Back for good: the fine art of repairing broken things (The Observer)

(Header image Aya Haidar – credit Roo Lewis)

New legislation coming into force this summer gives UK consumers the ‘right to repair.’ The last time we were encouraged to ‘make do and mend’ was during World War Two – this time the imperative is environmental. Podcaster Katie Treggiden explores what a return to a culture of repair means for five artists and designers already making and mending.

When Aldous Huxley wrote his dystopian novel Brave New World in 1932, he imagined a society in which the importance of discarding old clothes was whispered into children’s ears while they slept (‘Ending is better than mending. The more stitches, the less riches’) – so vital was the imperative to drive consumption of the new. He set his novel 600 years into the future, but in the foreword to the 1946 edition, suggested that its ‘horror may be upon us within a single century’. He wasn’t far off. Just 63 years later, in 2008, design historian Hazel Clark declared that ‘mending has died out’.

Another 13 years on, it has, and it hasn’t. Product lifespans are getting shorter – in fact one UK-based fashion company advises buyers to work to quality standards that assume a dress will stay in its owner’s wardrobe for less than five weeks. And it’s not just clothes that we no longer mend. Household appliances can be cheaper to replace than repair, with spare parts often available only if harvested from retired machines. Something as simple as a depleted battery frequently spells the end for today’s hermetically sealed electronic devices, and simply attempting a repair can render warranties invalid.

This summer Ecodesign and Energy Labelling Regulations, dubbed the ‘right to repair bill,’ come into force, requiring that manufactures make spare parts and maintenance information available for their products. The intention is to overcome built-in obsolescence, enable repairs and extend lifespans. The government now expects white goods to last for up to a decade, rather than the seven-year average reported by the Whitegoods Trade Association.

But ‘right to repair’ campaigners such as the co-founder of The Restart Project, Janet Gunter, argue that the measures don’t go far enough. ‘This has been widely reported as “problem solved”, but in fact, the rules only apply to lighting, washing machines, dishwashers and fridges – and they only give spare parts and repair documentation to professionals,’ she says. ‘We have to keep fighting for all the other things in your house – we want to see ecodesign legislation applied to other hard-to-repair tech products, such as laptops and smartphones – and offer the right to repair to everyone, including people who want to repair their own machines at home.’ Philip Dunne MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee agrees. ‘There should be no contest: consumers should have every right to fix items they own,’ he says. ‘Making spare parts available is the first step in creating a circular economy where we use, reuse and recycle products. We must stop using and disposing quite so much: we must take action if we are to protect the environment for generations to come.’

Assuming things go their way, we are likely to see a move away from throw-away culture and a return to repair. Not since Make Do and Mend during the Second World War has there been such an imperative to fix the things we own, but now the motivation is environmental. The second tenet of the circular economy, as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is to ‘keep materials and objects in use’ and repair is one of the simplest ways to achieve this. Today, artists and designers are leading the way in exploring what mending really means. They might not be offering to fix your broken toaster, but through exploring the practice of repair, they are laying the groundwork for new ways of thinking about the objects we surround ourselves with. Perhaps by following their lead, we can move away from the veneration of newness that is exemplified by the trend for unboxing videos on YouYube and ‘box-fresh’ trainers, and instead learn to celebrate the storied patina that comes with care and repair.

Aya Haidar 

For self-described mother, artist and humanitarian Aya Haidar, mending is a metaphor. Her Recollections series comprises photographs of war-damaged buildings in Beirut into which she stitches multicoloured embroidery thread ‘repairing’ the bullet holes. ‘It was about filling in these voids – these holes that are scars, remnants and traces of something that is dark, ugly and traumatising, and filling it with something colourful and joyful,’ she says. Her Lebanese family fled the war in 1982, moving first to Saudi Araba and then London. ‘For my family, those damaged buildings are ugly, not just aesthetically, but because they remind them of something terrifying, but something that does need to be remembered.’ By embellishing and filling the cracks with beautiful, colourful threads, she emphasises them, so the war that caused them is not forgotten. Haidar’s work focuses on found and recycled objects and explores themes such as loss, migration and memory. In the Soleless Series, she embroidered images of migrants’ journeys onto the soles of their worn-out shoes. ‘The shoes physically carried refugees across borders and across lands,’ she says. ‘They were so worn and torn that they were not fit for purpose, but instead of throwing them away, I embroidered images of their journeys onto their soles, adding another layer of meaning. I couldn’t return the function to those shoes, but I could tell their story and show their value.’ Haidar runs youth workshops for refugees from countries experiencing conflict, such as Syria and Somalia, and uses craft as a way to help them process traumatic experiences. ‘The physical act of mending works towards an emotional repair,’ she says. ‘Because craft is a durational process, because it is slow, considered, repetitive and thoughtful, the women who take part in my workshops are left with their own thoughts and the time to process them in the flow of making. It is a solitary process, but also a collective experience. The conversations that come out of the workshops are very real, very honest, very raw – there are a lot of exchanges about personal experiences while we’re crafting. There is a beautiful sense of healing that starts to happen.’

