If you care, then repair – Design Anthology UK, Issue 15
There are a few moments in history to where you can trace the explosion of our single-use society. A New York industry event in 1950, when American clothing retailer B. Earl Puckett announced that “utility cannot be the foundation of a prosperous apparel industry. We must accelerate obsolescence.” Five years later, the cover of Life magazine depicted a family throwing plastic into the air with glee, under the headline “Throwaway Living”. And a comment that was made in 1956 that plastic’s future was “in the garbage can” (requoted in the 1997 book American Plastic: A Cultural History) – referring to the fact its profit lay not in the durability for which it was engineered, but in its disposability.
Today, fashion is fast, disposability is the norm and it is often easier to replace than repair. But we are starting to understand that this “take-make-waste” approach is not sustainable on a finite planet. We are running out of raw materials to take from the earth, generating too much carbon, making more and more stuff, and running out of space to safely dispose of our waste. We need to move towards a circular economy; one in which (as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation) we design out waste and pollution, keep materials and objects in use, and regenerate natural systems. It is just possible that we are witnessing the moments in history at which that is starting to happen.
Venice’s Architecture Biennale in May was criticised by Zaha Hadid Architects principal Patrik Schumacher for not showing enough architecture. He drew particular attention to the German Pavilion, which he described as full of “piles of construction material”. But
perhaps he missed the point. The event, curated by Lesley Lokko, was lauded by other visitors for being the first major design and architecture event to take on some of the world’s biggest problems. And the German Pavilion? A material bank for Venice repair projects to “keep materials and objects in use”.
It’s not only architects who are putting repair at the heart of their thinking. British lighting company Anglepoise now offers a lifetime guarantee on new lamps and a repair service for vintage models. “We have for many years been sold products that are designed to fail at some point, while also being sold the ridiculous notion that something is better replaced in its entirety than repaired,” says chairman Simon Terry. “The design industry is distracting itself by moving the conversation towards recyclable or recycled materials but, of course, that isn’t enough. It needs to broaden its scope and stop churning out new things for the sake of it.”
Danish furniture company Takt is doing just that. Its first sofa, Spoke – launched in June – is designed to be repaired at home. “I hope we are part of a repair movement,” says Takt’s founder and CEO Henrik Taudorf Lorensen. “Besides the environmental benefits of extending the lifespan of products, our customers have become emotionally attached to the furniture that they have repaired.”
When people repair their own objects, whether it’s a sofa, a lamp or the knee of a child’s trouser leg, they don’t only increase the functional and emotional durability of that object, they also reclaim their own power. They start to ask questions about a system that has such little respect for the finite materials we have taken out of the earth and the labour that has shaped them into the objects we use every day.
Lebanese-British artist Aya Haidar creates installations that highlight the hidden labour of care and repair. “The personal agency that comes with repair goes against consumerism and represents a challenge to a broken system,” she says. “If there’s going to be any sustainable long-term change, everyone needs to take into account this responsibility and negotiate a bit of personal agency for themselves.” Perhaps that’s why repair is really important. It represents not only one practical solution to the environmental crisis, but a shift in mindset, a growing desire to challenge the systems that make fashion fast, disposability the norm and a broken object easier to replace than repair. I really hope we will look back on moments like the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale as more than “piles of construction material” but as a physical marker of the moment when the circular economy really started to gather pace.
Image credit: Yeshen Venema Photography
This article was written for Design Anthology UK, Issue 15 published in September 2023.
All copy is reproduced here as it was supplied by Katie Treggiden to the client or publication.