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Barbara’s Blog #7: Use it or Lose It

In 2021 Design-Nation will be taking a long hard look at sustainable practice and waste. It’s a critical issue for the world to tackle and increasingly important for anyone who makes or designs to consider. So we are delighted to kick-start our initiative with this thoughtful piece by our regular blogger and design champion Barbara Chandler. Barbara has cast her research net far and wide, looking at writers, practitioners and theorists, products, manufacturers and exhibitions. Read on:

During a very long span as a writer on design, I’ve often dealt with waste. Indeed for my 70s’ book Flat Broke (for people in flats who were broke – obvs) I personally made rag rugs, patchwork, cardboard furniture and more from discards.

Things have moved on a lot since then, and this particular blog started with a hefty book I got just before Christmas (Ludion, £30). “Wasted” shouts the title in big black syllables – adding a little beacon of hope: “When trash becomes treasure.” This fat tome highlights the waste-saturated predicament of our painfully polluted planet by optimistically telling the stories of 30 designers who treat the waste of other industries/activities as a valued resource.

I’ve watched its author Katie Tregidden evolve from a pioneering “design blogger” (back in 2010) into an established journalist and talks curator, who’s taken time out along the way to do a masters in History of Design at Oxford. There she focused on the “circular” economy (more about that below), which is now the central thrust of her work, delivered through her own podcasts and a fortnightly column for the website Design Milk. Wasted is her fifth book.

I was intrigued to meet some old designer friends in Katie’s book – James Shaw, for example. I last saw him at the London Design Festival in 2018, when he curated with Laura Houseley, editor of the Modern Design Review, a show in King’s Cross called PlasticScene. This presented 13 international designers who use plastic waste. James himself has perfected a hand “gun” which will extrude plastic bags and so on into long strips which he weaves whilst still hot into furniture and objects.

Plastic is notably now design’s Mr Nasty, with single-use cups, straws, bags and other packaging in particular taking heavy flak, as images of polluted oceans and mountains of refuse dominate the media (and the front of Katie’s book). “But perhaps we should stop demonising plastic and see it as a desirable and appealing resource,” Laura suggested at the time of her show. “These designers felt excited by their material, not obligated.”

Over many years I’ve met all kinds of designers making things from waste materials. Some simply wanted or needed to save money, and/or loved the look and back-stories of what they found or salvaged – and that guarantee of originality. But increasingly modern-day “wastrels” have sophisticated ethical imperatives, eloquently expressed in the designers’ statements which are extensively explored in Katie’s book.

Among our own Design-Nation members, Norwich weaver Lizzie Kimbley is scooping up the discards of local industries, including left-over rush from a weaving company, and discarded willow tips from a local furniture maker. These become ethereal panels exuding the raw beauty of natural materials. Pamela Print, also a weaver, has the ambitious target of “zero waste” (more about this below). She is cutting any leftover fabrics into strips and weaving them into rugs, which are lightly felted – “because I did not want that rag rug effect.” She is also experimenting with spinning waste yarn, again use felting to finish off. Pamela, incidentally, is one of our many members who’ve recently turned to DN for pandemic solace and practical advice – “I don’t know how I would have managed without it.” And yes, Print is her real name – “embarrassingly apt for a textile artist, I know…”.

Lights by DN member Sam Isaacs are packed with personality, by turns elegant or cheeky. They’re made from the salvaged parts of older artefacts – a chrome chicken feeder, say, or a 1970s scooter headlight; the lamp from an old boat, or bits from 1950s kitchen appliances. Living by the sea, Sam is now collecting shore waste such as net floats and pot buoys for his Flotsam lamps. “Waste provides a tangible connection to my location here in Cornwall and by the sea,” he says, “weathered and bleached by the elements –  but it’s a contemporary approach and not naff, or themed. Just an honest use.”

Bronwen Gwillim, a DN member on the Pembrokeshire coast, is another beachcomber; cutting, shaping and forming plastic waste into marine-inspired sculptural and often asymmetric jewellery enhanced with recycled silver and resins. She explains: “I work the surfaces of my initially soulless materials until their colours soften and they feel natural in the hand.” This resourceful designer-maker aims to tread lightly with a low carbon footprint, even recycling her own plastic dust. “Yes, I throw very little away.”

Also an enthusiast for coastal life is DN member Caroline Brodgen – this time in Yorkshire. As a skilled jewellery maker, she’s discovered “surfite” with all the passion of a true convert. This is the resin that’s left over when surfboards are made. Caroline has got together with Scottish surfboard shaper Jay Burnett, who is sending his waste her way to turn into earrings, pendants and so on, set off by flashes of silver. “Here is an exciting alternative to mined gemstones, a sustainable way to add colour to precious metal jewellery.”

DN member Nell Beale, who trades as CoucouManou, uses Valchromat: it’s made from processed waste wood, such as branches and chips from softwood forests, bound with a special non-toxic resin, and coloured right through with organic non-toxic dyes. Nell adds: “But also important is using materials economically and cutting as many components from one sheet as possible.” A current project seeks to make a piece of furniture from a single sheet  – a coffee and dining table are already in the bag. “I just need to find the time to manufacture them now.”

There are other waste-gobbling sheet materials that designers can exploit. Outstanding are the rigid durable boards made of old plastic first developed in a groundbreaking project over 20 years ago by Smile Plastics. Recently this company has been enthusiastically revived by design duo Adam Fairweather and Rosalie MacMilllan. They are now doing a large range of sizes in different panel designs, from 300 x 120cm down to 25x25cm, and will take back Smile products for further recycling at the end of their life.  “There is no binder in the panel – just the plastic itself,” says McMillan reassuringly.

