Design Driven Column: Reuse. Rethink. Redesign.

This column was also published here  in Salon, Telegraph Journal’s “Design Driven”; August 13th, 2011.

Bent over the keyboard, hard at work on this week’s column, I’m decked out in a T-shirt emblazoned with artwork off Def Leppard’s album Hysteria (released in 1987). To a casual observer, it’s a ‘rocker’ T-shirt, mass-produced and entirely typical of its kind. Closer examination, however, reveals, first impressions notwithstanding, it’s a one-of-a-kind hybrid – the marriage of a previously owned rocker T-shirt and a new and, not incidentally, better quality shirt.

This thoroughly original artifact was created and sewn by Haligonian clothing designer Kim Munson, owner and founder of the aptly-named Orphanage Clothing.

Left:  Album cover Hysteria, centre:  recycled T-shirt by Orphanage, Right:  hand-stitched label of design house.

“There’s a lot of waste in this world,” Munson explains. “It is important to use what we have. For this reason, I love to make clothing from garments that have already existed. They have been made and worn, and have a story unto themselves. I take these garments and renew their stories.”

Upcycled clothing is, in fact, part of a large and growing approach to design. Any number of industrial designers, architects and furniture makers are finding novel ways to convert the waste materials and otherwise exhausted products of our ‘throwaway society’ into new forms.

And unlike, say, Marcel Duchamp’s famous modernist urinal, Fountain, of 1917 – the earliest example of upcycling that springs to mind – the intent is not to point out the exhaustion of prevailing norms. Rather it’s about celebrating what is still viable and worth preserving in the ostensibly useless.

Photo:  Submitted – Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”  (1917)

Think about how often we deliver the sundry materials of our lives – outdated chairs, tables, couches, cabinets, beds, et cetera. – to curb or dump. They may have outlived their place in our esteem, but it’s often long before they’ve outlived their practical usefulness.

I wrote before about the Canadian designers Brothers Dressler whose design principles ask us to rethink our definitions of waste and values. As they so aptly put it on their website, “The repurposing of salvaged material into original furniture is a sensible response to problems caused by excessive consumption.

“As shapers of the landscape that surrounds us and the interiors we inhabit our goal is to create an atmosphere of beauty, rebirth and renewal by using material responsibly and minimizing waste. It’s our vision of the future and our hope for the role of designers, builders and artists within it.”

One of my favourite examples of upcycling from this dynamic duo involves the 93 defunct factory chairs they found in a salvage store. The tubular steel frame school assembly chairs were fitted with flat maple plywood seats and curved plywood backs. The Brothers enhanced and reinforced the frames, seats, backs and legs.

Photos:  Submitted from BD website – Upcycled by Brothers Dressler – salvaged standard tbe steel and plywood chairs, locally sourced and responsibly harvested walnut, leather off-cuts, recycled felt, wool, salvaged hardware.

The result? Each of these ostensibly exhausted, and all-but indistinguishable fruits of mass production, were remade into something unique. They weren’t merely revivified, they were reinvented.
As a most fitting finishing touch, scratches in the paint on the metal frames were left to bespeak each chair’s provenance, to bear witness to a history of useful tenure.

 Judith Mackin runs an interior design company, punchinside. You can follow her blog at, on twitter at judithmackin, or email her at [email protected]

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