Kara is a repairable, recyclable, long-lasting coffee machine
When Thomas Mair started the project, he didn’t know he was going to make a coffee machine. However, during his research, he discovered that small household appliances contribute to one-third of the world’s e-waste
Thomas Mair was awarded the DesignWanted Award, within the product design category, for his Kara coffee machine that “should be seen as a new standard for how to design domestic appliances, and shows an alternative way of designing and building electronics“, in the designer’s words.
Mair, who moved (from Italy) to the Netherlands in 2018 to pursue his studies in design, is passionate about reducing waste through his designs and has created a variety of innovative products, including a drill that makes fixing household items easier, a food delivery system that uses reusable containers, and a home computer that utilizes outdated laptop parts.
His primary focus is on developing electronics and appliances that are more sustainable and repairable, and his design philosophy is based on the principles of the Doughnut Economy.
Let’s explore more about Thomas Mair studio and his project, which will be featured in the ‘Innovation for Living’ co-produced exhibition by DesignWanted, Designtech, and Isola Design at La Cattedrale (Certosa area) during the upcoming Milan Design Week (17-23 April).
What is Thomas Mair studio? How did your design journey begin?
“I’m originally from South Tyrol in Italy, but I moved to the Netherlands in 2018 to study design. I did some projects before my studies, mostly with a friend of mine from Italy, and we actually had the opportunity to exhibit that work in London in 2017.
When I started studying, I quickly found my passion for tackling our issue with waste in different sectors, and I dedicated a few projects to that. Most notable I think were a drill that should make it easier and less scary for people to fix things around the house, a food delivery system that uses reusable containers to bring food to your door without packaging waste (read also about the NakedPak project), and a home computer that uses parts from old outdated laptops. I actually want to redo that last one with all the skills I have gained in the last few years.
Kara is my graduation project, so it should demonstrate what I can do as a designer, as well as showing what my values and beliefs are. It’s the physical manifestation of everything I have learned the last years.
I hope to use my career to focus on making our everyday things, and especially electronics and appliances, more sustainable and repairable.”
Why Thomas Mair studio, why focusing on industrial design?
“Designers play an integral role in shaping our day-to-day experiences. From the products we use to the spaces we inhabit, designers have created nearly everything we touch, see, and interact with. The chair we sit on, the phone we use to communicate, the car we drive to work – all of these were designed by someone with a specific vision and intention. That is an incredible power to have. Through their work, designers have the power to shape the world around us and enhance our daily lives.
In the context of sustainability, industrial design can be a particularly fulfilling profession. We have the opportunity to create products that are environmentally friendly, use sustainable materials and manufacturing methods, and can be easily disassembled or recycled at the end of their life. This can have a significant impact on reducing waste and minimizing the environmental impact of consumer products.”
Your studio won the DesignWanted Award with Kara, a coffee machine that shows an alternative way of designing and building electronics. How did you come up with the idea?
“It actually started with the fact that our dryer broke in our house. We looked into getting it fixed by a professional, but even just getting it inspected would have cost more than buying a new one second-hand. In the end, we tore it down ourselves, and managed to fix it for about six months. The most frustrating part was that the piece that was broken was actually really small and insignificant, but there was no way of replacing it by itself. So the whole dryer had to go.
When I started the project, I didn’t know I was going to make a coffee machine, but in my research I found out that small household appliances actually make up a third of our worldwide e-waste. And not only do they usually not get recycled, most appliances are completely unaccounted for in our waste-stream, so we don’t even know where they end up.
I chose the coffee machine as an example because most people that own one actually really care about it, it’s a status symbol and it makes a drink that powers us through the anything, so there is this connection. And yet, if one breaks, it’s just so much easier to go into the electronics store and pick up a new one.”
How would you describe your design philosophy? What are the aspects that you focus on the most when developing new products?
“My design philosophy is very much based on the values and limitations of the Doughnut Economy, which is a model for sustainable development created by economist Kate Raworth. It proposes a circular economy that meets the needs of all people while respecting the boundaries of the planet’s ecosystems. It aims to achieve both social justice and ecological sustainability. Through my work I want to bring humanity closer to a circular and fair economy as outlined there.”
From an industrial design perspective, which are your vital tools, resources, and methods for you during the design process?
“As an industrial designer, there are several vital tools, resources, and methods that I rely on during the design process. For example, I value user research and user testing a lot. Understanding the needs, preferences, and behaviors of the people you want to help is essential in creating a product that satisfies their requirements. They know what they need so much better than I ever could, so I should make sure to understand them.
One of the most important tools I use is CAD software, which allows me to create and manipulate 3D models of my designs. This allows me to visualize and refine the product before creating a physical prototype.
Having said that, I also rely on my tools to bring my designs into the physical world. 3D printing is very important, but I also like making foam mockups or just create rough prototypes with whatever I have on hand.
Finally, collaboration and communication are critical tools in the design process. Working with interdisciplinary teams and stakeholders, including engineers, manufacturers, and clients, is where I feel like I can add most as a designer, and it’s where real change happens. This is something I have done in the past when I worked for companies, and it’s something I have been wanting to do more in the last few months as well.”
What do you believe are the main trends & future directions within product design and what do you think of them?
“Sustainability for one is of course at the top of the list, I think it’s something we still have to completely process as a society, and design will play an important role in helping us adjust. This can manifest itself in a few ways though I believe, and there is lots of space to explore one’s position. I think Kara very clearly positions itself as something built to last, but one could equally well make the argument for the opposite philosophy.
Design is also steadily moving away from form-giving and into a role where we can determine and rethink systems, which I think is very important.
I also believe that the next few years will be transformative because of the new tools available to us. I’ve already been playing with some AI and VR tools, and while they are very clearly still in their infancy, they are very promising.
One idea I already had, relating to Kara, is using chatbots like ChatGPT to create interactive user manuals. If a person has trouble with something, they could just ask their phone. But those kinds of systems are also gonna disrupt the design process, by giving you for example new ways to ideate, or to do user testing.
Material and technological innovations, as well as changing incentives will demand we rethink everything in our society, and I for one can’t wait to see what the future has in store for us.”
What is the next step for Thomas Mair studio?
“I’ve actually decided to join a design consultancy here in the Netherlands, FLEX/design, and help them with their mission of accelerating transitions, which means I can work with both small and big companies, and deliver change on a scale I just couldn’t by myself.”