Collecting Collapsibles

Sherry Turkle, editor of Evocative Objects,  is quoted as saying ‘We think with the objects we love, we love the objects we think with’ revealing the power that objects hold to become emotional and intellectual companions, that anchor memory and provoke new ideas.

Collecting objects offers us the opportunity for liberation in the ways that we think about them and enables us to form our own narrative around their use and effect. The act of collecting itself allows us to see where objects end up in reality as opposed to the messages that we consume about them through our capitalist culture and it allows us to reveal what objects actually mean to people.

The bug of collecting becomes infectious and intriguing, with each object offering it’s own peculiar insight in aspects of contemporary culture. Popular among designers is the notion of collecting a singular typology of objects, such as Jasper Morrison and his anthropological study of Spoons. Collecting objects becomes a passion that is both reassuring and delightful and allowing narratives about them to be constructed through viewing, valuing and selecting. A particular interest of ours lies in collecting ‘collapsible’ objects, building a snapshot of the many ways that transforming objects can be determined. Experiencing this broad spectrum of everyday things within the context of the classification of ‘collapsibility’ gives a clear means to understand this sphere of objects and how they work, how they make us think and behave, giving certain perspective on how we interact with the world and how we understand the world.

The Principles of Collapsibility

This following article is based on a Precis of Collapsibles: as discussed by Per Mollerup.

Collapsibles are ubiquitous and inflitrate our everyday lives with space saving objects from telescopes to umbrellas, newspapers to venetian blinds, furniture to prams. Collapsiblity is an elementary design principle applied to objects that in some way fold out for action and fold up for storage. Collapsibles are smart man-made objects that adjust to meet a practical need. This function has two opposite states, they grow and shrink according to the need. Man made collapsibles dont just happen, the two conditions must be met before one is conceived and created.

‘Space saving’: the redistribution of an objects volume to reduce the space it occupies.  To qualify for collapsibility an object must have an impractical shape and size, in order to give collapsibility to an object, the space it occupies -or more precisely it’s volume- must be redistributed in some way. Mostly, the volume does not actually diminish through collapsing, though it may seem to, it merely gains a more portable format. It’s volume is redistributed so that it occupies less practical space. Practical space is space we want to free up for some other purpose. Therefore collapsibility is a measure of convenience.


The example of a stacking chair proves that if one chair is placed atop another, they occupy less practical space than the two unstacked, however the volume remains unchanged. Collapsibles are man made accommodations to change. When the weather forecast predicts showers, we take a folded umbrella, if it starts to rain, we unfold it and when the rain stops we fold that umbrella up again.



Collapsible umbrellas meet meteorological changes. The prime reason that we need an umbrella is to keep the rain off, the reason why we select a specific tool over another may well be because of it’s support functions. Collapsibility per se is never the purpose function -the raison d’être of a tool- It is it’s support function. Therefore if we suppose an umbrella did not fold away, it might seem more convenient to risk getting wet. All man made artifacts with a practical function are tools,-an extension of man’s natural capacities. The prime reason we need a tool is its primary function, and very often any number of generic products will satisfy this need. The reason we select one tool over another, however, may be it’s support functions fulfilling multiple secondary requirements, such as a deckchair that folds away for storage. Collapsibility may never be the most important function of a tool, but is often the decisive factor in buyer’s choice.

Objects that are designed to fold or unfold once in a lifetime cannot be considered to be true collapsibles, such as self assembly furniture, as in practice, once unfolded it is hardly ever ‘folded’ again. The premise behind self assembly furniture is that it is delivered in pieces to the end user, who then assembles it themselves. The rationale behind this delegation of work is a cost reduction of manufacture, storage and transportation.  To be precise, self assembly furniture is not collapsed when delivered; it is not yet fully manufactured.


The fact a product can repeatedly fold and unfold, collapse and expand, does not in itself make it a genuine collapsible. Height adjustable office chairs, barber’s chairs are quasi-collapsibles, like an adjustable wrench they have any number of different active states in which they are more or less collapsed, but they have no passive state. Folding for space saving is not part of their normal function.

Classifying collapsibility: Classification is a useful way of organising any body of knowledge; studying likenesses and differences between related phenomena always enhances understanding of their nature. Furthermore, classification encourages structured thinking and communication. Collapsibles, however, defy -or at least resist a completely rigid classification. The differences between collapsibility principles are often indistinct. The twelve categories listed include the most frequently applied methods of mechanical size reduction.

Collapsibility Principles:

Stress: The most basic of collapsibility principles is really a double principle. Stress implies both compression and expansion, pressure and tension. When a collapsible works by stress pressure, it is compressed for storage and relaxed for action. When a collapsible works by stress tension the reverse is true, its stretched state is for action while it is relaxed for storage.


Coiling a bandsaw blade for storage.  

The photographer’s collapsible light reflector, which invention was borne of watching a carpenter fold a bandsaw blade to store it on the wall, works on the principle of stress-pressure.The rubber band works by stress tension. It expands to grip and object, then contracts again ready for a new expansion.

Folding: One of the commonest types of collapsibility is made possible by the directionless flexibility of soft materials such as cloth and certain types of plastics. When it comes to collapsibility softness can be a strength as this is the quality that allows clothes to be folded when not in use. Paper, however does not fall under this collapsibility principle. Although it folds, it does not possess the directionless pliability of cloth. Paper frequently does have direction as folding tends to leave creases which encourage repeated folding along the same lines.

