In a bid to replace IKEA-style flat pack furniture, Carl de Smet of Brussels-based Noumenon has been working on a research project for a self-assembling chair that grows from a small foam cube into shape when heated.

For the past six years, de Smet has been working on a research project – Memories of the Future – at his Brussels design studio. Here he has been experimenting with new smart materials, particularly shape memory polyurethane (SMPU), to discover new ways of designing and producing ideas.

“In recent history, a number of design concepts around self-build furniture have emerged, from the classic flat-pack and blow-up furniture to the open source activity of 3D printing, holding many promising avenues. But emergent design ideas can build further on the advances of new materials with specific designed properties,” explains de Smet.

Of particular interest to de Smet are SMPU materials that can be programmed to change shape. In other words, they have the ability to return from a temporary shape to their original form through heat. This means that a designer can create an object from this foam, a chair for example, that can be easily milled from a solid block. Through heat, it is compressed into a cube 20 times smaller than the original form. Then, once at its destination, it can be expanded through heat again into its previous ‘programmed’ state.

“Shape shifting, or changing the configuration of an artefact, is the most challenging design, on all levels. The shape literally forms parameters and boundaries where designers and engineers work and define the visual language,” comments de Smet.

In terms of flat-pack furniture, this new-type of self-build furniture will also do away with packaging. “The packaging doesn’t exist; it’s only temporarily imprinted as a frozen compressed shape,” explains de Smet.

Although the original prototype was created to compress and expand in an oven with temperatures of 70ºC, this will not be possible in the home. So, de Smet has been working on a prototype that will achieve the same results but with electricity being passed through it. The object will expand in 10 minutes by plugging it into a socket in what de Smet refers to as “plug and pop-up furniture”.

He is also working on a another prototype where the end user can reshape the form to their liking.

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