1- Reuse of objects in a

post-industrial society

1. Artist reusing objects


With the development of industrial societies and the search of experimentation, Modern Art has progressed through ‘a rhythm of metaphoric destructions and reconstructions’ (Seitz 1961: 21) with assemblage methods that have dismantled, juxtaposed and re-structured objects. Marcel Duchamp perfected the concept of ‘found object’ from 1913 to 1921, when he started to use unaltered everyday articles to make a series of ready-made art works. The modern artist used to modify the function of anonymous and mass-manufactured products, singularising them under a new critical perspective whilst changing their meaning by changing their context. The process of re-appropriation, under either an academic point of view or the avant-garde scheme, incorporates found objects in multiple and diverse ways, using them to enact and produce modern life, to adopt a conceptual approach of playfulness and provocation, and to open a wider reflection on their associative properties. The emergence of Modern Art’s alternative vision aimed to challenge the order and logic of rising capitalism, by rejecting art over the traditional conception of representation, through which the 18th century’s Enlightenment aesthetics ‘had circumscribed its object domain’ (Habermas 1998: 10).

By the middle of the twentieth century, the English critic Lawrence Alloway understood the accumulation of found elements as primarily urban practices of a ‘junk culture’ in which the source of artists’ technique remains the ‘obsolescence, the throwaway material of cities’ (Alloway 1960). What seems worthless for some people may become a treasure for others, given that objects are first ‘brand goods; then they are possessions, accessible to few; then, as waste, they are scarred by use but available again’ (ibid). Thus, post-industrial cities become key social anthropological sites for ‘the examination of a range of discourses to do with local and global politics and economics’ (Whiteley 2011: 12), where daily discarded objects can be found anywhere as storytelling of social behaviours and can be reused by waste pickers to create assemblages that may be seen as art works, or rather as functional products for everyday use. According to this practice, the reuse of found objects not only belonged to a critical development of art, but it also became an alternative way to re-define contexts and uses into product design (Malpass 2017: 19).

Figure 2: hotspot of waste materials, Peckham.

2. Designers reusing objects


The role of design soon became essential to improve national manufacturing and to satisfy consumers’ desires through innovative products, although the spread of mass-production led to worldwide overconsumption perpetuating environmental decline and scarcity through cycles of planned obsolescence (Packard 1960). The increase of waste as a consequence of unintelligent design, chasing economic growth at the expense of human and ecological health (McDonough and Braungart 2008: 43), has pushed few professional makers and design collectives from the 1960s onwards to reflect critically upon the relationship between users, objects, and their social contexts (Malpass 2017: 39). 

From the Castiglioni brothers’ Mezzadro stool to Martino Gamper’s 100 chairs in 100 days, the transformation of traditional shapes through the reuse of object’s components has sought users to question their own attitudes towards their material reality. Therefore, building on the avant-garde’s aspirations, today’s designers could have effectively marked a significant change for the common good in raising civic awareness on a ponderous materialism, making issues more visible, generating constructive public debates whilst developing an alternative political system in line with responsible modes of production, consumption and waste minimisation. But they didn’t.

Notwithstanding a century of awareness-raising, designers remain ‘at the core of the most efficient, most destructive pattern of deception in human history’ (Berman 2009: 22) and most of their consumers are still unable to ‘recognise what they actually do and are’ (Fry 2011: 124); not seeing how their own footprint is worldwide damaging nature and cultures. Further, the political separation between designers and users challenges the very idea of representativeness in our democracy (Storni 2013: 52), limiting the possibility to re-work pluralist viewpoints by imposing the expert’s language and worldview (ibid: 57) as the only one to follow, and discrediting the dissemination of valuable practices that might enlarge the understanding of use ‘as achievement rather than as reproduction; of the object as experienced, rather than the experience as object’ (Redström 2006: 137). Ironically, designers seek to change ‘the life of laypersons, but without really involving them in the conception and implementation of this change’ (Callon et al. 2009: 70), whilst both sides could gain stronger understanding within the realm of a collaborative decision-making, allowing participants to intervene in technical questions and co-design the properties of a future product (Luck 2007: 235). As far as the design discipline is being redirected too slowly, the focus on alternative narratives and initiatives, located outside the professional purview, should be required to challenge governing mentalities and to enrich an on-going democratisation process.

Figure 3: wooden vehicle for gardening, Brixton.

