Cheap, it’s chic! Why being thrifty is the next big thing in design


We have the impression that it has been ages since frugality was no longer. Our grandmothers cut coupons, preserved tomatoes, and kept leftovers in kitchen utensils. The milk was delivered in glass jugs, which were then put back on the porch to be filled; classic furniture has been passed down from generation to generation. Our grandmothers weren’t trying to be plugged in; they were just practical.

As we embraced modernity more fully, these sane practices seemed like vestiges of the past to be let go in the name of progress. The invention of plastic created a disposable culture, ruled by speed and convenience. This mentality has extended to the design of our spaces.

We now find ourselves in an existential crisis. A growing population, a limit on Earth’s resources and global warming which, if not reversed, could end us. The design industry is incredibly wasteful in this regard. According to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency published in 2018, 600 million tonnes of construction waste goes to landfill each year. It took carbon to make all of this, and we can’t afford to emit an equal amount into our atmosphere to replace it. Buildings contribute 40% of global carbon emissions, the largest share of the emissions pie. And the materials are an 11% slice. It’s time to take a deep look and start retooling our design processes back to frugality. We know this makes sense, but frugal can be sexy too!

O + A started working sparingly when we first opened our doors in 1991. We have continued to do so for almost a decade. Our design mode was to reuse workstations, chairs, whatever we could save when we took a client from an old space and designed it in a new one.

Many of our original clients were technology companies in Silicon Valley, and while we were designing new server rooms and new engineering rooms, a lot of what we were doing was reconfiguring the space; take existing furniture and arrange it in new spaces as these businesses expand. It was really a startup mentality. There was not yet a lot of money in the Valley and businesses were growing rapidly. They knew that a well-designed space could cultivate creativity, but their frame of reference was often a converted garage: rambling and thrifty. “Running to the ground” was our motto at the time, and being frugal was that fashion.

Something changed during the dot-com boom when venture capital flooded Silicon Valley. Suddenly our clients had money – young CEOs eager to spend. Ikea furniture also became available around this time. Throwing away the old and buying new has become the norm. Disposable and inexpensive products opened a Pandora’s Box that couldn’t be closed. It was rare to have a client ready to use their old furniture. Personalization and personalization contributed to the problem, as personalized furniture was less likely to be passed on to someone else, and personalized spaces could only be torn down.

It was around 2012 when we hit our peak of. . . let’s call it the extravagance of design. We were experimenting and trying to make offices look less like offices and more like hotels and homes. We designed a desk with smoked mirrors, copper details, marble counters throughout, beautiful brass fixtures, and exotic plush furniture. Everything wanted to be new, shiny and fashionable, the more unique the better.

As California wildfires increased in frequency and intensity, as flood-prone areas around the world appeared to experience century-old events on a seasonal basis, in fact, as warnings from climatologists grew more severe, our company began to rethink its practice. What could designers do to be a solution to the problem, rather than making it worse? When the pandemic struck and we all had to prepare our kitchens or bedrooms for working from home, the need for big changes couldn’t be ignored.

Several designers and companies are exploring better ways to design with economy and frugality. Adam Strudwick, designer for Perkins & Will in London, coined the term “reversible design”. Although he doesn’t frame it in terms of frugality, he seeks to design with materials and products that can be programmed in advance for recovery and reuse. In other words, he anticipates frugality. Strudwick envisions temporary pavilions made of modular components screwed, clipped or stacked instead of nailed or glued. This allows the material to be recovered for reuse without damaging it.

Kay Chesterfield, a long-time local upholstery company here in East Bay, recently changed its name and embraces the idea that it’s better to use old furniture and refresh it than buy new ones. The company calls it “Re-Up”.

Katie Storey, Director of Storey Design, founded the Good Future Design Alliance in 2020 for those who wish to become ‘low waste pioneers’. For a subscription, designers connect to resources to help them reallocate furniture and construction waste. She started a consignment furniture store to resell slightly used furniture in San Francisco’s Design District.

In Indiana, Schott Design is so passionate about waste reduction that he has created a spin-off company where designers from other companies can exchange products on his platform.

At O + A, we’ve always developed an eclectic palette of furniture for our clients, and we’ve often included second-hand or vintage items. (Of course, used furniture isn’t necessarily economical in budgetary terms. A $ 10,000 vintage George Nelson chair is the epitome of opulence. But it achieves environmental frugality: precious resources don’t get used to creating. other furniture in the world do not need).

We recently had the opportunity to work with a thrifty-minded company. This client gave us the mandate to reuse everything that was possible from other sites for his new space. It took a lot more upfront planning, and our contractor was instrumental in finding and verifying the existence of items such as fabric wrapped panels, light fixtures, kitchen equipment and furniture. It ended up saving the budget and the new one integrated perfectly with the old one. The carbon and waste that we saved was probably even more important than we realize. It definitely helps to have an engaged customer.

We know we need to change the way we think about it now if we are to contribute to a viable future for the next generation. At O + A, we look at three main categories: Design for Salvage, Design for Reduction, and Design for Redesign.

  • Recovery takes a hard, creative look at how to approach a project from the start. We want to identify anything that we can salvage and reuse when we go to a job site for the first time, not just furniture, but also lighting, heating and air conditioning systems, carpet tiles, doors and hardware, furniture, anything that is not glued.
  • Reduction examines materials and considers how to use them most efficiently, minimizing cuts and limiting the number of finishes used on a project.
  • Redesign explores how to plan the teardown, so that materials and products can be easily reused in the next project. Like our friend in London, we remember that it is not difficult to design cabinets that can be removed and used elsewhere without destroying them in the demolition process.

Frugality is back in fashion if only out of necessity. For our planet to survive, litter-free design must be the cornerstone of everything we build. Can it be sexy? It’s our design challenge to make it so. Like those milk bottles designed to be reused over and over again, our spaces need to have a longer lifespan.

Verda Alexander is the co-founder of San Francisco-based interior design firm Studio O + A, whose clients include Slack, McDonald’s, Microsoft, and Nike.


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