Self-assembling foam furniture

A Belgian designer is working with smart materials which expand under heat to form any desired shape. This self-construction is possible using a shape memory polyurethane (SMPU), which expands to a preset design at the flick of a switch.

The designer, Carl de Smet, explains how the material works. The foam expands under heat. In an SMPU object, the assembly mechanism (expansion) is part of the material. You buy a sheet of rolled-up foam. At home you plug the object in to a power supply and it expands, turning into the final object – in this case an armchair – in about 5 minutes.

The material used is memory-moulded polyurethane, which is compressed to 1/20th of its original volume. It expands when heated to 70°C. If the design is not to the owner’s liking (or if the object needs to be moved) then heat can be reapplied. The object then becomes soft and squishy and can be recompressed.

Essentially, the material does the work, changing from flexible to rigid with minimal effort by the user. Think of the polymer material as lots of strands of spaghetti, explains the developer. The cross-links between the strands are pre-arranged to make the material take on a particular shape. If heated, it becomes pliable – but the material ‘wants’ to return to its natural shape.

This programming happens at the molecular level. This also results in another fantastic property of the material. It can self heal. When heated it becomes malleable, like a putty, and can be simply reshaped. To a certain extent, it will automatically refill holes, scratches and so on.

It’s easy to see how such a smart material – used effectively in smart, self-assembling furniture, could have a huge impact on the design of household objects. The designer is working with scale models at the moment but says he should have marketable, full-size furniture within 12 to 18 months.
The name, Noumena, refers to the philosophical concept of an intangible object: a thought, an idea. As this self-forming design shows, the future will be ‘shaped’ by such ideas.

Stay tuned for more smart materials. They are the focus of Materia’s next annual show, Material Xperience 2014.