Jay Blades

For Jay Blades, presenter of the BBC’s Repair Shop, mending is about community. Described by the BBC as ‘a heart-warming antidote to throwaway culture,’ the  programme sees members of the public bring broken objects to a barn in the grounds of the Weald and Downland Living Museum, get them fixed, and take them away again. ‘On paper, it doesn’t sound that interesting,’ laughs Blades. And yet some 7 million people tune in to every episode. The secret of its unlikely success can perhaps be found in its origin story. Katy Thorogood, creative director of production company Ricochet, took a chair that had belonged to her late mother to be reupholstered. When she got it back, she fell in love with it all over again, but that wasn’t the magic moment. The magic happened when the upholsterer handed her a framed sample of the original fabric as a keepsake. She simultaneously burst into tears and had the idea for her next hit TV show. ‘The upholsterer didn’t need to do that, but he did it simply because it was a kind thing to do,’ says Blades. ‘What makes the Repair Shop so special is its community – its love. It’s about doing something kind for someone that you don’t know.’ And that’s a theme that runs through Blades own story. He established Out of the Dark with his then wife Jade in High Wycombe in 2000 to enable disadvantaged young people to learn practical skills from the last generation of furniture makers in the area. ‘It was about turning furniture that someone had written off into something desirable and trying to explain to the young people that there is a direct connection between that and giving them the skills they needed to go into a job interview with their heads held high.’ When that project came to an end due to the perfect storm of cashflow problems and the end of his marriage, it was again the community that stepped in. He had been living in his car for a week when a friend came to find him and offered him a job and a place to stay – and he’s been living with that friend’s family ever since. Having got back on his feet, he was already running Jay & Co, his own furniture-restoration business, when the BBC came calling. He can now count Mary Berry among his fans – she requested him specifically as a guest on her Christmas special, Mary Berry Saves Christmas and told Blades she and her husband watch every episode. ‘Of course, The Repair Shop is a celebration of craft skills, but at its heart, it’s about caring for people by repairing the things that matter to them,’ says Blades.

Image credit Matt Jessop

Chris Miller

For Chris Miller, restoration is a direct response to the climate crisis. Skinflint, the vintage lighting website he co-founded, specialises in sourcing lighting from the 1920s to the 1970s, usually from non-residential settings such as hospitals, churches, and factories. The company has already saved 50,000 lights from landfill. The lights are made safe and functional and then get what Miller calls a ‘light touch’ restoration, maintaining the patina of their age, before being sold to architects, interior designers and house-proud consumers the world over. The decision to source mainly industrial lights is about availability and volume, and his chosen era is bookended by the advent of mainstream electric lighting in the 1920s and the introduction of plastics in the 1970s. ‘Buildings such as churches were the first to be electrified and we still salvage 1920s church lights, because they have had quite an easy life – they’re only used once a week and they tend to be quite high up,’ he explains. ‘After the 1970s, you start to see the language of planned obsolescence and failure engineering coming into the documentation and the effects of engineers handling a material they didn’t yet fully understand.’ So far, so pragmatic, but it was actually a tragic personal experience that motivated the decision to set up an environmentally driven business. Miller was in Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit the country’s eastern and southern shores on 26th December 2004. ‘Ordinarily, we make travel up as we go along, but on this occasion, we had booked various places in advance – and that’s what saved our lives,’ he says. On 24th December, he and his wife reluctantly left the waterside hut they’d been staying in and moved inland to a pre-booked jungle lodge for Christmas Day. Just 48 hours later, the tsunami destroyed those waterside huts, taking the lives of many of the people they’d been sharing drinks with just days before. It was a wake-up call. ‘We all experience signpost moments every day,’ he says. ‘Most we miss, some we see but don’t act upon, and some just hit us smack in the face. We left our jobs in London and moved to Cornwall with a three-month-old baby. Skinflint was officially launched two years later.’ For Miller, running a restoration business is a response to an event made more likely and more severe by climate change. ‘We simply can’t go on in the way we have been for the last 100 years,’ he says. ‘The resources are just not there. You can layer provenance and storytelling on top… but the key driver for our business is the environment.’

