One of my many favorite objects in the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s amazing collection:

Accession #: 1995.21.1
Name/Title: ‘Expand-O-Matic’ Buffet and Table
Maker: Saginaw Furniture Shops
Maker: Sears, Roebuck & Co.
Origin: USA: Michigan, Saginaw


“Expand-O-Matic” Buffet and Table is an example of furniture that speaks to design striving to solve a problem. Whether it is as in this example, the needs to provide post-World War II demand for furniture for small spaces (think; track houses/apartments) or to address “new” trends in architecture (think; ‘modern’ open floor plans) design pushes innovations in form and function. Often when one thinks of residential furniture it is the style or fashion that is readily thought of as “the design” but the reality is that true furniture design is a cohesive blend – addressing need (function), scale, manufacturability, materials, and style/fashion. In his book Innovative Furniture in America from 1800 to the Present, David A. Hanks chronicles designs that are thought provoking, quirky, cutting edge and even strange that strive to serve needs, a market and a moment in fashion. The degree of success of any design is measured is how well (if) the need is met, the market and the moment are met; furniture design is no exception.

Was the “Expand-O-Matic” a success in its day? I don’t know. Would it be a success if reintroduced today? Doubtful – is it an interesting, even compelling design story? In my view, absolutely! When I was teaching furniture design one of my favorite assignments was to ask them to design a “multi-functional” piece of furniture, purely from a form, structure and scale point of view. No need to worry about “style,” the object won’t care if it is French, English, period or modern, and for this assignment neither do I. With major caveats being that their solution had to serve more than two or more distinct functions equally well, be manufacturable and have a market. Where on the surface this would seem to be a “fun” challenge – the reality is designing a product to serve one function really well is tough enough, understanding the constraints of manufacturing and materials takes real knowledge and positioning a product in a market is never simple. In our study collection at Kendall College of Art and Design, we have an English style (George I) library table circa 1810 with a green leather top and lion paw feet – a delightful object with a secret. The leather top serves to provides a surface to insulate valuable books from making contact with would what otherwise be hard wood and is ideal as a writing surface when using a quill-pen. The lion paw feet conceal casters allowing for mobility (to move near a window perhaps); but there is more. The secret under the top (hinged) is an engineered contraption that becomes steps leading to a ladder and two handrails. Care or need to put your library book away on a high shelf? Although it wouldn’t meet todays “safety standards”, I can attest from first-hand experience that the hidden steps, ladder and handrails function perfectly well! Both the “Expand-O-Matic” and our library table clearly surpass the design criteria of the “multi-functional” design assignment, beyond that each in their own way fit the demands of style and fashion of their day.

The “Expand-O-Matic” was designed to serve multi-functions as well; a room divider, a buffet, a table and chair storage (they fold); it has secrets and as I said earlier it is an interesting even compelling design story. Manufactured for the mass-market; wood, glass, plastic-impregnated bamboo, finish and fabric combined to make a statement of style/fashion, form and function. Today the “Expand-O-Matic” serves as an interpreter of a point in history in terms of both style and need and an inspiration to think differently when considering a design problem.