It does, you know. You just have to get it hot enough.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Review: Nomadic Furniture

[EDIT:  James Hennessey points out the book is in print again from Schiffer, ISBN 0764330241.]

An area I get distracted by often is tools for nomadic living. I grew up moving around a fair bit and I’ve spent much of my adult life dragging around a portable office of one sort or another. It used to be a leather Day Runner(tm), notebooks, a Sony Walkman(tm) and random art supplies; these days it’s a laptop, tri-band ham radio, sketchbook, iPod(tm), and random tools for safety and personal care.

What I haven’t thought enough about is the next step up from the overstuffed courier bag, actually taking my entire house and all my possessions from place to place on a regular basis. It’s one thing to move my office from home to cafe every day, but moving all my stuff from town to town on a regular basis? That’s something a bit more complicated, especially given how much crap I (as well as everyone else) tend to own.

Becoming a truly nomadic person seems to boil down to two simple steps:

Step 1: Get rid of all the crap you don’t need or put it in some permanent place. You’re going to need to do this before you get to the next step…

Step 2: Own only those things that are easily transported and that you absolutely need. One thing that most of us absolutely need is a bare minimum of furniture, and that’s where Nomadic Furniture comes into play.

Nomadic Furniture , by designers James Hennessey and Victor Papanek, is by not an exhaustive examination of all nomadic furniture but a basic overview of the fundamental types of furniture that people need and how those living the nomadic lifestyle can travel with the furniture they need.

It’s an interesting read now, as it was written in the 70s during the first big oil crunch. The attitude is dated but at the same time completely relevant in terms of the need to conserve energy, reduce consumption of resources, and follow the general model of reduce, reuse, recycle. (If you’ve read Cradle to Cradle, some of this will seem oddly familiar.)

Hennessey and Papanek don’t just show you pictures of furniture you can buy, rather they show you how you can make most furniture on your own. The diagrams are simple and straightforward and are such that they are easily modified and scaled to meet individual needs. Some of the plans are very much in the style of Danish Modern (or IKEA) while others seem a little quaint by contemporary standards. I doubt the dimensions for LPs and cassettes will be useful for many people making storage shelves in this century.

There are a couple of groups of people that I think would greatly benefit from reading this and photocopying some of the plans. The first group are college students who move on a regular basis and for whom saving every penny possible on furniture is worth a little labor. The second group are the true nomadic types, say hardcore burning man participants or people who travel and camp for weeks at a time. There are some creative sleeping and storage solutions in Nomadic Furniture that I will be trying out before our next trip to the playa.

There are only two problems with Nomadic Furniture that I feel the need to point out. The first is that it’s no longer in print, but used copies are easily found on and The second problem is the nearly unreadable typography. I’ve been a huge fan of hand-illustrated and lettered manuals since my first copy of Muir’s How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Complete Idiot, but the strange typeface used in Nomadic Furniture is too much for me. It’s alien enough that the book is an amazingly difficult read, a distraction from the quite clean and readable illustrations.

Find it used, photocopy what you need, then sell/trade/give it to someone else who would find the information useful.

Cite (if you’re interested in my generating BiBTeX refs in future reviews, please speak up):
Hennessey, James and Papanek, Victor. Nomadic Furniture, Pantheon Books, 1973, 0-394-70228-X

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posted by jet at 18:07  


  1. j.erik,

    I just came across your review and appreciated it very much. Funny that we should be looking at the Nomadic philosophy again. I guess austere times are upon us.

    I was interested in your two criticisms, however. I thought, “Hey, I might learn something here that I can apply to future books”.

    Well, point one about “out-of-print” is no longer the case. Schiffin books purchased the rights to NF1 and 2 and now publish the two together in a new volume.

    Point two was about the typeface. Amazingly, the entire book was hand-printed by Victor. All of the pages for the books were “camera-ready” and were not typeset. So the “unreadable” text is a sort-of personal touch by Vic himself. My son Michael, a Graphic Designer, has considered doing a “Papanek Bold” font.
    Anyway, thought you’d like to know.

    Best Wishes, Jim Hennessey

    Comment by Jim Hennessey — 2009/02/07 @ 00:31

  2. Yes, I wish people were interested not just because we’re entering “austere” times. There’s a lot of useful information about living simply and cheaply that (I think) we all should apply in times of surplus as well as in lean times.

    Also, I’ll update the review with purchasing info. Glad to see it back in print, it’s a book that I think should be in every designer’s library.

    Comment by jet — 2009/02/07 @ 13:37

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