Bridget Harvey

Former artist-in-residence at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Bridget Harvey might actually offer to fix your toaster – alongside her artistic practice, she is the co-organiser of Hackney Fixers, a community group modelled on the Dutch Repair Café initiative that pairs the owners of broken things with volunteers in order to find a solution. But her work as an artist is concerned with what we make, how we make it, and why that matters. ‘What I’m interested in is the human condition – the human psyche,’ she says. ‘How we move through the world, how we interact with objects, and whether their repair is embraced, rejected, or something in between – it is all a really interesting window into how we think, how society operates and how objects define us.’ Her work spans clothing, ceramics, and hybrid objects that embrace both. ‘Blue Jumper 2012–2019’ is about to join V&A’s permanent collection as part of their reconfigured fashion galleries curated around garment lifecycles, but it began life as a second-hand woollen jumper in Harvey’s own wardrobe. When it got damaged by moths, she carried on wearing it, darning the holes in contrasting colours. When the moths got it again, she simply kept darning, and kept wearing it, describing herself as the ‘disobedient owner of a disobedient garment’. Her Mend More jumper is a more direct statement – made as a placard for a climate march, the navy-blue sweater is emblazoned with the words ‘Mend More Bin Less’ on one side and ‘Mend More Buy Less’ on the other, which she appliquéd on, making each letter from yellow fabric scraps left over from other projects. ‘Kintsuglue Plate 2019’ is a commentary on the increasing popularity of the deliberately visible Japanese repair technique Kintsugi among Western repair practitioners. Instead of using the traditional urushi lacquer and gold powder, she has used a Kintsuglue – a copycat product emulating Sugru, a mouldable ‘glue’ that can be manipulated like plasticine for 30 minutes until it sets into a water-proof silicone. With these layers of influences, and not having designed or fabricated the plate nor the Kintsuglue herself, Harvey is exploring notions of authorship within repaired objects. In other pieces, she has patched a blanket with tin cans, and bridged the gap between two halves of a broken bowl with a beadwork section, rendering it repaired but useless. She is playing at the fringes of repair, asking us to question when something is truly broken and when it is really mended.

Hans Tan R is for Repair

Image credit Khoo Guo Jie

Singapore-based designer, educator and curator Hans Tan wants to champion the role of repair in contemporary design. ‘In most Asian cultures, mending is seen as something you do only when you can’t afford to replace something,’ he says. ‘Buying something new, for a festive occasion such Chinese New Year, is important as a symbol of prosperity – and mending is not seen as a profession. I want to reposition repair as an aspirational activity that can generate inspirational outcomes.’ He has started to do that through R is for Repair, an exhibition at the National Design Centre, Singapore earlier this year. Commissioned by DesignSingapore Council, the exhibition proposed that one way to reduce the 0.74 kg of waste the World Bank estimates we each generate every day, is through extending the lives of objects we might otherwise throw away. Tan invited 10 members of the public to submit broken objects and paired them with 10 contemporary designers. Tan gave Tiffany Loy – a Singaporean artist trained in industrial design and textile-weaving – a Calvin Klein tote bag that Arnold Goh bought with his first pay cheque. Once his pride and joy, it had developed holes, and been relegated to use as a grocery bag. She flipped the bag inside out, taking advantage of the undamaged lining, and added a cord mesh – both to strengthen it and to form a handy external pocket. Hunn Wai and Francesca Lanzavecchia, co-founders of Lanzavecchia + Wai, were given a $15 watch with a broken strap that its owner had owned since high school. It had already been replaced with a like-for-like replacement but held sentimental value. ‘We are both quite romantic designers – we seek to re-humanise situations and objects and bring about new behaviours, so we were really happy to be given a timepiece to work on,’ says Wai. ‘A watch is a powerful object – it’s got a lot of narratives and unwittingly becomes part of your identity over a period of time. Even though this was a cheap watch, it was well made and still working.’ They encased the mass-produced timepiece in a bespoke walnut case with brass fixings aligned to the quarter-hour, turning it into a precious clock. ‘Commonly, we perceive sustainable practice as something that comes with inconvenience, cost or sacrifice,’ says Tan. ‘But sustainability can be articulated and practised in an attractive, purposeful way – and as designers we are uniquely placed to reposition repair as aspirational. In each case, we wanted to end up with something that was incrementally, if not fundamentally, better than the original, so that people might see repair, not as an inconvenience, but as something they love to do.’

