’s apparently ready for production, Wood-Skin has isn’t ready to put its new table on sale yet. Both Tibbits and Masotti were coy about the table’s future as a mass produced commercial product, but Masotti mentioned that he’d like to create a small line of furniture around the design technology, and insisted that it could be “very affordable.”

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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