The small world of multi-functional furniture
von Nancy Jehmlich | Nov 19, 2011

Despite the great deal of promise one might associate with the term, we are rather quick to use the expression "multi-functional furniture". But if we take a somewhat closer look, we see that this so-called multi-functional furniture is not multi-functional at all, but more often than not a wolf in sheep's clothing; for most of the time this furniture is simply modular or all-purpose, or is completely removed from its original function. There is a sincere lack of furniture that is even able to fulfill two functions let alone three, four or more. An example being built-in furniture: though many such units appear extremely practical, seldom are they true to the term "multi-functional". This also applies to system furniture – or is furniture based on the building block concept inherently such that it can fulfill various functions? To take the "String" shelving system by Nisse Strinning as an example, cupboard elements can be used to transform a small shelving unit into a large one; but it essentially remains an item of furniture used for storage and storage alone, not sitting, reading or sleeping.

Bi- rather than multi-functional

An all-time classic of multi-functional furniture is the sofa bed. In its ordinary state it is a sofa, but once opened out it transforms into somewhere to sleep. Another favorite is the bench with storage space beneath the seat. Yet the few examples that spring to mind – be it a bench that doubles up as a coat-stand such as "Yak" by Rupert Kopp , or a screen where you can also hang your clothes like "nan10" by Fabio Biancaniello, or even Pascal Mourgue's "Janus" sofa bed – remain more bi-functional than multi-functional.

Built-in furniture's big brother

There is usually a certain necessity behind the decision to design an item of multi-functional furniture, in most cases a lack of the space or money to accommodate various different items of furniture. However, this often gives rise not to multi-functional furniture but rather to related product categories such as sectional, modular and system furniture – ergo furniture that can be combined and assembled as part of a complete line of similar elements.

That said, built-in furniture can definitely provide intelligent solutions to a lack of a space. This was the basis for the architect Ernst May's housing project implemented after the First World War as a response to the urgent need for housing: a project that would prove to be one of the most significant for Classical Modernism in Germany. Between 1925 and 1930, a number of estates were built in and around Frankfurt/Main in accordance with May's concept of New Building. The ground plans for these apartments and terraced houses were at times extremely restricted in terms of space thus calling for new kinds of furniture and furniture systems. To make life on such a small footprint halfway pleasurable, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky designed the "Frankfurt kitchen", an effective, space-efficient built-in furniture concept. Over the course of the building project Frank Schuster developed a modular furniture system, its adaptability making for a flexible response to the peculiarities of any room, one element being a table that doubles in size when opened up. While it was Ferdinand Kramer who designed furniture that could be combined to suit the needs and tastes of the user, particularly well-suited to dwellings with small ground plans. The smallest dwellings on these estates were almost completely fitted with built-in furniture; it was said that you could move in with nothing more than a table and chairs. Practical, but was this really multi-functionality applied?

An early example of sectional furniture concepts is Bruno Paul's "expanding apartment" system, produced between 1930 and 1958 in the Deutschen Werkstätten in Hellerau. In 1950 Hans Gugelot devised the "M 125" furniture system, a set of building blocks with panels, brackets and metal fittings, which could be used to make various drawer and shelving units, room-separating elements through to built-in wall combinations. Rudolf Horn also came up with a variable furniture system, whose combinations were left up to the user to decide; this system became quite common in former East Germany, whose citizens were more than familiar with scarcity. Flexible, but multi-functional?

At this year's DMY in Berlin, Le Van Bo presented his furniture experiment – the "welfare apartment". "The idea is to make for maximum quality of living in the smallest space," says the architect. He has designed a complete set with all the furniture one would need to fit a 21m² apartment – for purposes of comparison, the same size as the smallest standard apartment in Plattenbau –, which is assembled by the occupants themselves, with the help of a few nails and some glue. Based on the "Ulm Stool" by Max Bill, the "Berlin Stool" is just one element from this program and similarly to its predecessor can be used as a table, stool or shelf. Useful, but multi-functional?

The multi-functional – a matter of collapsing?

In some respect, collapsible objects are multi-functional, provided that we consider "collapsing" a function in itself. Both collapsible and multi-functional products share the same objective, namely to save space. But communications designer Per Mollerup differentiates an item's ability to collapse as the auxiliary function from the objective function, to provide seating for example. "Collapsible objects are based on the concept of adaptation, a principle that simultaneously constitutes a fundamental survival strategy: If you don't adapt you don't survive," he writes in his book "Collapsibles". He also states that "People – themselves variable both physically and psychologically – need and want variable objects." But this is no more than a case of objects that remain "useless" in their collapsed state. The 19th-century "Ottakring ladder-chair", designed by Tyrolean monks in for their monastic library, provides a slightly different example. Ottakring is the name of a district in Vienna, where the chair is today manufactured at the Viennese design institution, Section N. This item of furniture has two objective functions, one as a ladder the other as a stool. Since its conception, the principle has been subject to numerous adaptations and a variety of different design concepts. Both Scoope Design – with their "Elda Chair" – and Benedetto Quaquaro – with his "Scalo" – have released their own interpretations of the ladder-chair, and both pay particular attention to design. Variable, but multi-functional?