Read the original article at its source here.



Anti Turns Discarded and Broken Umbrellas Into Desk and Table Lamps (Circular by Design, Design Milk)

We’ve all experienced that frustrating moment when an umbrella gets blown inside out, the force of the movement breaking the spindles and rendering it useless. The thing is that the majority of umbrellas are simply not designed to last, with an average lifespan of just six months. In order to turn this frustration into something positive, Anti takes discarded and broken umbrellas, disassembles them, and upcycles them into desk and table lamps. We spoke to UK-based founder and CEO Mark Howells to find out more.

Tell me a little bit about your childhood, education and background in terms of how you first became interested in creativity, design and sustainability.

I grew up In Hertfordshire in a working class family. My mother can draw and paint and my father is very musical; writing and performing electric and acoustic guitar-based music to this day at 70 years of age. My first exposure to design was via a foundation course in art and design at Watford in the 1990s. I was drawn towards the traditional arts as opposed to design, until I was asked by a tutor, who ran a 3D Design class, to select an object from a series of waste objects she had scavenged from a beach and produce a new product. I chose a section of a washed-up bicycle tire and made a watch strap that buttoned over the tire tread. I loved the process of learning to unsee the original utility of an object and unlocking a new purpose unseen by anyone else before. This led to an explosion of designs using waste. At the time I had a cleaning job in the evenings at a very large office and I would collect items of interest that had been discarded in bins – in particular, computer components – and repurpose them. It was these designs that secured me a place on an Industrial Design degree at Cardiff University. Although I learned a huge amount, I really had no real interest in becoming an Industrial Designer – the assembly line approach of the time was a far cry from the work I had been doing to secure my position on the degree course in the first place. This was the ’90s and sustainability wasn’t a mainstay of the curriculum. I decided to take the drafting skills I had developed and head towards engineering. I worked for various environmental consultancies, which led me to building and land surveying, eventually as a board-level director of a successful surveying practice. In this role, I gained exposure to starting new business units and small businesses – which inspired me to fulfill a long-harbored desire to return to sustainable design.

How would you describe your project/product?

Anti’s first collection is upcycled lamps made of discarded umbrellas that were otherwise destined for landfill. The collected umbrellas are disassembled into their separate materials groups (e.g. plastics, metals, nylon) and are made into desk and table lamps. Over 1 billion umbrellas are made each year but are not designed to last, with an average lifespan of just six months. Anti addresses a waste issue by designing with waste, not creating it – and the new products are easier to disassemble at end-of-life than the umbrella was in its original state. This is the first waste stream we are concentrating on, but there will be others. One of our key focuses is to design repeatable upcycled products that can be made/manufactured at scale. The more we sell, the more waste we reuse, and the more good we can do.

What inspired this project/product?

After living in London and Tokyo, I became very aware of the wastage around umbrellas. In Tokyo, umbrellas are everywhere, you see endless rows of broken umbrellas at railway stations and outside shops. On a typical rainy day in Tokyo over 3,000 umbrellas are handed in to lost property, London underground deals with a similar problem. Our research suggests as many as one billion umbrellas are broken, lost or discarded each year worldwide. Umbrellas are just one example of an everyday product that has an important utility and value, but is flawed. It solves one problem but causes another. In the case of umbrellas it keeps us dry, and is portable, cheap and available on every street corner, but is made of different material types and so it’s difficult to disassemble at the end of its life, which makes recycling at scale difficult.

What waste (and other) materials are you using, how did you select those particular materials and how do you source them?

