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The Best Ideas At N.Y.C.’s Design Month Are Garbage

“I was literally diving into dumpsters to harvest these blocks of sand.”

During NYCxDesign, the design industry’s equivalent of fashion week, some of the smartest concepts presented were actually trash. But you’d never know it–and as recycled materials grow up, that’s kind of the point.

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In the wake of the environmental and financial crises of the past decade, designers have been contending not only with budgetary constraints, but ethical concerns about their work. Using materials that would normally be cast off into landfill kills two birds with one stone: They’re affordable and utilize resources more effectively. While using reclaimed materials isn’t a new concept, this month’s NYXxDesign events showed that the execution has matured and become more sophisticated.

At Sight Unseen Offsite, the Brooklyn-based studio Slash Projects showed a series of tables and coasters made from 100% postconsumer recycled rubber, cast together with concrete and brass. The specked rubber is typically used in industrial flooring, but it takes on the guise of precious stone when used in a domestic context. Arielle Assouline-Lichten, principal of Slash Objects, is keen on finding ways to use sustainable materials without the “stigmas” associated with green products.

“There are new ways to envision recycled material use that defies what we think of as recycled,” Assouline-Lichten tells Co.Design. “The use of recycled materials and processes has definitely become more [elegant] over time, as it transformed from an earthy take on what it means to be ‘green,’ to allowing sophistication and design to be the defining characteristics, rather than a preconceived idea of what ‘recycled’ should look like.”

Jeroen Wand, Sarentino Laminated Table and Chair. [Photo: Sam Walravens/courtesy Ventura Projects]
At Ventura New York–an exhibition of Dutch designers presented at Wanted Design–a similar sensibility was evident in many of the objects made from recycled materials. These designers weren’t trumpeting their environmental cred; rather, their work just looked good. The show’s curator Margriet Vollenberg wanted to show how designers are responding to the age of rapid change, which includes global warming and environmental degradation.

“We have to think about [recycled materials] now because [the environment is] an issue now,” Vollenberg says. “We have to figure out how we can make them beautiful and functional. It’s not the first year we’ve used recycled materials, but now that we’re getting more used to them, and we know how to work with them, [they’re becoming more sophisticated].”

Envisions, Thomas Trum. [Photo: Ronald Smits/courtesy Ventura Projects]
To communicate the theme, Vollenberg exhibited a chair from Amsterdam-based designer Dirk van der Kooij that was 3D-printed from melted refrigerators. Christien Meindertsma–a designer based near Utrecht–developed a chair fabricated from a new composite material made from a flax reclaimed from the construction industry. Eindhoven-based designer Jeroen Wand made lightweight tables, chairs, and cabinets from layered veneer offcuts. And the experiments weren’t just from independent designers. Finsa, a Spanish manufacturer of MDF and laminates, enlisted Envisions–a collective of Dutch designers–to come up with ideas for by-products of its production process.

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At ICFF, Chicago-based artist Steven Haulenbeek exhibited sculptural vessels from his RBS series. To craft the pieces, Haulenbeek mixed resin with discarded sand from the industrial metal casting process (the fabricators create a mold from sand, pour molten metal into the mold, and discard the sand after each item is cast). “I was literally diving into dumpsters to harvest these blocks of sand,” Haulenbeek told Co.Design.

Emeco 1 Inch Armchair by
Jasper Morrison. [Photo: courtesy Emeco]
Bend Goods, a wire furniture and accessories company out of Los Angeles, debuted a kaleidoscopic table made from discarded surfboard wax. Emeco, a Pennsylvania-based furniture company famous for its classic metal Navy chair, launched a new Jasper Morrison-designed collection made from recycled aluminum. Guilherme Wentz, an emerging designer from Brazil, presented a wood chair with a back woven from recycled cotton.

Guilherme Wentz [Photo: Lorena Dini/courtesy Guilherme Wentz]
The Salvage Lab, a new design brand focused on reclaimed materials, debuted its first collection at the Lower East Side gallery Castle Fitzjohns, including pieces from Kim Markel, a furniture designer based in New York. Last year, she launched resin chairs and tables made from molten eyeglass frames and lunch trays. Instead of discarding some of the imperfect chairs she made, she re-melted them down to create prismatic vessels. Wintercheck Factory–a design-art studio in Brooklyn–was also represented via its Pile series of benches made from canary-yellow fiberglass insulation and hot-rolled steel.

“The trend isn’t just being instigated by companies and designers,” Salvage Lab founder Charlotte Sunnen says. “It has become very clear that there is a strong desire coming from customers to change their habits and to consume in a different way. People have become far more aware and interested in knowing where their products come from and where they will go next…We still want to consume products, we still want beauty and exclusivity, but I think we want to do it in a vastly different, more conscientious way.”

For sustainable design to truly reach mainstream adoption, it needs to shed its granola reputation and become more refined. As this fleet of objects from NYCxDesign shows, we’re getting there.

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About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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