I also love Foresso which is a “timber terrazzo” invented by Conor Taylor. I first saw this as a prototype in a workshop in Somerset House, but now there is fully-fledged production in a Birmingham factory. Sheets, which are attractively speckled (like indeed terrazzo proper) are made from timber off-cuts from trees felled for development and maintenance around the city, and waste from local workshops. Sometimes Foresso sell small offcuts.

Many DN members use wood discards, whether garnered at source from the grounds of woodlands or parks, salvaged from old furniture and buildings or leftovers from their own workshops. And DN metalworkers often repurpose their waste, which is relatively easy if it simply gets melted and/or re-worked. As Suzanne Seed explains, silversmithing has a built-in system of reducing waste, as we use every piece, including the dust created when we saw it.”  And Fleur Grenier simply pops her pewter scraps “back into the pot”.

During our brief summer freedom from lockdown, I went to see the delightful Clean Up Plastic Camo Chair, created by designer Ella Doran, a Design-Nation alumni who is working with artist/campaigner Sophie Thomas  and Andrea Simonetti and Patrizia Sottile of Urban Upholstery  – all with impeccable eco credentials. They rescued an abandoned chair, reconstructed it, adding a final cover of recycled (and recyclable) velvet (now available from Ella by the metre) with a pattern of recycled scraps of plastic, based on Sophie’s beach combing. Click the link to find out more and and listen to their podcast.

Such designers are leading by example, and truly admirable, indeed inspirational, are the ways in which individual makers are re-using and/or eliminating waste and voicing their motivations and “journeys”. But over and above personal commitments is the glaring need globally for big business and governments to embrace effective waste management as part of a commitment to the overarching goal of a “circular” economy. Briefly, this approach rejects the “linear” approach to production of “take, make, waste,” and advocates, among other aims, for zero waste on a large scale.

Katie Tregidden thoughtfully considers some of these issues in the introductions to each section of her book, looking at domestic, industrial, fashion, food and plastic waste in turn. You could also explore What Design Can Do’s analysis of the impact of bad design.

Celebrated campaigner for the circular economy is Ellen MacArthur, awarded the London Design Medal 2019, who set up the Foundation which bears her name in 2012. She orchestrated key talks at the Global Design Forum, part of London Design Festival 2020, which are still available online.

And I should mention again Sophie Thomas (part of the Camo Chair project above) who is previous director of circular economy at the RSA, where from 2012 to 2016 she ran the influential Great Recovery project. (See also Sophie’s own site.) Sophie is now using art to get her messages across: previous to the Camo Chair, her award winning Broken Ocean installation was at Collect 2019.

And coming to the Design Museum in October is the timely Waste Age exhibition: – “We live in the age of waste. Design helped create the problem, but could it be crucial in solving it?”

Indeed Design-Nation is now working with curator, writer and sustainability specialist Melody Vaughan, whose attitude towards waste is understandably serious. She has developed a “sustainability audit” for Design-Nation members. It poses questions for these makers such as:

* Where are there sources of waste in my practice (looking at researching, designing, testing, making, packaging, displaying, selling etc)?

* Is this necessary? Could I reduce this? How?

* Could I re-purpose my waste? How?

* What support is out there to help me reduce waste, recycle it or dispose of it better?

Melody is steering a new Design-Nation Sustainability and Ethical Practice group which has already been joined by over 20 members, who will hold their first meeting on 3 February. Says membership manager Hayley Banks: “The idea is to pool resources, develop case studies, identify and provide training and look at other opportunities, possibly also including project work and an exhibition a little bit further down the line. We feel that as an organisation we need to encourage our members to consider these very important issues and celebrate our members who are working innovatively this area.” Get in touch for more info.

Indeed many Design-Nation members are already committed to “zero waste” which appears in many manifestos. So let’s finish with London weaver and DN member Maria Sigma: “I strive to decrease to the minimum my yarn waste and unnecessary cuts, the use of machinery, water and electricity. By adhering to a ‘zero waste’ philosophy, I aspire to make hand-weaving an even more sustainable craft.”

Notes on Images

All photos by Barbara Chandler unless otherwise noted.

1. Beachcombed flotsam photographed by Sam Isaacs of ReWorked.

2. James Shaw

3. Lighting designs by Sam Isaacs, photo courtesy maker.

4. Nell Beale of CoucouManou

5. The Clean Up Plastic Chair, creators: eco activist Sophie Thomas (standing right), designer Ella Doran (sitting right), plus Patrizia and Andrea of Urban Upholstery. Barbara says, “The upholsterers been revamping seating since 2007 – this one originally came from Laura Ashley, stripped back and re-upholstered. The ‘mosaic’ fabric is a signature photo-collage by Ella of marine plastic collected by Sophie, who’s trawled beaches all over the world. Every button has been handmade using discarded plastic bags found on London streets, and the legs are encased in an acid-blue vinyl remnant.’

6. Sophie Thomas and master glassmaker Louis Thompson at Collect 2019 with “Broken Ocean”.  Barbara says, “This was a highlight for me – a huge tangle of salvaged ropes and nets cradling glass vessels, suspended as a “chandelier”: intricately-decorated vessels from waste glass, some etched and enamelled, highlighting the crisis of waste plastic in the oceans. Some pieces sport waste plastic fragments and bottle tops personally collected by Sophie from Kamilo beach in Hawaii. ‘By 2050, the ocean could contain more plastic in mash than fish,’ Sophie said. Clean-ups are not the answer. ‘We’ve got to stop plastic getting out there, and treat it as a valuable resource.’ ”

7. Maria Sigma at London Craft Week 2019.

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