3. Lay people reusing objects

That ‘design is basic to all human activity’, Victor Papanek (1984: 3) reminds us that there have always been skilled people choosing to make their own objects outside the bounds of top-down institutions; without awaiting the decisions of the product marketplace, and beyond the dividing conception of the design discipline, as a ‘modern activity practised more or less exclusively by a professional élite’ (Pacey 1992: 217). 

In 1962, Claude Levi-Strauss (1966: 17) already defined the ‘bricoleur’ as an ordinary person who undertakes odd jobs, collecting and rearranging limited sets of materials at hand, a do-it-yourself person who projects ‘his personality and life by the choices he makes’ (ibid: 21), which allow him to face the logic of consumption. For Michael Guggenheim (2010), although modernity has made invisible the processes of ‘bricolage, tinkering and lay building’ in favour of standard shapes and professional achievements, this buried lay knowledge based on messy, collaborative and non-hierarchic practices has never been totally replaced (ibid). Unacknowledged methods began to gain more visibility, and users’ desire to customise their own objects was being progressively studied (Fallan 2010: 97).

Turning back to a form of ‘bricolage’, in 1968, the theorist Charles Jencks developed the idea of ‘ad-hocism’ as innovative assemblage of material resources, which were already at hand, to solve a specific purpose with immediacy and efficacy (Jencks and Silver 1972: 16). Applying this concept, the design process could be accessible to everyone who chose the right tools and readily available components to build up new, meaningful articulations. The possibilities of reusing would make any single form able to become multiple-functioning objects, and the visible joining of previously separated systems would make people envision diverse alternatives beyond the sole use, by observing ‘what their previous history was, why they were put together and how they work’ as a whole (ibid: 73). Thus, the Ad-hocist sensibility encouraged improvisation and spontaneous behaviours, whereas from the 1970s onwards, objects’ re-purposing increasingly became a planned practice, through which the Do-It-Yourself movement (DIY) acquired great potential in supplying informational power to consumers on how to produce intuitively their own objects and to ‘subvert conformity and passive consumption’ (Beegan and Atkinson 2008: 306). 

Today, DIY consists of creative activities, or lifestyle through the spread of the Internet, in which practitioners of this highly self-reflexive practice rethink the object from its inner features, and they reconstruct its functions and everyday narratives of use (Mitchell 2011: 20), entailing then new forms of socially constructed meaning to the object’s materiality. 

Figure 4: collaborative library, Brixton.

The reuse of raw materials in the hands of lay designers, who are the ordinary creators of self-made everyday things, may not be a stimulant for mass consumption, but their practice possesses a great potential for innovation and has already found unexpected functions and interpretations according to each context. Across Russia and Europe, Vladimir Arkhipov (2006; 2012) has encountered different people inventing ad hoc solutions to everyday practical problems in order to economise money, to solve needs, to share creative impulse or sheer will. These catalogues of human resourcefulness and real-life objects could be found in many existing communities, as the ones produced by Russians when the Soviet Union was collapsing (Arkhipov 2006). But the way Arkhipov documented this information turned the objects into works of art whereas, they were above all, functional goods of day-to-day use. Thus, these alternative ways of making, which are led by lay people, should be considered just as representative of modern society as professional design, and they should not be de-contextualised, at the risk of repeating the avant-garde’s failure in not unifying art and life (Bürger 2010: 707); not transforming people’s social realities throughout the artists and designers’ search for authenticity.

Whilst professional makers have reused objects for the purpose of bringing a critical perspective towards their institutions and a wider society, they differ from lay people’s motivations to reuse objects for mere everyday use. As such, Wolf and McQuitty (2011: 160) observed that the DIY behaviour might first appear after a proper evaluation of the marketplace, in which people found a lack of product’s quality, availability, affordability or possibility to be customised. Secondly, people may have also been induced by a desire to ‘enhance aspects of their identity’ (ibid: 162), by achieving a sense of empowerment, fulfilment of craftsmanship, community seeking, or the increasing need for uniqueness in a society consumed by universalised goods. Beyond the economic motivations traditionally associated to individuals or communities living in contexts of war, scarcity or in non-developed societies, today’s middle classes are increasingly encouraged to create their own problem-solving products, mostly by shopping at retailers. Rather, it should not be forgotten that such project planning could also begin from the streets or nature, considering waste and natural materials as possible resources to create objects resolving personal and common issues. 

Figure 5 (top left): chairs reused for personal gardening, Peckham.

Figure 6 (bottom left): cupboard reused for a planter intended to be in a public space, Brixton.

Figure 7 (right): plastic bottle reused as the basis for a parasol pole, Deptford.

© 2014 2020 thomasverbal