In an increasingly technical world, controversies over the causes and consequences of overconsumption undoubtedly advances the need to exchange and debate with a wider range of social groups (Callon et al. 2009: 159) on matters related to current ways of producing and consuming. The deepening of democracy lodged in the local and the global could allow lay people, with diversified views, to directly challenge inadequate measures of designers and other spokespersons of well-established groups, which rely on the dictates of industrial production.
To achieve this state, citizens should be aware about the existence of alternative material cultures oriented to solving personal and local issues, challenging their own sense of powerlessness towards an increasing ‘structural unsustainability’ (Fry 2011). In this context, the purpose of this research project is to unveil the act of reusing and the unexpected identities that lead the practice, who avoid buying manufactured goods by creating newness from the old and preventing objects from being definitely discarded.
Figure 1: crushed cars forming a wall, Birmingham.
It seems essential, therefore, to remember that in pre-industrial societies, the reuse of old possessions through people’s practical skills and common knowledge was regarded as a usual habit (Pacey 1992: 218). However, with the rise of technological innovations and people’s throwaway behaviours, it increasingly became a socially marginalised practice and an indicator of lower economic and social status (Van Damme and Vermoesen 2009: 297).
More generally, already in the late-nineteenth century, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement promoted ideological reforms aiming to enhance personal creativity and fulfilment through the art of making, to confront industrial processes and their way to regard craft objects as cultural markers of a pre-industrial era (Rees 1997: 119). But, the experience of making products drastically changed since engineers and designers replaced traditional craftsmanship as a result of capitalist markets and profit maximisation economies. The emergence of a ‘Kleenex culture’ (Papanek 1984: 86), in which waste is ‘symptomatic of a failed user/object relationship’ (Chapman 2005: 20), pushed avant-garde artists to publicly denounce mass production in the early-twentieth century, followed by a few designers’ critical work in the 1960s. Hence, a closer look through this historical, economic and social evolution is discussed in the first part of the research project, describing the reuse of objects from the perspective of professional artists and designers, as well as in the hands of lay people, which are the actual experts of everyday life.
The second part of this research project describes two case studies, in which individual citizens have reused waste materials to create objects solving specific issues in public areas of Peckham, South London. Being myself a designer, the third part relates to my experience with the informal makers of these two projects, with whom I worked collaboratively from May to August 2017, and questioned many of the assumptions that permeate research within the design discipline. First, the implementation of collaborative research in the early phases of the project removes the traces of asymmetry in the relationships that occurs between the researcher and the researched persons. Second, the researcher’s role varies depending on the researched and the context, moving from ethnographer to designer, either problem solver or problem finder. Third, the possibility to recover a craft that reuses local waste to solve local issues where industrial products fail. Therefore, the collaboration establishes roles that, in turn, influence the way to reflect on the craft, from which processes and outcomes empower the whole participatory approach.
(*) Participants’ names have been changed to keep their anonimity safe.