Waste not, want not

Published March 11, 2010

Designer Tobias Wong converts a Philippe Starck chair into a lamp. On the wall, “Amik” mascot scarves, all souvenirs from the 1976 Montreal Olympics, are transformed into a one-of-a-kind Olympic duvet cover by Lindsay Brown of Ouno Design.

From old neckties that serve as time indicators for a sunburst-design clock to vintage souvenir trays transformed into side tables, a recent Royal Ontario Museum exhibit has proven that the possibilities for reusing objects that would otherwise have ended up in landfills are not only limitless, but also creative.

Cut/Paste: Creative Reuse in Canadian Design, which ran Jan.20 to 31, showcased the work of prominent Canadian designers such as Tobias Wong and Douglas Coupland as well as up-and-coming designers. Their ingenious redesigns have not only received rave reviews but also helped push creative reuse as a trend in contemporary international design.

Creative reuse has, of course, gained more popularity as concerns over the environment and sustainability of resources have become defining issues of this generation.

Todd Falkowsky, designer of the vintage souvenir tray side tables said the creative reuse of objects is “a powerful tactic for reducing our consumption of energy and materials; it forces us to reconsider what we consider waste.” (Falkowsky is co-founder of Motherbrand, an agency specializing in “content, experience and brand design” that helped curate the exhibit.)

Indeed. Who would have thought that burlap coffee bags with “Certified Organic Coffee from Guatemala” imprinted on them could be a unique upholstery for an ottoman? Not only does it make a good conversation piece, its environmental footprint is “a fraction of the typical upholstered piece,” according to its maker, Gus Modern, a Toronto-based furniture company. Or that “Amik” mascot scarves, all souvenirs from the 1976 Montreal Olympics, could be transformed into a one-of-a-kind Olympic duvet cover as Ouno Design’s Lindsay Brown has done?

The exhibit’s other awe-inspiring pieces: Gary Ponzo’s chandelier made entirely of paper clips, Castor’s “tank lighting,” featuring old fire extinguishers converted into lamps, and Coupland’s lamp fashioned from discarded fishing floats that washed ashore.

Coupland’s limited edition Haida Gwaii lamp stacks these found objects, evoking the iconic totem poles carved by Haida and Nisga’a of Canada’s Pacific Northwest Coast.

For serious collectors of Canadiana, designers Cristina Covello and Andrew Reesor have resurrected scrap lumber into one-of-a-kind settler chairs, where almost all of Canada’s hardwoods are represented. The reclaimed wood comes from a processing facility in Bolton, Ont. that ships lumber internationally. “They generate a lot of waste and scrap as they’re grading wood, and a lot of it is unusable and unsellable because they’re small pieces,” said Reesor. “We wanted a project that looked at repurposing the wood instead of it going to fireplaces.”

Making these chairs is labour-intensive and as a result, they’re not inexpensive, Reesor acknowledged. But in the end, he said, it’s not simply a designer chair but something that says “you are someone who is conscious and concerned about the environment, that you care about the furnishings that come into your home and [since] these are made with a lot of time and effort, they’re going to last for a lifetime.”

Most of the designs showcased in the exhibit are produced in small numbers, “so their influence is largely conceptual,” curators of the exhibit said. “But the impact is real.”

Alan Wiesniewski’s tie clock, for instance, which reuses well-worn neckties from Goodwill, is now being manufactured by Umbra, a manufacturer specializing in home designs.

Other Canadian designers are using creative reuse to help improve social conditions, especially in the developing world. Patty Johnson and Jean Paul Sylvaince used the Haitian technique of papier mache combined with tobacco leaves, once a common export crop in that country, to design vases. These vases are now produced by a local craft community in Jacmel.

Of course, the phenomenon of creative reuse is not new. “It has deep roots in Canadian material culture,” and it occurs all over the world, “often arising out of necessity,” said Michael Erdmann, co-founder of Motherbrand. Examples include First Nations adaptations of European trade products such as glass beads, which made their way into clothing and other accoutrements, and Fred Moffatt’s K42 kettle, produced in response to manufacturing restraints during World War II. Now a Canadian classic, the kettle was created from a mold for a pre-war car headlight.


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