In the last couple of weeks, a research project and a restaurant have made me think about sustainability, re-use and repair in interior design.
Recently, a panel discussion was held to discuss Object Therapy, a project undertaken by Hotel Hotel, UNSW and the ANU as part of the Fix and Make program. Object Therapy began in May with a call for participants to bring in broken objects. Each object was then handed to a repairer, who could respond to the object in any way they chose. Thirty objects underwent this process.
Having seen the finished objects exhibited at Hotel Hotel, I thought I knew a bit about it, but the panel discussion really brought the whole experiment to life. I was fascinated by the stories of these objects before, during and after their repair, and by the underlying issues of ownership, repair and sustainability. It was clear that in many cases it was difficult for the repairers to divorce themselves from the owner, or the story that the owner had conveyed about the object, even if they had wanted to. In one case (Susannah’s fan, see images below), the object had a disturbing history that could not be ignored. The repaired objects ranged from the functional to the decorative to the conceptual with many ending up with an entirely different function to the one they started with.
The project appears to have had a similarly transformative effect on some of the repairers, with one expressing an intention to focus on modifying existing objects from now on, and not make anything new. This is an inspiring resolution, and it reminded me of the design of a restaurant I had just visited.
OTIS Dining Hall is located in Kingston, in what was previously the site of the Belgian Beer Cafe. When I walked in, I could recognise elements of the beer cafe, but the atmosphere was entirely revamped. In an out of the ordinary move, the owner Damian Brabender chose not to rip everything out of the space, but instead repaired and re-used what was there, adding only what was needed. Brabender and head chef Adam Wilson sanded and re-stained the flooring and the original timber wall panelling. They kept the bar, tweaking the colour and adding LED strip lighting and white tiling to define the area. The duo also restored the existing chandeliers, with the addition of a dimmer for better lighting control. Adding in some recycled timber tables, the space was transformed from European beer cafe to modern Australian bistro in a cost-effective, sustainable way. The result really works, not least by evoking echoes of what was once there.
In my experience, fixing and repair as a means of sustainability does not play a huge role in interior design, and that’s a shame. The pressure for up-to-the-minute, trendy fit-outs comes from many sources, and clients who hire a designer are usually doing so in order to get something new. Adaptive re-use tends to fall mainly into the realm of architecture, with old buildings taking on new lives.
Visiting OTIS Dining Hall and Object Therapy has inspired me to look for opportunities to re-use or transformatively repair elements of existing fit-outs in my new designs. It might be joinery, lighting, door hardware or a wall cladding. It could be a case of simply re-surfacing existing joinery, or using it in a completely different way.
Using re-use and repair as an interior design tool makes sense on many levels. It can aid the planet, it could help the client’s budget and, as shown by Object Therapy and OTIS Dining Hall, it can provide a meaningful new life over layers of memory for an object or an entire space.
Object Therapy will tour nationally in 2017.
To watch interviews with the participants, click here.
To book a table at OTIS and eat great food while you watch the interviews click here.