Future furniture

Pioneering furniture designers are turning their attention to issues of sustainability and recycling, and as Rooksana Hossenally discovers, there’s not a bamboo chair in sight

“Think global, act local” has become a catchphrase for many designers today across the globe, from As Good As New, the trendy Dutch sustainable design collective, to international companies like Starbucks. Sustainable furniture design has not only spread as a viable and durable trend, but ‘green’ furniture is increasingly becoming aesthetically desirable across the world – we’re not talking bamboo and old broomsticks either. The good news is that eco-furniture design has moved on from the nondescript Think Chair by Steelcase, and now caters to the tastes of a demanding high-end market.

When rethinking ways of working, designers’ main considerations include the use of recycled materials and the use of products that can be disassembled and recycled after they have served their purpose. The main aim is not just to think of furniture as having the one life, but several – after serving as a chair, how will it be taken apart and reused? Can it be re-upholstered or painted to fit in with evolving tastes? The objective is to avoid contributing to disposal in landfills, and so the need to consider a ‘closed-loop’ design cycle is key.

According to sustainability website Treehugger, there are lots of ways of buying ‘real’ green furniture. From checking that the wood comes from a certified sustainable source to making sure that it’s made with reclaimed materials; checking that it is recyclable, is easily disassembled and that is has low toxicity.

But adhering to a more sustainable mode of living can also include buying vintage, buying local and most importantly, thinking about what to do with furniture when you will no longer want it – even before considering buying it.

“Green furniture is increasingly becoming aesthetically desirable across the world – we’re not talking bamboo and old broomsticks either”

With the eco-furniture trend growing, there are lots of companies now specialising in slick contemporary furniture that is sustainable in some or all of the ways mentioned in Treehugger’s eco-charter. The ‘punk rock’ of design companies, Cohda, has developed a concept of reusing plastic bags to make stylish chairs.

Meanwhile, British furniture designer Nina Tolstrup has created a range called Pallet Furniture, using reclaimed wood to make functional furniture that is easily adaptable to all kinds of interiors. Her Re-Imagined chairs, made from recycled public transport seating and presented at the last edition of the London Design Festival, also champion the eco-furniture cause.

Independent designers aren’t the only ones trying to address the very real problems of furniture design when it comes to an increasing shortage of resources and space for landfills. An unlikely company, Starbucks in Thailand, is reinforcing its green initiatives by creating furniture from recycled coffee grounds.

Other notable companies include the Eindhoven-based Piet Hein Eek, which as well as making conventional furniture also uses scrap wood for one of its lines and gives antique furniture a new lease of life for modern day tastes. Then there’s the Goldsworthy Studio based in Auckland, which has created the Tio Chair – a focal point for sustainable design, as it comes with interchangeable upholstery and allows several chairs to be joined together to form a sofa, making the piece functional as well as sustainable.

More and more furniture designers are rethinking the way they work, by asking themselves new questions and adapting their creations to a whole new set of criteria that just didn’t feature in the consumer’s mind before. The message is clear: before buying any piece of furniture it is vital to consider how long we will be able to keep it in our homes and the longer, the better. This means that we need to anticipate our changing needs constantly; if furniture can’t be reused or recycled, then buying it makes no sense, and this is the challenge more and more designers are addressing. Making adaptable furniture with several lives and several uses is increasingly at the forefront of the sustainable furniture design industry, and should be at the forefront of our minds too.