Pure Gold or: Why It Is Worthwhile to Sometimes Pay More Attention to Domestic Waste
By Volker Albus
"Bayern Munich are playing today in shirts made of rubbish." This was a headline in the Bild newspaper in November 2016 for a pre-match report on the German football Bundesliga game between Bayern and 1899 Hoffenheim. Of course, this did not mean second-hand shirts from a collection of old clothes, but, as the report said, shirts made completely of "rubbish from the oceans" – "of 28 old plastic bottles that were fished out of the sea." The report continued: "With these shirts, sports’ outfitter Adidas and the environmental campaigners Parley want to warn us about the pollution of the seas. Each year 20 million tons of plastic rubbish are thrown into the sea, and it takes a shocking 600 years for this to decompose."
Even if this initiative was not motivated solely by concern for the environment, and Adidas probably will have had important marketing interests too, this use of resources is one example for the increasingly dynamic development of recycling technologies, and also for the high levels of acceptance of and appreciation for widely available recycled products.This was not always the case. It is not so long ago that recycled material should never be used wherever any aesthetic standards needed to be taken into account. This has now fundamentally changed. Nearly every day, we can read about new innovative products made entirely of ‘upcycled’ plastic, old jeans, porcelain, rubber, and many other materials.
At present, recycling technologies are still used centrally or at least within the spheres of influence of the companies that make these goods (Adidas, Emeco, Herman Miller, Epson). This in turn means that access is relatively limited and usually quite expensive. Just how expensive the use of this kind of process can be and how that will influence end-user prices, is shown in the case of an attempt to use recycling to transform one of the most significant ‘environmental polluters’ of recent decades into an environmentally friendly product. The company Original Food, based in Freiburg, Germany, wanted to produce compostable coffee capsules as an alternative to the Nespresso version. The problem is that the price of the environmentally friendly capsule is 20 per cent higher than Nestlé’s product.
Difficulties notwithstanding, these examples show that, given the right technological adaptations and equipment, change is possible, while current developments and increasing acceptance mean that sooner or later processes like these will transform the principle of reuse into one – if not the – standard in raw materials acquisition. It is true that political and financial programmes develop the greatest force of change in this field – and not the great ideas that designers have.
Not re-cycling, but up-cycling
This is very different in the case of products that rework used and worn relatively cheap objects from everyday life ‘as found’ materials. These products do not return recycled objects by means of technical processes to their original material form so as to make another entirely ‘new’ product. Instead they leave the found materials more or less as found – in their final and specific material and formal composition as a product.
It is the aim of the exhibition Pure Gold to show this. It presents a total of 76 examples by 53 designers from the regions of Europe, Latin America, North Africa and the Near East, East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia, and Southeast Asia. With varying degrees of perfection, all of these works are made either entirely by hand or with the help of just the simplest tools from used and worn materials – trash or the cheapest materials around. This means that expenditure on both equipment and operations is low. Works like those shown here can be made in the smallest workshops, within industrially more or less under-developed structures or independently at a private workbench.
Old material in a new shape
Reuse here is much less "fundamental" and thus much less complex. While industrial recycling aims to generate a quantity of products that are all as identical as possible (this is the only way to make a product like the Bayern football shirt), these "as found" strategies are primarily interested in using very specific known or hitherto neglected qualities such as formability, colour, firmness, haptics, or material structure and to add nuances in a new context.
Sometimes this goes so far as to show the materials demonstratively while their original context and actual function can only be ascertained with a good deal of detective work. Probably no one would notice that Waltraud Münzhuber’s containers are nothing more than woven videotapes of various "favourite films." And it would probably be just as difficult to see in Paul Cocksedge’s Styrene lamp a geometrically precise and yet relatively simple compilation of heat-reshaped polystyrene coffee cups. The origin of the Free Range stools by El Ultimo Grito is also not recognizable at first sight; these dented items are cleverly reshaped and compressed cardboard boxes.
- Charles Jencks, Nathan Silver, Adhocism, New York, 1973.
- Werkbund-Archiv, Blasse Dinge, Werkbund und Waren 1945 – 1949. Eine Ausstellung des Werkbund-Archivs im Martin-Gropius-Bau vom 12.8. – 8.10.1989, exhibition magazine, Berlin, no year.
Above all, it is the diversity of the found materials that makes this source of materials into a realistic alternative to the energy intensive reuse of standard raw materials. Found materials can be papers of all kinds, corrugated card, glass, car tyres, cork, denim, builders’ wood, plastic baskets, wooden planks, wool, fridge coatings, plastic bags, flip-flops, sticky and PVC tape, steel offcuts, cheap bags, and much more. If we add the characteristic attributes to this list of materials – it is after all the physical and aesthetic features that speak for and against the use of a material – then we can get a rough idea of the immense imaginative scope that this nearly inexhaustible stock of alleged trash holds for contemporary and future design.
Of course this form of design and production is not really new. It has similarities with the principle of the ready-made in the fine arts and with the adhocism propagated by Charles Jencks in the early 1970s . We can also recall here how articles of daily use are improvised in times of scarcity, originating from a completely different situation, but made and used with the same impulse and design principles as the works shown in this exhibition.
Sober skill combined with artistic talent
In contrast to these ‘movements,’ however today’s development in design-motivated recycling or recycling-motivated design on show in this exhibition has no missionary urgency and comes with no abstract and idealistic ideology. Instead, these works derive from a mix of curiosity and imagination, an analytical perspective and often incredible patience, combined with crafts skills and a solid knowledge of the ‘raw materials’ used. It is probably exactly this combination of very sober skill and artistic talent that has enabled this phenomenon in design to spread all around the world. This also means that these manually made and ‘improvised’ works are no less significant than technologies developed for mass production and serial recycling. This is also true of the fact that manual production can simply and easily be carried out with the simplest of tools, and can lead to outstanding results, as this exhibition shows. The quality is not just in the design, but with the right handicrafts, also monetary.
The designer Stuart Haygarth holds an undisputed top place in this respect. The Drop chandelier he designed in 2007 is made of hundreds of different carefully cleaned plastic bottle bases rearranged in a form resembling drops of water as the product’s key design idea. The production and material both show that this product could be made anywhere in the world, only if enough plastic bottles are available – but these are washed up on our shores everywhere.
The only reason why this classic example of exceptional upcycling cannot be included in this exhibition is its price of several thousand pounds sterling. This shows that we are not all that far away from the value of gold that the title of this exhibition suggests, particularly when we take a closer look at all the trash around us.
Interview | Volker Albus is the curator of the exhibition "Pure Gold – Upcycling and its Emotional Touch", the German contribution to this year's London Design Biennale. In the interview, he talks about greed and emotional consumption, ever-growing mountains of rubbish and upcycling as a potential solution.
Article | How can trash be turned into pure gold? And which role do upcycling and recycling play worldwide? These and other questions were discussed by curators, researches, designers and students in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg. The two day conference accompanied the ifa exhibition "Pure Gold – Upcycled! Upgraded!".