From necessity to freedom

Whether collapsible for multi-functional, there is now an additional requirement that drives us in our efforts to create adaptable furniture: the need for freedom. This urge for freedom has found expression, for instance, in trailers and motor homes fitted out with complex built-in furniture solutions. In most cases their functional marvel consists in the seating area's ability to transform into a double bed. Otherwise there are many practical and above all space-saving features to make the user's stay more comfortable, such as adjustable shelving or disappearing stainless steel kitchen sinks. But we want to remain mobile in many areas of our lives, not just on vacation; we live, after all, in an ever-active, highly networked society. We relocate for our jobs, store books from our childhood in containers and use Facebook to maintain contact with family, friends and acquaintances all over the world. Thus this desire for mobility can be identified less as need and rather as compulsion. We place exactly the same demands on our environment, tools and resources as are placed on us. Adaptable apartments, multi-functional auxiliaries that help us through life, flexible infrastructure. Great visionaries have been anticipating our future needs and have designed the flexible apartment to suit a variety of future scenarios. Joe Colombo, to name just one of many, has devised so-called "dynamic pieces of furniture" or "living machines", which combine all the necessary functions and should adapt to the respective architectural framework. The "total furnishing unit" is a compact module that brings together a kitchen, bedroom, wardrobe and bathroom. Compact, but multi-functional?

The estranged object

Here we have perhaps come full circle. It is not our requirements that determine the objects' design, but the objects themselves that determine and change our existing habits and behavioral patterns. There are a number of multi-functional items that have succeeded in changing our relationship to the everyday objects that surround us. The clothes-hanger-cum-brush by Konstantin Grcic, for example, combines the actions of hanging our clothes and brushing them down. Yvonne Fehling and Jennie Peiz's chair-and-stool-and-bench is three types of seat in one almost sculptural item. And with "Snug" Bina Baitel created a luminaire that spills out into a rug. Although these examples may appear to unite diverse functions in one item of furniture, can we really think of them as multi-functional? Or are they rather hybrids? Or sculptures that move between product design and art, or innovative objects that stimulate our visual perception and question our habits?

Find a comprehensive overview of bed sofas here:
Bed sofas at Stylepark

Already published in our series on product-typologies:

"Everything that is furniture" by Thomas Wagner
"Do not lean back!" on stools by Nina Reetzke
"On tranquility and comfort" on lounge chairs by Mathias Remmele
"Foam meadow, stays fresh for longer" by Markus Frenzl
"In Chair World" by Sandra Hofmeister
"All the things chair can be" by Claus Richter
"The shelf – furniture for public order" by Thomas Edelmann
"How the armchair got its wings…" by Knuth Hornbogen
"Pillar of society" by Thomas Edelmann
"The rocking chair as a phenomenon for the arcades" by Annette Tietenberg

Stool for Two by Yuya Kurata
Scalo by Benedetto Quaquaro for Cerruti Baleri
Total Furnishing Unit by Joe Colombo, 1971-72 Ignazia Favata/Studio Joe Colombo, Milan
Interieur of the Appartment by Joe Colombo IV, via Argelati 30b, Milan, 1970 Ignazia Favata/Studio Joe Colombo, Milan
Interieur of Visiona I by Joe Colombo at the furniture fair in cologne for the company Bayer, 1968
Living Center Dinner-Element 1970 by Joe Colombo, photo: Galerie Ulrich Fiedler, Berlin
"Die wachsende Wohnung" by Bruno Paul, photo: Repros DW
MDW Programm by Rudolf Horn, Foto: Repros DW
MDW Programm by Rudolf Horn, Foto: Repros DW
Elda Chair by Scoope Design
Elda Chair by Scoope Design
Ottakringer Chair ladder, photo: Jürgen Hammerschmid, prodomoWien
Lighting „Snug“ by Bina Baitel
Lighting „Snug“ by Bina Baitel
Frankfurter Kitchen by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky
Frankfurter Kitchen by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky
Folding wall by ID Modus
Stuhlhockerbank by Yvonne Fehling and Jennie Peiz, photo: Philip Radowitz