These startups are building smarter furniture

Even before the Revolution, New England was home to innovative furniture makers. Some of their products featured secret compartments for valuables, pull-out trays to hold candles, or fold-down surfaces that made big tables easier to tuck away against a wall.

Continuing that tradition these days are startups developing city benches that can recharge a smartphone while collecting data about pedestrian traffic, or building furniture for small spaces that can be automatically stashed away with a spoken command. But the craftsmen of the 18th century didn’t have venture capital firms or crowdfunding platforms like Indiegogo to fund their development work. They also didn’t have to compete with global giants like IKEA of Sweden, which raked in a record $38.4 billion last year.


One of the most interesting startups in Boston, Ori Systems, is working on what it calls “architectural robotics” — a somewhat hype-y term for furniture that can get out of the way when it isn’t needed to make the most of a compact space. Founder Hasier Larrea says the company is focusing on studio apartments in the 300- to 600-square-foot range.

“The concept of transforming space is older than our grandpas,” Larrea says. “You have pull-out tables and Murphy beds.” Those might be fine for occasional use, but Larrea is thinking about an everyday routine that would involve using a desk in the afternoon, but putting it away at bedtime, or in the morning clearing space for a workout routine. He calls it having “space adapt to us, versus having us adapt to space, which is the way it has been for thousands of years.”

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One way you’ll be able to control Ori Systems’ furniture is with a touchscreen that lists certain “pre-sets,” such as “bedroom” or “office.” But the company is also working on integrations with voice-driven devices like Google Home and the Amazon Echo, which would let you rearrange the room with just a few spoken words.

Ori Systems

Boston-based Ori Systems is designing a furniture system that can reconfigure a studio apartment at the touch of a button, here turning a living room into an office.

Ori doesn’t plan to sell its shape-shifting furniture directly to consumers but rather to the owners of apartment buildings. “We found out that most of the studio apartments in this country are rented, not purchased,” Larrea says. “Builders and real estate developers control hundreds or thousands of units, and we’ll sell to them, but the final value comes to the renter who lives in that apartment. They get something that acts like it is much bigger.”

During its development phase, the company has installed versions of its technology in five apartments around Boston, which it rents out by the night through the…

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