October 1, 2008
Recruited by a German nonprofit, disabled workers fashion exquisite housewares.
Among the new offerings from Design Within Reach is a collection of nine stylishly simple home accessories, including an ironing board, a shoe rack, and a bread box, all made predominantly of untreated wood. With their minimalist forms and emphasis on functionality, they look like the latest thing in Japanese design. In point of fact, they are made in small Bavarian factories by mentally and physically handicapped craftspeople enrolled in a nonprofit program called Side by Side (sidebyside-design.de).
In Germany, workshops for the skilled disabled abound—by law, any handicapped person who wants to work is guaranteed a job in a specialized facility—but they tend to make items that look a bit old-fashioned. So in 2001 Sabine Meyer, now the project leader of Side by Side, convinced the Catholic welfare organization Caritas to help her bring together young industrial designers like herself with disabled groups to develop well-crafted, modern-looking everyday objects that could compete in today’s marketplace on their own merits. “Side by Side convinces people through the quality of the product,” says Frank Thiele, one of the designers. “Only later do they find out how it’s produced.” Most of the revenue goes toward paying the employees, with designers receiving small royalties.
Side by Side currently makes 37 pieces in addition to those sold through Design Within Reach. The designs were conceived not only for their visual appeal but also for their ease of assembly. So far, Side by Side’s focus has been on breathing new life into old household tools. By recasting the ironing board in ash wood as opposed to dull, gray metal, for instance, Thiele transformed an object that is usually hidden in a closet into one fit for display. “Side by Side is open to new ideas—that’s what I like very much about them,” he says. “Also, we have lots of nice ironing boards at home now.”