Both lamps are made from discarded umbrellas. We have collected these over the last few years primarily from lost properties and from city streets, bins and train stations. We also use a 3D-printed recycled plastic filament for two components and several metal components that are made from recycled materials.

When did you first become interested in using waste as raw material and what motivated this decision?

The design potential of using waste has interested me since higher education, however, the first real exposure I had to the environmental impact of how we were dealing (or not dealing) with waste was when I was a junior technician at an environmental engineering consultancy. I saw how landfills were designed firsthand and even had the opportunity to see one being built. Landfills were recognized even by the landfill designers at the time to be a poor solution with many issues e.g., the plastic membranes often split or ripped leaking the toxic water (leachate) that had percolated through the waste over time and into the soil and worryingly possibly into the groundwater. To see these vast cavernous sites being built, often in areas of countryside, just felt wrong and you could really see the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality we have associated with waste. The new items we purchase are made of the exact same materials we were throwing away; I have always believed that it’s our perception of what we deem as waste that needs to change. If you view any perceived waste item by its material type and form as opposed to its original utility and the stigma associated with something old or used, then it’s free to take on a new role. It’s down to us as designers to unlock this potential.

What processes do the materials have to undergo to become the finished product?

The umbrellas have to be disassembled into their individual component types and, in some cases, cleaned and repaired. The 3D-printed parts also need to be cleaned and finished. Then both lamps are primarily made through a process of assembly as opposed to manufacturing. This is also more energy-efficient.

What happens to your products at the end of their life – can they go back into the circular economy?

I encourage each customer to return our products at end of life via our Take Back scheme. We will happily take back any of the products produced at our workshop. These will be disassembled and reused as the basis for new designs or as a last resort disassembled for recycling. Having these products returned really is of great value to us. Both lamp designs are easy to disassemble, which allows us to recapture their material value very quickly.

How did you feel the first time you saw the transformation from waste material to product/prototype?

It really does feel like a kind of alchemy when you get it right. My objective Is to produce beautiful products from waste streams that at first, or even second, sight have no reference to their original purpose and utility. I know my work is done when someone suddenly realizes that what they are looking at is not what they thought, and yet it was there in front of them the whole time. To provide that surprise and joy is the best feeling.

How have people reacted to this project?

It’s been really positive so far. I think people are genuinely surprised that you can create something that looks beautiful from something that is not considered so. I’ve been particularly pleased with receiving great responses from fellow designers and sustainable designers.

How do you feel opinions towards waste as a raw material are changing?

I believe people are now more accepting of recycling and products made from recycled materials and in many cases, there’s now a demand for these. Upcycled products, however, are sometimes devalued in what people might pay for them due to the monetary tag associated with their previous life. That’s interesting because, in my opinion, the creative innovation to successfully develop an upcycled product (particularly at volume) is far more challenging, and ultimately more impressive, from both the point of view of the creative process and the end product point.

What do you think the future holds for waste as a raw material?

Ultimately, we should get to a stage where we do not see waste as rubbish. I believe circular economy principles will be the panacea to the fear and hurt we are feeling more strongly than ever towards the damage to the planet. Politicians, businesses, designers, and individuals will genuinely want to change the way we live, you can see the younger generation are already asking all the right questions and have the hunger to find the answers. Upcycling, in the sense of taking a linear lifecycle product and transforming it into a circular lifecycle product, can be a stop-gap to buy us more time until we are designing with circular principles ingrained into everything we manufacture from the outset. Developing biomimicry and biological fabrication where we can grow our products and they can safely return to the earth without the need for retrieval systems is a really exciting future. Although there is incredible progress in this area, we are, realistically, many decades from this becoming mainstream, and therefore the role of upcycling is critical to providing the time to achieve that transition.

To read the article at its source click here, or find out more about Anti here.

Radically pragmatic, pragmatically radical

Flat lay of burgundy magazine called The New Era

Most designers start their creative process by asking questions, but few go to quite the lengths that Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin do to understand the social, economic, territorial and geopolitical forces shaping every project they take on.

In their Milan- and Rotterdam-based design studio, Formafantasma, a rigorous research phase is combined with seemingly endless questioning of everything around them. ‘We’re not just here to make things pretty – it’s our role to ask questions,’ says Farresin. And yet somehow, for all their knowledge and expertise – particularly in sustainability, they resist the urge to be judgemental of the answers, preferring instead to investigate each project before deciding which levers they can pull to bring about positive change. ‘You can’t change the whole system with every project,’ he adds. ‘But you can keep asking the same questions – you’ll get different answers every time, but the important thing is to keep asking.’

