What does a beach ball have in common with an armchair? Not much, until you enter the realm of inflatable furniture, where whimsy and novelty abound. Inflatable furniture hasn’t fully hit mainstream retailers just yet, but there are a variety of designers experimenting with the medium. And although the market is still pretty niche, you might already be a fan if you’ve ever cooled off on a hot summer day by floating on a blow-up pool toy.
It’s pretty easy to see the appeal—inflatables are fun, easy to pack, and lend a much needed pop of color to a space. When you translate that into the world of design, the result is furniture pieces with the potential to be avant-garde, transportable, and environmentally friendly. It also doesn’t hurt that inflatable furniture pieces sometimes come out looking like abstracted gummy candies.
Inflatables aren’t a new concept. The first basic inflatables were developed in the ’40s by engineer Walter Bird just as WW II ended and the Cold War was about to begin. Bird’s creations were initially used by the military to protect radar antennae, but in the years after the war, he went on to create inflatable storage sheds, pool enclosures, and greenhouses.
By the time the ’60s rolled around and the Space Race took off, cheaply mass-produced plastic flooded the market, which inspired experimental design firms and architects to explore inflatables as a new creative medium. Designers like Quasar Khanh captured the breakthrough adventurism of the Space Age and manufactured high-concept inflatable gazebos, ottomans, and lamps. By 1967, the first inflatable furniture had reached the mass market, and the technology was officially productized.
Even now, inflatable furniture straddles the realm between revolutionary and misunderstood. A quick search on Google yields a result of multilingual Pinterest boards, AliExpress products, and one-of-one art sculptures with notes to enquire for pricing. This wasn’t always the case though—inflatables were way easier to come across in the early aughts, especially if you ever flipped through a dELiA*s catalogue. IKEA even tried to make inflatable furniture happen twice, but issues with leaking and squeaking plastic meant the products never took off. On top of that, the pieces weighed next to nothing and had a tendency to float around the room, leading one IKEA employee to describe the collection as “a gathering of swollen hippos.” By the time Lizzie McGuire was old enough for high school in 2002, the inflatable furniture bubble was deflating into the background.
In today’s global market, the number of options is limited when it comes to finding pieces that feel like real furniture and keep longevity at the top of mind. On the other end of the spectrum, you could have a fully inflatable armchair set up in your living room within 48 hours courtesy of Amazon Prime. Both options have their pros and cons, but there’s no denying that inflatables need to prove their ability to last in order to bridge the gap between plaything and legitimate household object.
Luckily, there are a handful of options that are durable and would fit right into any space. Mojow Design has a solid collection of inflatables where contemporary silhouettes meet sturdy construction. The brand is the brainchild of designer Olivier Santini, and it offers indoor and outdoor seating in Warhol-esque colors such as the Floofy bar stools. The stools are anchored on frames made of solid steel or wood and look like translucent candies.
Olivier is keenly aware of the need to bring inflatable furniture up to speed. Mojow has moved away from the cheap, plastic construction of the ’60s by utilizing a more “eco-responsible” approach through biodegradable and recyclable materials. The company is currently in the process of developing a new, exclusive collection that will use a variety of materials and position inflatable furniture as a high-end, luxury buy.
Emily Vaca of Minnidip views inflatables as an opportunity to create something attainable, approachable, and fun. This is easy to see in the brand’s line of sherbet colored and patterned inflatable pools and chairs. Emily’s inspirations range from the midcentury-modern minimalism of the ’60s and the Art Deco movement all the way to the early ’00s. “Everything looks inflatable now,” she says of the latest furniture trends.
Industrial designer Egidio Panzera also sees the potential for universal appeal when it comes to inflatables. His Bablo divider is a modular, multipurpose piece of furniture that can be used as an office divider, bed, or bench. It is designed to bridge four of the five senses—the piece can be touched, seen, smelled, and is delightfully squeaky. When looking at his portfolio of designs, it’s hard not to notice all the serious wood and steel pieces, but then there’s the Bablo (onomatopoeia for bubble), the sole inflatable design in a manic shade of fuschia. In comparison, it’s more like a Jigglypuff.
That otherworldly vibe comes through again when observing the range of inflatable forms and furniture at Objects of Common Interest, led by Eleni Petaloti and Leonidas Trampoukis. The collection includes deconstructed Cycladic art like the Minotaur, a sloping, five-foot-tall structure that resembles a bone. Despite their large and chunky silhouettes (some pieces measure up to 12 feet tall), these inflatable objects seem to levitate off of the ground because they’re completely clear. “I liked the idea of packing a giant four-meter sculpture into a small one-meter box,” Eleni explains.
From Eleni’s point of view, the furniture market is more primed for inflatables than ever. “It felt to us that there was nothing more relevant than inflatable structures in an era where nobody knew where we’re going to end up being,” she says. “I was thinking I wanted everything in the apartment to be inflatable because it makes so much sense.” Her ethos toward inflatable furniture is strikingly similar to the radically simple approach of the designers of the ’60s—create, inflate, use, deflate, and go.
Written by Neelum Khan.
This article originally appeared on AD Clever.