It’s the flat-pack furniture problem that almost all of us have faced. You open the box, trawl through its contents, lay everything out, then cross-reference the instructions. You look at them every which way since they appear to be in Sanskrit, then have a go, and feel like you’ve done a decent job. Only then, disaster strikes. You turn around and see an extra three pieces of your flat-packed furniture kit lying innocently behind you. Will the bed collapse in the night?
But a remedy could be in sight. New research into the work patterns of medieval masons by academics at the University of Warwick could spell an end to the leaflet-grappling, component-finding problem of furniture assembly. So build-your-own cupboard and bed designers, listen up.
The idea is centred around a system called masons’ marks, a series of sophisticated symbols that, for the past 4,000 years, have been used by designers and builders to inscribe patterns on stones to enable instructions to be transferred with ease. Originally, they helped illiterate masons to carry out their orders and know which materials fitted in where. But now Dr Jenny Alexander, of Warwick’s history of art department, believes modern manufacturers could use the marks as a cheap and efficient way to help us put together self-assembly furniture at home.
“If companies that make flat-pack furniture used a system similar to masons’ assembly marks to show which pieces went together, it could remove the need for the complex and often impenetrable instruction booklets they currently issue,” she explains. Doing so would resurrect a system popular for centuries. Indeed, the inspiration for Alexander’s research came when she was studying for a doctorate at Lincoln Cathedral, which was built in 1072 but destroyed by an earthquake soon after, and later rebuilt. The cathedral, Alexander says, “had so many of the marks all over it that I decided to see if I could use them in some way, as part of a study of the construction of the building”.