Once upon a time, furniture tended to be designed by furniture designers, interiors by interior designers and products by, well, product designers.  Contemporary designers are increasingly  ignoring these traditional boundaries between disciplines.  As a product designer, I have worked on everything from mobile phones to hotel and airline interiors and, most recently, a range of furniture that exhibited at Milan 2010.  Not only are more designers skipping disciplinary boundaries, but the neat distinctions between the stuff that they design is also blurring.

As far back as the 1950s, designers tackled the boundary between furniture and technology by creating television sets with legs or housing them in cabinets in an attempt to hide the technology and harmonise the object with the domestic environment. As consumer became more comfortable with technology TVs became high-tech celebrations, with the generic sleek black plasma screens becoming the zenith of technology-worship. At this year’s Milan Furniture Fair, the idea of harmonious fusion was readdressed, with a more sophisticated and cultured approach.

The ‘Contemplating Monolithic Design’ exhibition by Sony and designers Barber Osgerby was a ‘must see’. The stand-out products were a range of speakers, where each material had been carefully selected and crafted to enhance its acoustic properties, whether it was wood, glass or marble. However, this was not to the detriment of the designs, with the crisp delivery of sound matched by exquisitely designed objects in their own right, pared down to the purest forms.

Another concept of note at the same exhibition was ‘Visual Sound Furniture: Integrate’, which incorporated an audio system into a sideboard with a decorative 3D honeycomb structure, enabled by the rapid manufacturing method of stereolithography.  Once more, this created an engaging aesthetic whilst at the same time enhancing the system’s acoustic properties.

We are now used to the way in which we can access music or sound seamlessly throughout the house or on the move.  Healthcare could be the next area in which we interact with our environments.  Take Toto, the Japanese brand and it’s integration of technology into bathroom furniture which monitors your health as you go about your daily bathroom business; with weighing scales built into the floor and a urine analyser in the toilet. It may be a case of ‘too much information’ for some, but the data collected is used to produce tailored dietary and health advice. As lifestyles evolve, such inconspicuous integration of technology could be put to use throughout the home, supporting many more new living scenarios.

Designers are also responding to increasing urban density, by focusing on space saving furniture for micro-open-plan living spaces. Many take inspiration from Joe Columbo’s futuristic designs from the 1960’s, such as his 1963 Mini Kitchen concept, which has recently been reissued by Boffi in Corian.

Contemporary designers such as New York-based Studio Dror has created numerous products that tackle the issue of saving space for city dwellers on a tight budget, such as the collapsible ‘End Table’, produced for American store Target. At the other end of the financial scale, their ‘Pick Chair’, with its novel twist on functionality, transforms from wall art to functional furniture with a flick of the wrist. Further examples of new takes on furniture functions and storage methods can be found in France with Jocelyn Deris’ ‘Ho Plus’ for La Corbeille: a bookcase which requires no fixings and just leans against the wall, making storage possible in small rooms and tiny corridors.

While many trends point towards the blurring of boundaries, whether it be between design disciplines, technology and environments or the rooms in our homes, other counter trends are emerging that are starting to redraw new boundaries. The Nine-hours (9h) ‘Sleeping Hub’ from Kyoto in Japan adds boundaries between activities that happen in the same space in traditional hotels. 9h offers a stunning minimal check-in space with lockers to unpack and store as you arrive, cubicles for showering, pods for sleeping in, a ‘preparation’ area to spruce up in and a lobby to check your mail before check-out.

The future will not be defined by one dominant trend, we will often be presented with competing visions – the trick is to take inspiration from the ones that work for your context.