BY COLLY SMITH
Our goal was not simply to make products to sell. This 3 month long project was an investigation into the extent to which we could push the prioritization of discarded materials.
Typically, for designers in commercial production, the emphasis is put on the amalgamation of form and function to create a beautiful object that will fulfill the consumer’s needs. The material selection is usually a subsequent step and generally chosen with the mindset of picking a material that will best suit the objects form/function.
For this project, the end goal was, still, to create a beautiful object that would fulfill the consumer’s needs. However, our first step was gathering discarded materials that we believed we could eventually turn into something. We had a tennis court worth of reflective, insulated, van covers. We found a bucket of old tri-glides at a second hand supplies store, and we were given a roll of shiny seatbelt. Other materials that were donated/ found included a few rolls of industrial thread, and a thin grey semi-transparent fabric. Unlike normal commercial production where material is chosen to suit the design, we needed to create a design to utilize the material we had.
To understand the material properties, we first conducted a series of material studies to discern the intrinsic strengths and limitations of each material. Some of our findings include: the silver car cover is extremely insulating; it can be scratched and needs to be doubled up or lined with another material; the warp knit fabric can be cut into strips and pulled to create durable cords; the seatbelt can be used to reinforce weak points in the cover; the reflective fabric is extremely dynamic when scrunched and pleated. These were all drivers for the final design.
Hardware was the greatest challenge. We were not able to find discarded zippers or buckles or any other type of clasp in bulk. We decided to look into non hardware related closures — including tying mechanisms. The challenge with a tie is security versus ease (lots of the tie systems are also complicated). We played with the idea of using magnets, but all of our first efforts at upcycling (including scavenging from the Wiltern theater’s magnetic beer system!) were failures because the magnets were not strong enough.
We wondered about sacrifices in our design process. If a new material greatly benefits the design as a whole, is it worth including? The sacrifice would be turning a 100% upcycled bag into a 95% upcycled bag. What does that mean for desirability, ease of production, scalability? Furthermore, if using new, small magnets ultimately creates less waste than buying large zippers, is this justifiable within the confines of our project?
Even if the bag is made from 100% upcycled components, the design process itself isn’t zero waste: we had to drive to get the materials; we used new materials to sketch and prototype (paper / staples / pens / ink for printing); it takes electricity to light the office and run the sewing machines; and there are other considerations like shipping the materials and finished product. A bag made for commercial production can never be truly zero waste. However, we as designers can make choices that will result in significantly reduced environmental impact.
This process really opened my eyes and mind to the challenges, but also potential, within sustainable design. Creating less waste is something we as humans need to prioritize now more than ever. The textile and fashion industry is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to waste and pollution. Saving material from the landfill via upcycling is an extremely effective way to produce products sustainability. However, this method of design is not easy. This summer made me wonder how we could implement a 100% zero waste ideology on a larger scale. Our process of utilizing found materials lends itself to small-run, limited edition wearable art pieces. Which is fine when it comes to fabric, or different serial numbers engraved in hardware, but there were some design challenges that we couldn’t crack. For example, zippers all ½” different in measurement make the task at hand infinitely more difficult, impossible to scale up with so much variation. Furthermore, you are only able to make as many pieces as the material that you have on hand.
This project made me really hopeful as well. I am proud of the pieces we designed. I hope this collection inspires other designers and companies to explore their options for manufacturing techniques and sustainable design. I believe our project questions and opens a dialog surrounding the extent to which design and production can be pushed to achieve true sustainability.