Creasing: Instead of being randomly wrinkled, apiece of cloth or other pliable material may be folded along preset lines or creases. The purpose of creases may be two-fold. First they can give an object, both folded and unfolded, a neater appearance than random folds could ever create. Second, creases may facilitate the acts of folding and unfolding and permit a greater size reduction in the collapsed object. Maps of many kinds are folded along creases to make them handy for the traveller. Much creative thinking has been devoted to developing ways to fold a map without having to lay out the whole thing. Pleats are arrangements of parallel creases; they exist only in the plural. Fashion designers have long used pleated fabric for aesthetic effect and to introduce disguised fullness to women’s clothing. Folding doors and window screens are another familiar application of pleats.



Issey Miyake asked Nendo to make furniture out of the pleated paper that is produced in mass amounts during the process of making pleated fabric, and usually abandoned as an unwanted by-product.

Bellows: A pair of bellows, the blacksmiths traditional instrument for aerating the forge, is essentially a contractible and expandable bag with sides folded in pleats.

Polaroid Land Camera using Bellows

The blacksmiths bellows and the bee keepers smoke generator are air pumps, as are the accordion and concertina. These are all quasi collapsibles, their collapsed condition is both a passive and an active state. On the other hand, cameras that use bellows to create an adjustable sealed passage between lens and film, and also to reduce camera size when not in use, are genuine collapsibles.

Assembling: To assemble a number of separate parts into a whole, and then later to dismantle that whole again into it’s parts for storage, is to practice a time-honoured principle of collapsibility.



The Safari chair designed by Kaare Klint is a generic type of camp furniture,in collapsibility terms it lags behind scissor legged chairs as it doesn’t fold as such, it dismantles and wraps up in itself.

Trainee Soldiers learn to assemble and dismantle mechanical implements from weapons and tents to bridges and vehicles, if necessary in total darkness. Children’s construction kits such as Meccano and Lego are an early encounter with the assembling principle. Self assembly construction kits include temporary scaffolding and a number of exhibition systems.

Hinging: Hinging is the first amongst equals of collapsibility principles.



The ladder chair was inspired by a 19th century model found in a monastery library in Tyrol. Austria. The device has two purpose functions as a ladder and a chair.  The term covers a wide spectrum of flexible joints that traditionally consists of two or more moving metal parts. Modern hinges may also be made of plastics that can repeatedly bend. Hinging has long been the most applied collapsibility principle in furniture, as is the case with legions more of man’s indepensable tools.



Rolling: Collapsibles are objects that are folded and unfolded again and again. Hoses, fishing lines and Electrical extension cords are rolled and unrolled repeatedly, as are tape measures and dog leads.



Other examples are rollerblinds, temporary film screens and some tool and repair kits are stored in cloth sheets lined with pockets that roll up for protection and out for use. Housemaids traditionally used the same method to store silver cutlery. Some ceremonies   -military or other- involve the ritual of unfurling rolled banners.

Sliding: Some collapsibles expand and contract as their parts slide open or closed. The most spectacular application of the sliding principle is the telescope.



In the optical telescope, a number of tubes of declining size slide in and out of one another, allowing the lens to  be brought into focus and the whole to be folded down for storage. Other applications of the sliding telescope principle have a similar collection of diminishing parts, not necessarily tube shaped, that slide or twist into one another, such as hydraulic cranes, photographer’s tripods, camera lenses, lipstick tubes and it’s mechanical principle remains widely used in radio aerials.


Nesting is a grouping principle. 

Russian Matryoshka dolls that fit one inside another are the perfect prototype of the nesting principle. Together, two or more nested occupy less practical space than the do individually. If an object is to be capable of nesting, it must have some kind of cavity that can be occupied by another object. the result is negative space synergy: one plus one equals one and a half. Spoons of equal or diminishing size will nest if they are carefully arranged. If left in a mess they will take up far more room. Measuring spoons often come in sets which fit neatly into one another. Many other kitchen tools nest too: pans, plates, cups and more. Many everyday utilitarian items nest conveniently when not in use such as the orange traffic cone or the supermarket shopping trolley.



Nests of tables nest, and many chairs are designed to stack using of the nesting principle. 


Wright stacking chairs


Inflation: Hot air balloons are the largest inflatable collapsibles and children’s balloons the most common, life rafts and life jackets the most useful. Inflatable furniture is probably the most problematic. The concept of inflation is structural principle whose potential is limited only by the imagination.



A hovercraft is more ‘off road’ than most off roaders and ‘bouncy castle’ playground structures offer children an entirely novel interactive experience. Architecture can be inflatable too. Now there are tents supported by inflated arches, that are used for both civilian and military uses. Entire hospitals can be built in incredibly short time, which is invaluable for emergency situations.

Fanning: A fan has a pivot that holds it’s leaves together and allows multiple leaves to be viewed at the same time. Coolness and shade combined in hat- cum -fan from China.



It is a useful way of keeping together a bundle of flat or flattish complementary or comparable items, both for display and storage. Thus colour swatches often fan open at a pivot and allen keys may come in a fan mounting.


The Hoberman Sphere is a kinetic mobile toy expands from 9″ to 30″ in diameter with a single motion using the concertina principle.

Concertina: The concertina principle is a misnomer: then musical instrument to which it bears a superficial similarity and from which it derives it’s name is in fact an application of the bellows principle. Concertina collapsibles have a number of equal rods connected by pivots to form a string of X’s -XXXXX- which can be expanded and retracted by changing the angles between them. The concertina principle is found in all kinds of daily applications that allows wall mounted mirrors and lamps to be manoeuvred, and the traditional wooden clothes horse allows laundry to dry in the confined spaces of the home on a rainy day.

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