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The real legacy of the work-from-home era? Robotic furniture

Ori makes motorized furniture that can dramatically transform small spaces.

The real legacy of the work-from-home era? Robotic furniture
[Image: courtesy Qualls Benson]
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There has long been a trade-off associated with dense urban areas. In exchange for the action and vitality of city living, people often compromise on space. If you’re spending most of your time working and enjoying the city, the shoebox apartment isn’t a major problem. But now, when most people are working in that same shoebox and practically forbidden from enjoying the city outside, the compromise on square footage feels more like a punishment.

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“What we’re seeing is that people are starting to demand much more from their space,” says Hasier Larrea, founder and CEO of Ori. The company makes motorized furniture systems that dramatically transform rooms and spaces by hiding or revealing different pieces of furniture for different needs. One product is a bed that slides up a track to hide in a compartment on the ceiling, revealing a couch below. Another product is a two-part shelf that splits in half to create a faux walk-in closet.

[Image: courtesy Qualls Benson]
The pandemic’s sudden conversion of many homes and apartments into home offices is not something Larrea planned for. But when it hit, the company was ready.

Developed while Larrea was researching architectural robotics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and spun off as its own company in 2015, Ori has had its furniture systems on the market since 2017. In 2020, a year in which working from home went from perk to necessity, Ori saw its revenue jump four times higher than the year before.

The most pandemic-relevant product Ori offers is its Pocket Office, a movable two-part system that separates to form a compact cave-like office space, complete with a full-size desk and space for a large computer monitor surrounded by shelves and cabinets. When the work day is done, one side of the office slides back to meet the other, closing the office into a big rectangular box that doubles as a TV stand and shelving unit for the rest of the room.

[Image: courtesy Qualls Benson]
“It allows you to separate professional and personal life, which is something a lot of people are struggling with nowadays, working from home so many hours,” Larrea says.

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Ori systems are now in about 30 buildings in 15 cities across the U.S., and Larrea says the company is starting to see interest from some of the biggest real estate developers in the business. Though popping a movable shelf-turned-desk into your tiny apartment might sound great right about now, Ori’s systems are designed to be built into new buildings and renovations; they’re not available as one-offs.

One of the latest projects to include Ori systems is the Artisan, a 25-story apartment building that’s part of the Essex Crossing mixed use development in Manhattan. With a mix of affordable and market-rate housing units, it’s the first rental project in New York to offer Ori systems.

One of the building’s developers, L+M Development Partners, decided to include Ori systems as a new kind of amenity. “We spend a lot of time thinking about innovative ways to make your life happier in your apartment,” says David Dishy, the company’s president. “A lot of the innovation and thoughtfulness of the next wave of urban living is around the furniture and the fixtures in the space, and how to make a given space feel bigger and more useful and more productive for the residents.”

[Image: courtesy Qualls Benson]
Ten studios in the building have been outfitted with Pocket Closet or Studio Suite systems, which function as shelves, desks, media centers, and, when rolled out from the wall, space separators. About half of the building has been leased, including half of the units with Ori systems, according to Matthew Villetto, an executive vice president with Douglas Elliman, which is handling the building’s leasing. “It creates more utility and more areas in the room,” Villetto says. “You’re taking a studio and essentially creating a one-bedroom [unit], but you’re giving that wall between the two spaces more functionality.”

Dishy says he’s likely to try to include these space-conscious systems in other residential projects in the future, and not just as a pandemic response. “This conversation has been happening in New York about micro units and how to make the best use of space long before COVID,” he says. “That trend was in play already, and people appreciate it probably even more so now.”

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Ori is seeing interest even beyond the biggest and most dense cities. “We have projects coming up in Fort Worth, Texas, and Boise, Idaho, so we’re starting to see a lot of different kinds of cities embracing this concept,” Larrea says.

He notes that as cities urbanize and densify, residential spaces are likely to get smaller. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, he argues, especially if space-saving furniture can help people get more out of the space they have—whether it’s unexpectedly forced to become a home office or just a small studio apartment in need of some extra walls.