One of the cockiest was Tejo Remy. Around the same time that Eek started out, Remy debuted two deadpan objects made of old materials that have since become icons: Rag Chair, composed of recycled cloth held together with metal packing wire, and Chest of Drawers, a pile of freestanding, unrelated drawers delicately balanced upon each other and tied together with a strap. It requires four people to assemble, but practicality was never the point.
Remy and his partner, René Veenhuizen, work in a studio on the industrial outskirts of Utrecht, a small city of broad canals and clanging church bells. Outside their studio, it’s not bells but the hum of trucks on a highway that you hear. Inside, scale models litter the floor; lamps made out of packing materials hang from the ceiling; and in one corner I spot what looks like a box of melted crayons spilling across the floor. Closer inspection reveals it to be a rug, but it’s too gorgeous to step on.
Accidental Carpet was born out of a project to help epileptic, mentally challenged children overcome the anonymity of their institutional environments. “We wanted to give the kids something that would help them transform their colorless surroundings and also remind them of home,” Veenhuizen explains. The idea was to collect old wool blankets from what he calls the “rag circuit,” then slice them into strips, which the kids subsequently folded and glued together. The piece debuted at the Artcurial auction house in Paris last year. After a photo of a prototype appeared in the New York Times, galleries started calling. Of the first edition of 12, several sold for $15,000 each.
What’s the environmental impact of your work?I ask. “None, really,” Veenhuizen says. “Those problems must be dealt with through politics and technology. Fifteen years ago, Tejo was making work with reused materials,” he tells me. “But it was only after Al Gore’s movie that anyone got interested again. We like the small-scale, handmade idea, the idea of transformation. We try not to work with computers, but to do everything by hand.”
So is your motivation to get people to think?
“Mostly it’s getting myself to think. The rest is profit.”
Getting oneself to think (and make a profit) is one of the bigger challenges of reinventing materials. Back in central Utrecht, Stefan Lehner makes that clear when he greets me at the door of his 700-year-old house. The chandelier he is devising is causing him to suffer, he tells me. “It has to function, but it also has to be beautiful.”
Part designer, part inventor, and part mad scientist, Lehner collects old industrial parts, heavy chains, springs, even steel car jacks, and turns them into furniture and furnishings. I was expecting his house to resemble something straight out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but once inside I was happily surprised. When set next to the Steinway baby grand piano or atop wide-plank wooden floors, his inventions take on a stern but expressive beauty: chairs made from bicycle chains on steel frames (remarkably comfortable); a chandelier of inverted antique lightbulbs, each one filled with water and a white rose.
Lehner, who studied philosophy and mathematics in his native Switzerland, doesn’t sell his pieces in stores. He works on private commissions, which I suspect is because he falls in love with his materials the way a child might treasure a toy he finds on the street, and is reluctant to let them go. “It’s a shame to melt all the brains and design and production technology that went into making those machine parts,” he tells me. “When I find something that looks precious I think it’s natural to want to save it.”
The more his work progresses, the more inspiration he finds in the banal. He takes me on a tour of the workshop that occupies his vaulted basement; he’s developing wall-mounted sconces from discarded umbrellas, and lacy light fixtures made of plastic bottles that he has melted, extruded, and sandblasted. Their delicacy belies their prosaic origins.
But his favorite new object is a container he found outside a favela near Brasília. It’s made from the bottom third of a one-liter Coke bottle. The sides are sliced into flaps that fold over each other to form a top. “This could hold anything,” Lehner says. “I’ve been testing it for months and the flaps never break. It only works with Coke bottles, and the company doesn’t even know the potential it’s sitting on.”
His eyes light up when he talks about the very unsexy topic of garbage’s potential and the promise it holds for designers like himself. “One day design schools are going to insist that students think about a product’s second life before it’s manufactured, and that’s when things will really start to change.”
Of course, that change is already afoot. Although some older designers working with recycled materials may be loath to cast themselves as environmental do-gooders, a number of recent design school graduates I spoke to, not only in Holland but in the United States and Britain, were fired up by the notion. Maybe it’s generational, or perhaps it’s idealism before entering the real world of industrial manufacturing, but they were all convinced they could change the way things are done.