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Face to face with the art of reuse

The Clerkenwell Design Festival in London is an annual celebration of the creative, seductive power of design.

It brings together the experimental and entrepreneurial with the established veterans of the trade.

Cornish oysters are consumed, Somerset’s best cider is quaffed and wine from the home counties flows freely. Showrooms host receptions and the networking elite of the design world are out in force.

Into this realm of style and taste came the Great Recovery’s Survivor Sofa, a piece of bulky waste that had been rescued from a landfill skip in Surrey as part of our recent design residency run in partnership with Suez.

The sofa’s previous owners had discarded it after deciding to redecorate and finding that it no longer suited the look of their home. It was in almost mint condition, having been bought from Laura Ashley only two years before at a cost of almost £2,000.

Staff at the Surrey amenity site could not find a fire label on it, meaning it could not be passed on for resale by the local reuse network. So it was destined to rot away in a hole in the ground – too bulky even for incineration.

 The Great Recovery team persuaded the site managers to let them take the sofa away (research purposes only!) and they carted it back to our innovation hub at Fab Lab London. With the help of Hackney-based Urban Upholstery, our team of designers deconstructed this ‘survivor’ sofa to find out what was in this staple of the living room.

It comprised hessian, foam, cardboard, birch, plywood, shoddy (recycled jumpers), polyester wadding, steel springs and calico – all held together by hundreds of staples.

This kind of action-based research is so vital to the work of the Great Recovery project. Only by looking inside everyday ‘stuff’ can we come face to face with the materials that it is made up of, along with the real-life stories of production, manufacture, travel and waste that lie behind it.

We can be told something many times without really digesting the information; it is not until we are shown it and get to experience or do it for ourselves that we really learn and are empowered to create change.

This is the philosophy that we brought to Clerkenwell. Stripped back to its bare birch and ply frame, the sofa would begin its new life on the streets of London. Not as a fly-tipped piece of bulky waste, but a metaphor for survival, a message speaking of the possibilities of recovery, the value in our waste, the glint in our ‘glaur’ – an old Scottish word meaning ‘slime or mud’, used to describe the stuff at the bottom of the waste pile that no-one wants to deal with.  

As the team at Urban Upholstery went about the process of reupholstery and rebirth of the sofa right there on the street, passers-by were drawn into the process and fascinated by the opportunity of seeing inside a sofa. By taking the mystery out of a common household object, we had uncovered the magic of manufacture and materials.

Sofa Rescue

We invited designers and members of the public to help us with the simple process of button-making for the sofa base, and several people were almost euphoric at discovering their own ability to make a humble button. “I’ve never made anything before,” said one. “Can I take it home with me?”

All too often, the methods of product making and its counterpart, waste making, are hidden away from view in factories and in amenity sites and landfills. We make use of the in-between stage for a few months and then away it goes, to be replaced by another.

But by engaging people actively with such systems, and showing them how things are made and unmade – and can be made again – we can disrupt these conventional patterns of consumption and disposal. This is something that the Fab Labs and Make Spaces springing up all over the world have at the forefront of their practice: the empowerment of individuals to create and make for themselves.

We are far more likely to repair something we have made ourselves rather than throw it away and, as the architect Walter Stahel set out many years ago, the act of caring for our stock resources is integral to the notion of a circular economy. By showing people the way to create, we can enable them to maintain or care for existing creations.

That is what we were doing on the streets of Clerkenwell: creating a caring circular economy, one sofa at a time.     

Lucy Chamberlin is the RSA Great Recovery Project head of programme

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