Transformable Furniture Maximizes Space and Sustainability

In any size home, transformable furniture maximizes space and sustainability.

Bedroom interior flat with Vertical Murphy Wall Bed

Ryosha / Getty Images

Owners and occupants of tiny houses or small apartments know the virtue of maximizing space. So, too, does anyone on a budget. Yet furniture that serves multiple purposes can also reduce the consumption of natural resources, making any home a more sustainable place to live.

Transformable (or transformer) furniture is any furniture that can be converted from one purpose to another. Perhaps the most familiar version of transformer furniture is the sofa-bed, but there are many examples that improve the sustainability of an interior design.


In 2018, the United States generated more than 12 million tons of furniture waste—six times what was thrown away in 1960. By weight, it's the single largest source of durable goods that we throw away, with 80% sent to landfills.

Purchasing furniture secondhand, built to last, made from chemical-free, organic, reclaimed, or sustainable materials are just some of the ways you can reduce the environmental impact of the furniture you buy for your home. But you double the benefits to the environment when a bookshelf made from reclaimed wood becomes a desk or when an organic, chemical-free sofa becomes a bed if they enable you to own fewer pieces overall or live more comfortably in a smaller space.

If it is made well and of the right materials, transformer furniture can have a Cradle to Cradle certification given to its environmentally friendly design. Certification is made based on the materials, water, and energy used to produce the product, as well as its impact on communities.

Types of Transforming Furniture

There are dozens of ways you can adopt transformer furniture to suit your needs and fulfill your sustainability goals.


Transforming a bed into something else has been a longstanding challenge. Beds take up a lot of prime real estate in a small space, especially given that they are rarely used during the daytime. Fortunately, there are many solutions, many of them familiar, from Murphy beds and trundle beds to convertible sofas, futons, and daybeds that fold out into night beds.

A Child's Murphy Bed
A child's bed folds up into a storage unit. Baloncici / Getty Images

The Murphy bed was invented by William Lawrence Murphy, a Irish immigrant living in a one-room apartment in San Francisco. Legend has it that he was courting a young woman during a time when proper women did not enter a gentleman's bedroom, a problem which Murphy solved by converting his bedroom into a parlor.

Rather than hiding a bed or converting it into a sofa, a bed can also be folded up into an ottoman or trunk, flipped over and transformed into a desk, or slid out of the base of a storage chest or armoire.

If you can't tuck your bed away, you can use it for storage. A drawer bed comes with built-in storage drawers in the place of a box spring. In the tight quarters of a ship, a captain's bed contains shelving where a headboard might otherwise go.


A home office is not always the most relaxing place in the house, and the constant site of it in small living quarters can add unneeded stress to one's life. Being able to fold a desk up into a cabinet, a sideboard, or shelving can tuck away your stress when the workday ends.

In 1885, Sarah E. Goode became the first African American woman to receive a patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Goode owned a furniture store in Chicago, selling wares to mostly working-class customers who lived in small apartments. In a bid to help her customers maximize their space, Goode came up with (and patented) the “cabinet bed”—a roll-top desk by day, a comfortable bed by night. 

Patent drawing for cabinet bed
Sarah E. Good invented the ingenious “cabinet bed.”. Wikimedia Commons

You can also switch between workspace and living space with a sofa whose wooden back folds up into a desk. Hidden underneath the sofa seat is shelving where your laptop can be stored. The back is then folded down again when your workday is over, and the desk disappears.

Unable to put your desk away? Collapsible legs can transform it into a coffee table. Add extensions to it to transform it into a dining room table.


Walls serve the useful purpose of dividing rooms or spaces, but they are often blank surfaces that need to be animated with artwork or other objects. Who needs walls when other features can serve the same function?

The interior of a tiny house with cabinets for room dividers.
Cabinetry separates the kitchen from the loft bedroom in a tiny house.

Mireya Acierto / Getty Images

A wall with sliding panels and modular tables can be transformed from an office into a living area or even a gallery. A foldable room divider can double as decorative shelving to hide your workspace. Bookshelves or cabinetry can separate sleeping quarters from kitchen or office. And if nothing else, mirrored walls make a small space feel expansive.


A kitchen table might be used two or three times a day, then idly takes up space the rest of the day. A dining room table reserved only for “special occasions” takes up even more space, and can make a room feel crowded.

Settle tables (or just “settles”) date back to the Middle Ages, when many people lived in one-room houses where furniture needed to serve multiple purposes. Settles survived at least into the 19th century. Now they are expensive items prized for their patina. A settle might serve as a table, a tall-backed bench, a storage chest, and/or a hutch. Throw cushions on it and it is a couch.

A settle table
A settle-table dating from circa 1936.

Heritage Images / Getty Images

As owners of boats, trailers, and RVs know, there are many ways to turn a flat eating surface into something else when it is not in use. The underside of a table might also contain a mirror, a wall hanging, or another decorative element so that the table folds up into a wall after dinner.

A dining room table can slide out from underneath a kitchen counter (or island). A coffee table with modular legs can be raised into a dining room table. A love seat can fold down into a coffee table. Even a drop-leaf table or dining table with extensions fits the bill, shifting from a small breakfast table to a spread ready to seat a dozen. It is even possible to make an entire kitchen disappear.


Humans sit a lot, but that doesn't mean seating needs to have only a single function, and in earlier times, before suburbanization expanded the size of houses and the rooms within them, seating was often multifunctional or transformable.

One familiar symbol of suburban ease is the recliner, which is anything but a portable space-saver, but it has its origins in a 19th-century French reclining camp bed that was a chair, a bed, and a chaise lounge that could be carried. As any camper knows, portability and multifunctionality are important values, but why value them only when not at home?

Step chairs or convertible chairs were so common in the 18th century that their designs have been variously attributed to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The seat of Franklin's chair folded up to form three steps so that he could access higher shelves in his library. A Jefferson chair or "onit chair" includes an ironing-board as well as a step stool.

Double Chippendale Library Step Chair
Double Chippendale Library Step Chair.

Andreas von Einsiedel / Getty Images

A lambing chair is a low chair once popular in sheep-farming districts of England. A drawer or storage space under the seat allowed shepherds to store materials needed for delivering lambs. Non-shepherds might find multiple uses for it as well.

Take a (virtual) stroll through just about any tiny house and you will discover a whole host of inventive designs. Sustainability is the mother of invention.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Does transformable furniture cost more?

    It depends on the furniture items you are comparing. Factors to consider when weighing the costs of transformable furniture include the life expectancy of your purchase, how many times will you need to replace the item, and the resale value of your furniture.

  • Is all tranformable furniture custom-made?

    You may have to find a cabinet-maker or furniture-maker to build some of these items, but there are a number of retailers selling pre-made transformable furniture.

Originally written by
Melissa Breyer
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Melissa Breyer is Treehugger’s editorial director. She is a sustainability expert and author whose work has been published by the New York Times and National Geographic, among others.
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View Article Sources
  1. "Durable Goods: Product-Specific Data". United States Environmental Protection Agency.

  2. "Goode, Sarah E., 1850-1905 Person Authority Record". National Archives Catalog.