What kind of furniture will furniture makers make in the future? Before we can reasonably predict the future of furniture, we need to understand the goals and values of the furniture's makers. Is it to build something practical? Engage in creative expression? Work practically within time and money constraints? Are we just trying to see if we can credibly perform one technique or another -- or make sure the piece is within our skill set or the range of our equipment capability? Are we striving to create an object of desire? These are all valid goals and of course they are not mutually exclusive.
I started thinking seriously about the future of furniture while talking with Corn Schmid, who teaches here at TFWW. Corn is in the middle of designing projects for classes. He was looking for furniture that a student could build, but more importantly, furniture that a student might WANT to build. And that started leading us down the garden path of the fundamental question: why should you build when you could buy?
The first impulse is to say that making something yourself makes it special. But at the same time, while my mom might treasure a neo-colonial mirror I made in ninth grade, I don’t think it’s a project that fits into most people’s lifestyle these days.
We can get into discussing practicality and use another time. On a deep level, what we all strive to do is create something that is meaningful to the end user. "Meaningful" can mean suggest usefulness or an emotional meaning or both. Most of the the time furniture (or any object we own, really) is just practical. Table, chair, desk, or bed: the reason Ikea makes a good living is delivering practical, useful objects at a great price. We know these items will eventually fall apart, but for now they solve a big problem.
Sometimes if you own something long enough it transitions from "practial" to emotional. The wooden desk chair I am sitting in as I write is a case in point. My grandfather, my father, and my mother all used this chair and I'll be damned if I toss it. I repaired it once already and I think it needs another round, and the back support just sucks. But it has become part of the family.
The mirror I made for my mom isn't that useful, but to her is has emotional meaning because I made it. But objects can have emotional meaning even without history or any personal contribution to their creation.
The teapot above is a mass produced cast iron teapot from Japan. It’s too small and inconvenient for everyday use, but when I do use it, making tea becomes a special occasion. I want to cup it in my hand, and when I see it on the shelf I wonder why I don’t use it more often. Obviously my attraction to the object is emotional not practical.
In some ways I'm saddened that people seem to have less and less interest in furniture that is not practical. But a great piece can and should connect emotionally with you. This past weekend I was in both Herman Miller and Design Within Reach and I noticed that Design Within Reach understands the emotional connection that people want. Their catalog is called "Objects of Your Affection." Sadly I find their stuff too generic to attract me, but I am not their ideal customer anyway.
As we simplify the furniture in our houses, and most of the time we only consider function and cost, it becomes more and more important that the furniture we build for ourselves and others does more. I can’t tell you that in the future we will or will not want a table to eat at, but I can tell you that if the table is anything we make as a single piece, it had better look and feel like something. Or nobody will care - including you.
On the other side of the coin, take a look at this Ikea ad that Corn showed me.
It's the opposite of what I am talking about. A perfectly good lamp gets tossed to the curb. Not demoted or given to a friend, but tossed to the curb and then to the landfill. What a waste. It's Ikea's business model so they can sell the same stuff again and again. After WWII my father came home from the war and went to college. At some point he bought a Dazor desk lamp. It was expensive at the time. About twenty years ago it broke but he liked the lamp and found a guy who easily repaired it. When my parents moved the lamp ended up here in the workshop where we liked it so much we got two more on Ebay. When you adjust its position it stays put and it gives off a lot of light. Basically the cost of that lamp averaged over the cost of its useful life is far less than the Ikea lamp.
So what might be one goal for designing furniture in the future? At least we want what we make to be useful. Ideally we would make something that is useful all the time, not just special occasions. At best we want to make furniture that engenders an joyous emotional response with the end user.