Turn on the furniture: how technology is going back to the future

TVs on legs, radio cabinets, surround-sound chairs… Jonathan Margolis on the trend for technology as furniture

When electronics was young, it was a given that a device, be it a radio, a gramophone or one of the newest-fangled televisors – later known as televisions – was also a piece of furniture. When everything needed rows of hot, glowing glass valves and mighty transformers, miniaturisation and portability were not even an option for domestic use.

There were military radios that lived in a soldier’s backpack and were powered by big 90-volt batteries, but the consumer had to wait for transistors to be invented in 1947 before portability was a possibility – albeit an expensive one. Even then it was 1955 before the first consumer transistor radio went on sale in the US.

So from the 1930s to the early 1960s or so, everything was furniture. A radio sat on a sturdy table, and had a hot, distinctive smell when it “warmed up” to start playing. The house-proud would give it a weekly wax and polish to keep its handsome, handmade carpentry shiny. Radiograms were radios that included a gramophone turntable and, with the extra weight of that, normally stood on their own four legs. And until the mid-1950s at least, TVs, despite having tiny screens, were nonetheless enormous floor-standing appliances with even greater wooden surfaces to burnish.

But such is the hipster-driven trend towards reverse progress in technology – think of the boom in vinyl records, the huge typewriter-like Freewrite laptop and the reinvented Polaroid camera – there’s now a small but perceptible movement back to electronic-as-furniture. One of the earliest examples came three years ago, when Ruark, a Southend-on-Sea loudspeaker manufacturer with a history in cabinet making, brought out a radiogram for the modern day, the R7, whose extreme retro-ness made it an immediate hit.

Since then, furniture-scale technology, or smaller technology designed to be part of a tasteful furniture landscape, has become its own modest but growing category. Here are some examples of new technology furniture.

modern audio console
Modern Audio Console, £15,000: the Modern Audio Console is a walnut-built gramophone with record deck and 140-watt valve amplifiers, speakers with 6.5in drivers and an 8in subwoofer. But it also streams music from the internet in the modern way. symbolaudio.com Photograph: No Credit
Floor-mounted TV, £1,199
Floor-mounted TV, £1,199: a modern TV is a just a plain oblong when it’s off, and no one with a scintilla of taste would ever consider mounting one on a wall. So where can you put it? Panasonic thinks perhaps on the floor, and its new DX802 sits there on a delicate steel frame. A quietly radical idea. panasonic.co.uk Photograph: Paolo Neoz Ferraris
Serif TV, £1,199
Serif TV, £1,199: created by the Bouroullec brothers, the Serif harks back to the early TV on legs. And it has an appealing ‘curtain mode’ – a digital veil you draw across the screen. seriftv.com Photograph: No credit
Steel speaker, £338
Steel speaker, £338: Joey Roth makes hi-fi systems which supply great sound, while looking like ornaments from a particularly tasteful furniture store. His latest, the Steel Speaker, is a wireless, omnidirectional speaker made from steel, aluminium and maple. The wooden ball plays a part in distributing the sound. joeyroth.com Photograph: No credit


Jonathan Margolis

The GuardianTramp

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