Designers: It’s Time to Embrace The Open-Ended Product

Once they have left the factory floor and are actually being put to use, products get deployed in myriad unintended ways. It’s a lesson the industry should take to heart.

How many ways can you use a plastic bag? What about a paper clip, a Post-it note, or a park bench? This isn’t a quiz; it’s about messing with design, about reinventing objects and endowing them with new uses. We all do it—you, your kids, your parents, your sister in the burbs. We’ve all slid a matchbook under a table to stabilize it and turned a sheet of paper into a dustpan, and in that sense everyone is a designer. Design doesn’t simply happen at the moment of creation, when an object is given certain attributes to solve a specific set of problems. It happens in the myriad ways a plastic grocery bag is reused, reconceptualized, reborn.

That spirit of reinvention now seems particularly apt. The sobering landscape of the new economy—or, rather, being thrown back to old economic realities (circa 1933), where things, either credit or shiny new products, can’t be had so easily—gives new impetus to finding ways to recycle. Those values are also a welcome relief from the climate of the recent design boom, when furniture fairs rivaled fashion extravaganzas, and designers and architects became stars. (Zaha Hadid’s celebration of Chanel handbags in Central Park, anyone?) During the boom, products were outsize, expensive—baroque, even. In the developed world, however, we hardly need another new sofa, chair, or pretty much anything else. As in the ’30s, simplicity is once again best, and necessity the mother of many people’s design interventions.

Uta Brandes, a German academic, is the design sociologist for this moment. Her new book, Design by Use: The Everyday Metamorphosis of Things (coauthored with Sonja Stich and Miriam Wender, both designers), explores how average people redefine products. The book is a sort of reader-response theory to design. Just as Roland Barthes posited that readers (rather than authors) create meaning in a text, here it’s the user’s intentions that matter. Brandes throws down a gauntlet, writing, “Each object must be investigated from two opposing perspectives: from the perspective of design and from the perspective of use.” In other words, people aren’t thinking about the concepts that lead to products; they’re simply looking for things that fulfill specific needs. Once designers begin to take that indepen­dent agenda into account, she argues, “then we can expect a qualitative and open design approach as a result.”

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Brandes also pleads for simple things, since they are the easiest to transform into ad hoc solutions. The more complex a design, the more needs it’s supposed to fit, but the harder it is to rejigger to meet your own. Knives may be made for eating, but Brandes reminds us that they serve as quite good letter openers. And in that vein, how many times have you used a chair as a bookcase, a lamp stand, or a bedside table? (The chair in my bedroom is not at all as Ebert Wels intended it when he designed it in 1928; instead, it’s bedecked in sweaters and ski pants.)

Improvisations are hardly limited to such small and almost inconsequential interventions. They range in scale from the Internet (a military application from the Cold War) to the makeshift solutions common in the developing world.

In the 2006 book Home-Made: Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts, a punctured ball and a stool leg become a toilet plunger, and spare forks are turned into a TV antenna. The latter’s creator, Vasilii Arkhi­pov, recounts in the book, “My mother had the forks in her cupboard. She bought them when everything was collapsing around us. There wasn’t anything but forks to buy in the shops then. They weren’t even very good forks, in the practical sense. But they went well with that aerial.”

Such transformations are nothing new. The artist Kurt Schwitters used trash to build his Construc­tivist Merzbau house around himself; and in Marcel Duchamp’s hands, voilà, the urinal became a fountain. During the recession of the early 1970s, skateboarders discovered that empty swimming pools were highly conducive to riding. In the early ’90s they reimagined park benches and rails as an urban theme park. Now, with the recession, California skaters are back to draining and cleaning pools behind foreclosed homes. Punks transformed the safety pin into an emblem, an anticapitalist symbol, rejecting middle-class values and new clothes by sticking them (often, many worn together) through jeans, leather jackets, and even their own cheeks.

This “design misuse,” “post-use,” “post-design,” “nonintentional design,” or whatever you decide to call it, can create evocative, meaningful objects—more meaningful, in fact, because of the user’s par­tici­pation in the process. The British sculptor Richard Wentworth once said, “I find cigarette packets folded up under table legs more monu­men­tal than a Henry Moore. Five reasons. Firstly, the scale. Secondly, the fingertip manipulation. Third­ly, modesty of both gesture and material. Fourth, its absurdity and fifth, the fact that it works.”

