Soup tureens, card tables, huge dressers that span the length of a room: the history of design has plenty of examples of objects that were once an essential part of daily life, but that we now scarcely need.
Domestic objects are a fascinating barometer of social change, and, thanks to the popularity of smartphones, tablets and laptops, furniture that supports a screen-centric lifestyle is on the rise.
John Lewis has introduced a sofa under its Design Project label with arms that can click down to a 90-degree angle, allowing the user to balance a laptop on the edge. Configured at a lesser angle, the arms provide a headrest for those who are more laptop-resting-on-the-thighs types (or for reading a book).
Some may baulk at the ergonomics – these poses do not remotely conform to expert advice about how to use a laptop or tablet without unduly straining yourself – but it’s now the norm.
“We carry out a lot of research into how customers are living, how spaces are changing, and how people are interacting with things,” says Johnathan Marsh, buying director for John Lewis.
“We’re responding to macro trends such as ‘dual-screening’, when the TV is on in the background but people are on their laptops and phones as well, constantly multitasking.”
The retailer has seen a rise in the popularity of side tables that cantilever over a sofa or bed, so that devices are immediately to hand.
“The other big trend we’re seeing is a sofa with a wooden table attached, so the technology is sitting there and ready to grab so you don’t have to cross the room to get your laptop,” says Marsh.
“Some of the designs coming through combine the best of soft furnishing with beautiful wooden accessories.”
What hasn’t taken off are sofas and chairs with built-in USB sockets, so you don’t need to trail a laptop cable across a room. “We saw a big trend about five years ago where USB cables were being added to everything, but it really didn’t resonate with customers,” says Marsh.
That concept seemed to flop because people didn’t like the idea of plugging in a piece of furniture. However, objects that are already powered (such as bedside lamps) have proved more acceptable and practical.
ROM’s Donato sofa, for example, is an electric recliner with an option for an integrated timber side table, the Q Box, with charge points inside.
Bed company Simba has done the same thing with its adjustable Motion Base: the moving bed needs to be powered anyway, so why not add USB ports?
Emily Wynne-Jones, head of product innovation at Simba, says they always get asked about USB ports. “As many of us now use our phones as alarms, there is a greater need to charge within close proximity,” she adds.
Sockets, cables and a profusion of devices can interfere with the uncluttered visual perfection demanded by high-end interior designers, so how do they tackle the issue?
“In our world, if you can see a wire, then you’ve failed,” says Charu Gandhi of design firm Elicyon. “We often have floor boxes to hold sockets, done very beautifully with a discreet metal trim and the rug set into it, so all you see when it’s closed is a thin metal profile on the rug.”
These can be installed beside a sofa, so a laptop can be plugged in right there. Bespoke furniture with integrated power is also popular, such as a bedside table with a charging point in the drawer.
Luxury brands are also exploring how to innovate furniture that combines craftsmanship and technology. Linley’s Fulbeck desk has an aerodynamic design in English walnut, with hidden charging points and battery cells so that the desk can be “charged” via a power source.
“For us, technology should always be hidden where possible, and on show only when needed,” says James White of architecture and interior design studio March & White.
At its latest project in New York, 125 Greenwich, “we applied our expertise in designing superyachts, and included elements such as concealed pop-up televisions, and a console which adapts for use as a kitchen island and a laptop bar”.
Expect to see more wireless charging incorporated into home products, as Ikea has done with its charging pads and lighting. The technology’s progress was hampered because several systems were competing for dominance, so designers and smartphone manufacturers were reluctant to commit to one of them.
Now, Qi technology has emerged as the standard, so it’s full steam ahead. The next step is conquering distance charging over a few feet, so your phone will power up in your pocket.
Wi-Charge’s technology uses infrared beamed from a box on the wall or ceiling to a receiver that will be embedded in the device. It should become a reality in the next 18 months or so, finally banishing those superfluous sockets and pesky trailing cables.