Farresin talks to craft, design and sustainability writer, Katie Treggiden, about how they keep both the radical and the pragmatic sides of their business in check.

You’ve said “When we create something, it will have an impact. We don’t have a solution, but we question all the time.” What kind of what questions motivate you?

We always ask: ‘What role does design play in this context?’ ‘What is the ecological impact of what we do?’ We can’t always afford to think about the answers – we are a commercial studio and sometimes just try to execute something well within the constraints of the brief. But at other times, we have the freedom to question the impact that designers have – or don’t have. We love to get involved in conversations about what design can do.

So, what interests you about objects? What is your relationship with collecting and owning things?

We like beautiful things, and we care about the things we own, but we don’t fetishize objects. When you look at an object, you can talk about the people who produced it, economics, theology, anthropology, politics… Those are the things that excite us about objects.

Your work often involves rigorous research. How does that impact the sort of work that you make?

Not as much as we would like! We work on three types of projects – research-based projects such as the Cambio exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London, more commercial projects where we work more as a traditional design studio, and education through our role at Design Academy Eindhoven. This is our own balance. This is not the rule, but it is our way of making peace with being designers. Because of projects such as Cambio, people often see our work as closer to art, but these projects simply show our approach. We could apply the same approach to working with a company on a more holistic level – and our ambition is to find more opportunities to apply our more radical and investigative approach. I would love a furniture company to give us an open brief and full access. Then we could come up with some really interesting ideas. And if they don’t, the next generation of designers will get those opportunities and that’s fine too. Our thinking is more radical than what we do. At the moment, we are only able to apply the full extent of that thinking to projects such as Cambio, and we are okay with that. It means that we have to make compromises, but compromises that keep us rooted in the reality of what we are criticizing and that in itself is extremely useful. After our Ore Streams project – which investigated electronic waste – we took on projects with electronics companies and tried to start conversations about privacy, repairability… but they weren’t really interested. It was frustrating, but extremely useful for us to see up close how the design process is too fragmented to allow holistic thinking and therefore innovation. So for us, that was extremely beautiful. Did we achieve what we wanted? Not really. But still…

What role could designers have in tackling electronic waste?

The first step is repair. The second step is the reuse of components, which is different from recycling – and the future for electronic waste is not recycling, but reusing components. And then there is recycling, which means shredding stuff to obtain materials, but fragmentation of responsibility and knowledge is a big problem within recycling systems, and this needs to be addressed with both micro- and macro-governance. Even there, design can play a role – designers can understand production processes and come up with solutions – such as a simple colour coding system that would tell you which elements are hazardous.

There’s an expression I came across when I was studying for my master’s, which is that ‘no research is ever wasted’…

Absolutely, and that’s also why we ended up also being involved with education, curating the geo-design master’s degree at Design Academy Eindhoven, because what we’re doing is not only about building a business, it is also about building knowledge and awareness. Being involved in education is a way of expanding this in a non-commercial realm of design – and that’s extremely fulfilling.

Let’s talk about the Cambio Exhibition – what made you decide to investigate the global timber industry?

I have plenty of answers for this question! The first is a simple one. We realized that it was going to be difficult to develop our Ore Streams project further, because it proved so difficult to engage anyone who was making electronics. So, we went back to our roots. We started our careers in Italy, making furniture, using wood. The second reason is that we wanted to address the complexity and ethical questions of working with living creatures – trees. The third reason is that Serpentine Gallery is in Hyde Park surrounded by trees, so it made sense. And finally, there was The Great Exhibition, which took place in Hyde Park in 1851. The Great Exhibition glorified the shift from design as an artisanal practice to working for industry and making with machines. And it showcased materials extracted outside of Europe, so there was a clear link with colonialism. All in giant green house that was being used, for not for survival of living creatures, trees, but to glorify products. I cannot think of anything more emblematic of the complexity and the problematic elements of design. And so, we went back to those marginalized trees…

And what is the role of a designer in investigating the global timber industry? You’ve talked about a shift in the role of designers away from human needs…

