(Un)wanted furniture: sharing design strategies to promote durability
Making objects last is fundamental to a circular economy and designers can do a lot to support the diffusion of a repair mindset, especially if they tap into the makers’ open-source culture. Here is how a fablab approached the challenge
Design is a particularly useful tool when it deals with actual issues.
One of the most relevant ones, to-date, is what to do with rubbish. Or, rather, with the medium-to-large objects that we no longer want and discard for a wide variety of reasons but that could easily be re-vitalized.
OpenDot is a Milan-based fab-lab that works closely with the City Council and with AMSA, the rubbish-collection agency, in finding design-fueled solutions to waste-related issues.
Its approach starts with research but it always lands on very pragmatic outcomes: first they figure out what the matter is and then they envisage how to solve it. Systematically.
Empowering people through designing systemic solutions
“As a fablab”, explains Federica Mandelli, designer and communicator,”our work in OpenDot is based on two milestones:
- co-design: meaning that we create together with users through their active involvement at all stages of the design process
- and empowerment: defining and sharing good practices. We actually make them as easy as possible to copy so people can use them in their everyday life”.
The OpenDot approach is, obviously, particularly useful when it comes to fueling a circular economy which necessarily needs everyone’s involvement and understanding of its basic principles.
This is the story of how OpenDot faced a practical issue (what to do with thrown-away furniture) by turning it into a systemic solution.
The key principle of the circular economy: durability
Making things last is the key principle of the circular economy in that it makes it possible to reduce waste and use of new materials.
While recycling is an energy-consuming activity, re-use and re-furbishment for longevity is, today, the most sustainable option when possible.
The rubbish collection agency told OpenDot that a great issue is the management of large, discarded items such as old furniture.
The pandemic made people increasingly aware of the importance of living in comfortable homes, suitable for remote working. The government also gave financial support to those who renewed their houses and this resulted in an increase in unwanted items that are left behind.
“We were asked to tackle this issue, systematically,” explains Federica. “We decided to do it by fostering a repair culture”.
This meant refurbishing some old furniture to make it pleasing and usable again – like a lot of designers already do – but also use the experience to help others do the same or at least think of furniture with a totally new outlook.
“The real novelty of the
Unwanted Furniture project is not the products but the catalogue that potentially makes people up to speed in refurbishing discarded items”, says Federica.
And, we have to admit, after getting to know the Wrapping strategy – inspired by Christo, it consists of covering an old chair with colored physiotherapic tape to change its look – it’s difficult to look at any seat in the same way as we did before…
Sharing a design approach rather than bricolage tutorials
Repairability is often a hard road to take for most people.
Not everyone has the skills, the ideas or the mentality to figure out what to do when it comes to giving a discarded object a new life.
“It does happen but on an ad hoc basis, like a bricolage exercise that re-vamps the object according to one’s taste but doesn’t take into account the actual sustainability of materials that are used, future recycling or the possibility to make the practice adjustable for other people and items. It’s a personal hobby”, says Federica.
Design for repair, on the contrary, taps into defined creative strategies that turn the mending gesture into a systemic, repeatable approach, and aims at making it applicable to other objects.
A good design outlook, Federica points out, also takes into consideration other factors such as lateral thinking, feasibility for all, the sustainability of the solution that is chosen and its overall cost which should be contained.
“And, last but not least”, she says, “the possibility to enrich the repaired items with a story, which is always a guarantee for a stronger attachment with the user (hence with a longer life span)”.
Sharing repair strategies through example
Unwanted furniture project (presented at the Milan Design Week last June) consists of a collection of repaired furniture but, above all, of an open-source catalogue illustrating 10 easy-to-apply and clearly explained design strategies.
“We defined them by analyzing the reasons why people discard furniture: they no longer like it or need it or it’s partially or totally broken, hence unusable”, explains Federica.
The team came up with 3 sections related to these reasons: aesthetic change, fixing and upcycling.
And with an introduction, related to care, featuring tricks and suggestions on how to prevent damage: how to look after materials, how to treat surfaces like plastic or metal.
Each strategy is rated in terms of difficulty, has a list of tools and materials required and quotes references – coming from the art or the design world – to also give a cultural angle and more inspiration.
“Each section provides a designer outlook, to help people think of the wider picture and to be creative themselves. The idea is that you learn how to invent and start making things, not that you copy what we did,” says Federica.
What does it all mean, in practical terms?
The catalogue, written in Italian, will soon be available also in English.
Yet it makes sense to share it already since images are pretty explanatory. You can view it here and see how all the old objects have been transformed using the different design strategies (which we explain below).
To change the look of a piece of furniture, two design strategies were defined: Minimizing and Surface Covering.
Looking at an object and seeing its fundamental structure takes some time but it’s something most people are able to do. Stripping an object of all extras and reducing it to its essence helps in turning old furniture into a more contemporary presence, especially if coupled with re-colouring strategy.
You don’t need to be an upholsterer to give new life to a chair. “We chose the Wrapping strategy, inspired by the likes of Christo, Jurgen Bey or Pepe Heykoop”, says Federica.
“The example given used physiotherapist’s colored tape to change a seat thoroughly, but anything else will do”.
The strategies collected in this section are designed to maintain functionality and give aesthetic and design quality to the reparation.
Contrary to restoration interventions, which hide the flaw, these strategies play with putting an emphasis on it to achieve a new creativity.
“The story we create when we choose these strategies is related to our desire to look after our objects and show that we do”.
It implies taking more broken objects and using the still valid parts from one to fix the other. The original function remains but there are added elements.
“What’s nice here is when you apply to your doing a ‘ready-made’ approach like artists have done in the 20th century”, says Federica.
“Not everything works from an aesthetic and poetic point of view so the catalogue explains to you how to select and how to mix diverse pieces to get a higher quality result”.
Many think that repair is difficult because you imagine it that the object must return “like new”. Yet
repairing is a noble gesture: we should not hide it, but show it.
It’s what OpenDot did by illustrating how colored resins can give more strength to old wood (and make it visually very contemporary).
The team was inspired by Kintsugi – the Japanese technique of restoration of the ceramics that leaves break lines visible joining the pieces with a lacquer gold.
It’s all about replacing broken or missing elements of an object by making them anew, using fab lab techniques like 3D printing or milling and cutting lasers, or by using downloadable open-source files to self-produce.
- Design brut
Design Brut draws inspiration from Art Brut (raw art) – or artistic productions created from creative impulses that would be considered to be outside of conventional standards.
It is based on the combination of broken objects and materials or partially functional ones that they are recovered by being combined in a daring way.
That is to say, with no attention to trends or aesthetic codes. It’s an approach that allows you to achieve surprisingly spontaneous results (and, in history, greatly iconic designs such as some by the Castiglioni brothers).
Upcycling is all about saving and re-using elements of discarded objects to give them a new life, often without keeping their original function. And, by doing so, increasing their perceived value
Shelves, planks and furniture doors are amongst the most discarded items. One way to recover them is to use them as modules by applying off-the-shelf joints to create new furniture
This strategy is interesting when you have a large amount of items of the same type but of different forms: obsolete things, production scraps, fabrics, pallets, but also books or old ones magazines.
These elements, when grouped together, can create a structure which serves as a base for a new piece of furniture
From an early age we learn that a cardboard box can be a fort to hide in or a spaceship.
Hacking a broken object means looking at it with your eyes, seeing new functions.
In the show, an element from an old piece of furniture was stripped of all decorations, repainted and put together with a speaker to form a sound system.
This strategy is extremely difficult to achieve for non-experts because it’s based on materials transformation. Waste, coupled with other elements, can become a new primary material.