Francesca Perry, CNN
Russian designer Harry Nuriev’s latest sofa is made from a pile of trash bags. Recently featured at the Design Miami collection design show, the Trash Bag Sofa was inspired by the trash on the streets of New York, and Nuriev wants it to draw attention to how we use and waste things.
The piece builds on an idea he first explored at the same fair in 2019, when he showcased a sofa made from discarded clothing. As well as commenting on the fashion industry’s waste problem – much of which is generated by cheap and trend-sensitive “fast fashion” – the project also drew a direct line between waste and the industry. furniture.
“People have started to treat furniture as a fad, where we can change our decisions very quickly, move around and buy things,” Nuriev said at this year’s Design Miami, which ended on Sunday.
As consumers are increasingly aware of the environmental impact of fast fashion, can the same be said for fast furniture? The chairs and tables that fill many of our homes and everyday spaces are manufactured on a large scale, and the cheapest items often end up sitting in a heap of trash destined for landfill.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans threw away more than 12 million tons of furniture and furnishings in 2018 (compared to 2.2 million tons in 1960), and more than 80% of them are found in the landfill. Add to that the carbon emissions caused by manufacturing and transportation, and the furniture industry looks like the next big elephant in the climate crisis room.
Buying furniture can be very expensive – and it often takes weeks to arrive. Many of us resort to cheaper instant brands like IKEA or Wayfair, but what does that do to the planet? In order to keep prices low, affordable furniture makers often use cheaper but less sturdy materials, such as veneer-covered particleboard, which are both more susceptible to damage and more difficult to recycle. When furniture isn’t designed to last or be recyclable, it’s much more likely to end up in the landfill.
With growing calls for sustainability, brands that make furniture that’s typically “fast” are announcing efforts to change – though the impact of those promises remains to be seen. In its current sustainability strategy, IKEA pledges to use only renewable or recyclable materials in all of its products by 2030 to practice “circular” design and reduce emissions to zero. In 2021, the company launched a “buy back and resell” program through which unwanted used IKEA furniture can be returned, refreshed and given a second life.
The circular design concept has grown in popularity over the past decade. In a circular system, furniture products would be made without virgin materials, would be designed to last longer, and would be fully reusable or recyclable, thus forming a closed loop.
“Longevity has long been a key selling message among the most responsible furniture companies,” said Katie Treggiden, circular design expert and author of “Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure,” via email. “But we also need them to embrace the rest of the circular economy, eliminating waste and pollution, offering repair and upholstery services and take-back programs to extend life even further. “
The waste of one is indeed the treasure of the other. And, as Tregidden’s book shows, many designers have embraced this notion by turning scraps into new home furnishings, from Bethan Gray’s Exploring Eden range, which is made from scrap shells and feathers, to James Shaw’s ongoing Plastic Baroque furniture series, made with colorful recycled materials. Plastic.
The process of recycling some materials, however, can come with significant carbon emissions – and it relies on waste to begin with. “We often focus on symptoms and not solutions,” said Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek, known for making furniture with found materials, via video call. “It’s broader than recycling.”
Back at Design Miami, Eek presents a piece of furniture made from scrap wood. “I try to be as efficient as possible with what the world gives me,” he said, explaining that his pieces start with the materials at hand – often from lumberyards – rather than by ideas for which he must then find materials. He believes that people’s attitudes towards scrap wood must change to see its beauty. “If someone who doesn’t respect the materials walks into a lumber yard, they won’t recognize the quality,” he says.
One way to embrace circularity is to simply buy used furniture, Treggiden said. “New furniture releases the highest concentration of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the first year of its life, so buying used isn’t just good for the planet, it’s good for your health,” a- she explained.
In addition to the countless marketplaces for vintage or second-hand goods, there are also designers who restore and reuse old objects. In 2017, London-based designer and artist Yinka Ilori – whose solo exhibition, ‘Parables for Happiness’, is currently on view at the Design Museum in London – collaborated with social enterprise Restoration Station to repair and recycle second-hand chairs into bright and colorful new rooms. .
“With upcycling, you create a unique piece that has its own story,” Ilori said via email. “There is an overlay of meaning and history and you will cherish this piece.”
Buying used is a way to acquire good quality furniture without breaking the bank. But designers like Eek also hope that by working with sturdy, natural materials, they can create new furniture that, while not as cheap as budget options, will pay off more in the long run. “If you’re making something that lasts forever, of course your carbon footprint is much lower than furniture thrown away a year or two later,” he said. “For me, quality is one of the most important topics.”
The emerging slow design movement reflects this emphasis on quality and longevity over speed and quantity. This encompasses not only working with responsibly sourced materials, but also celebrating craftsmanship and well-being. If anything can beat fast furniture, is it slow design?
“A phrase I always use is, ‘Slow is the new fast,” designer Nada Debs of Design Miami said. “When you take the time to do things, you really appreciate it.”
At this year’s show, the Lebanese designer created a hammam installation for bathroom brand Kohler, with tiles made from manufacturing waste. Craftsmanship – often steeped in storytelling or specific to a region – is central to its furniture collections, as is the use of natural materials such as straw and hardwood.
Debs has previously partnered with companies that mass-produce more affordable furniture, resulting in items she admitted were “a very nice and quick buy.” But if consumers “really want to buy a piece of furniture and keep it, it makes more sense to buy a genuinely handcrafted item,” she added. “It’s more authentic. For me, it’s sustainability.
Establishing an emotional connection with a piece of furniture means you’re less likely to throw it away, or even fix it if necessary. “Every piece of furniture (furniture) I buy goes with me wherever I move because I have a personal attachment to it,” Ilori said. “The object is like a vehicle to create and collect memories… I make sure that all my furniture is well preserved and respected.”
According to the designers interviewed for this piece, there’s a lot to keep in mind when shopping for furniture. Look for pieces made with durable, long-lasting materials such as FSC-certified solid wood. Find brands that engage in circularity, offering help in the form of repair or buy-back programs. Get creative by reusing old stuff you’ve had enough of. Look for second-hand markets that provide access to good quality vintage items.
And consider investing in pieces that you’ll love and keep – and therefore last longer. “We want something quick and cheap, but it’s definitely worth investing in something more expensive that could last a lifetime and bring joy and uniqueness to your home,” Ilori said. .
You might not even need to buy: there are now many services, especially for those who move regularly, that allow consumers to rent furniture for as long as they want, before returning it to refresh them and reuse them by someone else. One such company, Fernish – which serves parts of the US – says it saved 268 tonnes of furniture from landfill in 2021.
However, the responsibility for tackling fast furniture cannot rest solely with the consumer. Designers like Nuriev, Eek, Debs and Ilori may champion ideas and innovations, but it’s the makers who have the power to engage in impactful and scalable action, responsible material sourcing and design. circular to environmental labeling, low-carbon packaging and low-emission transportation. Should they also just… earn less?
Eek thinks that the reduction in production will become inevitable due to rising prices. “I think it will become more expensive in the end (to mass-produce furniture),” he said, “because we will end up with scarcer resources…Currently, due to low prices of materials, producers are able to make low cost parts, but if the wood is expensive, which it should be, you need to add more labor and quality to be competitive.
Perhaps environmental crises will force the hand of the furniture industry, both in terms of dwindling resources and shifting consumer priorities. “Companies that don’t lead the charge will soon begin to feel the demand for change from their customers,” Treggiden concluded.
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