Ten years ago, just when design was set on its collision course with fame and money, Claire Catterall curated the exhibition Stealing Beauty at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in London. The show objected to the dictates of “good design” and the imperatives of taste and style. The participants took the muck and matter of the everyday world and repurposed it. Catterall’s catalog essay seems particularly fitting a decade on. “If design caters only to those who can afford it, who subscribe to a certain ideal and approach to life, what is left for those who cannot aspire to such lofty heights or simply don’t want to? In this light,” she wrote about the show, “the work can be seen to have a political and social resonance if only because it responds so directly to the circumstances of its need, conception, production, and, ultimately its consumption and use.”

Stealing Beauty featured Tord Boontje’s Rough-and-Ready furniture: a chair, table, shelves, and lights made from salvaged wood, old blankets, and plastic sheeting. The collection follows Brandes’s ideas—not only finding a new use in old things but also in being finished by the user. He gave away the plans so anyone could make the pieces. A fan of Wentworth, Boontje offered an antiaesthetic that democratized design and production. “Although it started as a stylistic comment about what design was at the time, underlying is the concern of using what you have as an anticonsumerist approach,” he explains now. “Often, people automatically buy things when they need something versus making it themselves, and today when many more people are aware of the pitfalls of consumerism, the option to make their own things and become self-reliant again seems fitting. With Rough-and-Ready, if it breaks, because you made it, you know how to fix it, and you start to understand it in a different way.” The collection still has legs: the chair is currently being shown at the Museum Shop, in Amsterdam’s Museum Square, where 30,000 copies of the plans are being given away.

This January at IMM Cologne, Stephen Burks, another designer interested in post-use, created the Composite Lounge with trash containers and streetlights, as well as Moroso-donated furniture. The bar was made from bottle crates, while a Dumpster found new life as a chill-out room.

“I wanted people to think about the 70,000-some products produced every year,” he says. “Few consider the impact of the piece—or that in the end it’s going to be garbage. The furniture is all chic and expensive but, one day, trash.”

At last year’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile, in Milan, he launched Love, a collection for Cappellini that includes tables made of recycled magazines—Wallpaper, in particular. “I had all these magazines lying around, and rather than buying new materials, I thought, Let’s do something with those. It was obvious necessity,” he explains, “nothing more than that.” The back issues were repurposed by craftspeople in South Africa—laudable, but not quite the average-Joe-centered designs Brandes had in mind.

Both Burks and Boontje are interested in a product’s life after the designer is finished—the trash something inevitably becomes and the way personal choices can change it. There is, however, another, more planned route that allows people to participate in the design process: mass customization. Hella Jongerius did it with Repeat, a textiles collection she designed for Maharam. The pattern was so big that anything upholstered with it would look individual, a low-tech way of creating a manufactured one-off. Ron Arad has used rapid prototyping and stereolithography to manufacture high-end custom pieces, and both Nike and Puma have Web sites that allow consumers to pick the colors of their sneakers. But those solutions are all decorative. What if the options were more than visual? What if they allowed users to influence function?

The Internet has already made everything from publishing to music, and newspapers to political campaigns, more personal and participatory. Why not design? World War II put an end to the Depression and also created the technological revolution that led to the era of midcentury Modernism, when products became cheaper and more accessible. Now we have a technological rev­ol­ution that can involve people in the process. It might be expensive, but by harnessing the Internet to take advantage of stereolithography, items could be designed to individual specifi­ca­tions. So far, the designers who have used rapid prototyping to make actual products (instead of models) have created something more akin to art than design, but going beyond this is the challenge to the profession—and, perhaps, to consumers.

Inexpensive furniture ultimately adds costs in waste—people buy things and discard them because the bed frame isn’t quite right or the shelves fall apart, but with the way the world is moving, people will become increasingly aware of the post-use price. Seen in that light, a one-off that really fits someone’s needs becomes less expensive—maybe even affordable. Given the means, I’d invest in a tailor-made version of Ebert Wels’s chair with a coat hook. My ski pants could use it.

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