When a designer is called in to do something, the thinking tends to begin with the human in front of them. The designer is thinking about what the needs or desires of the ‘target audience’ or ‘end user’. But if you want to think about the impact of design at an ecological level, you need to think about what happens before that moment – where are the materials coming from; which politics are they supporting? We cannot resolve ecological problems at a product level – simply by making materials biodegradable for example – without considering the lifecycle of the material. Ecology is also related to social justice, and there’s a lot of injustice in the way things are executed in the way timber fields. Instead of designers thinking ‘What can I do with this material?’ we should be thinking, ‘What can I do from and for the forest?’ If we extract value from the forest, we should also look at the needs of the forest and the other services the forest provides, such as sequestering carbon, providing a habitat for creatures, holding the earth together so that it’s not blown away by the wind…. Everybody talks about the quality of execution, the quality of comfort for the person using the product, but what about the comfort of the trees and the forest? We’ve got to stop centring humans.

As you conducted this investigation, what did you learn?

The biggest learning was that fragmented responsibility and knowledge is not working. Just to give you one example, the tools that designers use to make renderings enable us to render furniture using endangered species. This is a really powerful example of how the design discipline is shaped around the needs of humans, not the rest of the planet. There is a lot of conversation about trees as a solution in climate mitigation. If this is the reality, we have to change the way we use wood. Wood absorbs CO2 – it is 40-45% CO2 – but if you dispose of it and it is incinerated, that carbon is released. So how can we apply it to disposable products? Or even buildings that are renovated or demolished after decades? You are not making something ‘sustainable’ just by making it out of FSC-certified wood. We need to challenge the business models that rely on short lifespans – we need to talk about the economy. As designers, we can at least be aware of these systemic issues and start considering how we might apply this kind of thinking.

Tell me about your tile collection for Dzek, which is glazed in volcanic ash…

Inspired by De Natura Fossilium, a project we did for Gallery Libby Sellers, the concept is that many minerals used for glazing are extracted from underground. We were fascinated by the idea of volcanos excavating these materials for us, so we wanted to see what we could do with a non-extractive material. What is really interesting is how the chemists we worked with kept asking us what aesthetic we wanted and we kept saying “We don’t know, because it depends what comes out.” For us, it wasn’t about dictating the aesthetic, but reflecting the materials. The development of products is not about reflecting reality anymore – it is about fulfilling desires.

Tell me about your upcoming project for Hem…

It’s probably the most industrial product that we have done to date – it’s a shelving system made with extruded aluminium and it is all about maximizing efficiencies of effort and materials. It’s made of a highly renewable, entirely recyclable, single material and made with a very efficient technology – two extrusions create the entire shelving system. It is the opposite of what we do with our research-based projects, where we are trying to sort out things on the more macro level. It’s beautifully old fashioned in its attempt to resolve things, as much as possible, on a product level.

Because sometimes you’ve just got solve one problem at a time?

Yes, and also at different scales. Our practice is full of contradictions, but if you remove the contradictions, you need to remove yourself from the mud in which we’re living – and that’s not what we’re interested in. We are gloriously engaged, and we make compromises. We could be more radical, I’m sure, but this is where we stand, this is what we have decided, and these are the compromises we are willing to make within our own code of ethics.

Yes, and the danger is, if you can’t contradict yourself, it’s the radical stuff you can’t do. The only way you can never contradict yourself is to never try…

Honestly, you need to work on an academic level to only do the radical work. And even then, there are compromises. Or there are the people who seem very radical, but don’t sign the work they do to make a living. So, they can they afford to seem radical, because they do horrible works behind the scenes. We would rather be honest about the compromises we make and be proud of everything we do, at whatever level we can bring about change.

How else can designers contribute to a better use of resources?

It’s about making better choices driven by an understanding of the whole system, so it’s about sourcing, production, repair, distribution, and so on. Designers need to think about these same categories and reapply them to every brief – what can you do in each context? Maybe you cannot address these issues on a material level this time, but there’s something you can do on a distribution level. I have a lot of respect for everybody in this discipline – and you cannot afford to be ideological when you’re a designer. Otherwise, you need to quit being a designer. We’ve even had conversations with companies who clearly only want to get involved with ecology as a trend, but we might still do something with them and then maybe they will start to understand. Maybe that trend will sink in and start to become a culture. And that is starting to happen. It’s happening.

To find out more about Formafantasma here.