Waste not: how Australian creatives are breathing new life into the by-products of design.

March 23, 2021

Design is an industry that thrives on challenges. Restrictions can be the catalyst for innovation: give an architect or designer a small space or a particular material, and inspiration can flourish. One such challenge being embraced on the design scene is the use of waste generated from daily practice. From metal shavings to unused music scores, the results are strikingly beautiful. Melbourne Design Week spoke with three creatives — Chris Miller, Rachel Kelly, and Ulla-Britta Westergren — about working with waste, and the unexpected doors it has opened in their design processes.

Waste is one of the significant challenges of our times because, quite simply, it isn’t going away. Australians produce 540kg of household waste per person, per year; and in Melbourne alone we create enough landfill to fill the Eureka tower 50 times annually. We recycle only around half of what we toss, and of that, most recycled waste is sitting in storage facilities. As the stockpile of waste grows (partly due to government mismanagement, partly due to consumer behaviour), the design community is intervening to turn our cast-offs into something of worth. 

Chris Miller is the founder and head designer at Studio Flek, based on the Gold Coast. His latest project, launching at Melbourne Design Week, is pushing the boundaries of repurposed materials — Chris is creating bar stools out of beer. 

Caption: “Chris Miller assembles one of his bar stools, grown out of mushroom spores and used beer hops from the Balter Brewery. Image courtesy of Jess Miller.

There is a considerable amount of waste created from leftover hops in beer brewing — and it is this waste that Studio Flek is using as a material for his bar stools. “It’s a bit of a poetic cycle,” says Chris. “We wanted to reintroduce the waste back into the environment that makes it, to create a closed-cycle system.” Chris is working with Gold Coast neighbour Balter Brewery to use their spent hops and mash grain to create furniture that will hopefully one day seat visitors to the brewery. 

Chris is using the root structure of mushrooms, mycelium, as a binding agent for the spent grain and hops to create a totally biodegradable composite material. It’s a process he’s perfected in his own garage, where the production process is well underway: cultivating mycelium spores, sterilizing the beer byproduct, setting into its final form and drying in a temperature-controlled environment. Previous tests have found mycelium to have a  compressive strength greater than a standard brick, whilst maintaining a light, spongy texture that is similar to high-density foam. It’s cheap to create, 100% biodegradable, is fireproof and soundproof, and looks rather lovely, too.

For Chris, part of the joy in using waste as a design material is the potential of its properties to be mutable. “With new technology and production methods,” says Chris, “we expect items to stay the same and unchanged for the life of their use.” He looks to the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, where transience and imperfection are embraced, and deterioration is not something to be avoided. While his bar stools could last well beyond twenty years, Chris is keen to point out that these are not ‘forever items’ — they can, and should, have a shelf life before being broken down and reused for something else. The Studio Flek x Balter Brewery barstools are on display in the Form From exhibition at Melbourne Design Week, with Chris hoping the first batch of stools will furnish the brewery floor in 2022.

See more from the ‘Form From’ installation from Studio Flek, Other Matter, and Genevieve Quinn here.

The finished product. Image courtesy of Jess Miller.

The design sector creates significant waste in the production of new work. Recognising this issue are over twenty leading Australian creatives, who are reusing the waste created in their design practice as part of the By-Product 2021 exhibition. These by-products of the design process are being embraced in all of their forms: the physical (such as resin tiles, metal shavings, and plastic lids) to the more abstract, like leftover music scores, unused writing, or e-waste. 

Curators Rachel Kelly and Ulla Britta Westergren of E Tu have one other rule besides the use of waste: participants must share the secrets of their design process on the exhibition website. Rachel Kelly says that swapping stories and skills among the contributors is just as important as the products themselves.

“The main barrier to this sort of sharing is a scarcity mindset – we fear our knowledge is limited and that others will use our ideas to make gains at our expense,” says Rachel. “When we make a conscious shift to an abundance mindset, shared knowledge becomes a communal tool. And the field of emergence that it creates becomes an abundant resource that helps the community and its people grow.”

Despite the strange beginnings of these design works, they all will become tangible retail products – including lights, furniture, bowls, and accessories – sold by auction during the exhibition. There are clocks made from coffee grounds, a ‘biophilic air cleaner’ made from plants and plastic, and contemporary lighting made from leftover resin. All participants will be uploading their process to the Circular Open Design website soon, with Rachel hoping that that, “by telling a story around waste, we can evoke a feeling that could inspire others to reimagine their own waste materials.” 

Buy tickets to By-Product 2021, here

Furniture designer Adam Markowitz collaborated with textile artist Alicia Aulsebrook to use woodchips to naturally dye fabric. Image courtesy of Markowitz & Aulsebrook.

This year’s design week theme ‘design the world you want’ evoked a strong sense of environmental responsibility from designers, with waste being core to this ethos. The By-Product manifesto highlights this approach. “When we look at the waste problem with an abundance mindset, it is clear that waste is not a problem, it is not the end,” reads the manifesto. “Waste is a raw material – the beginning of the next life cycle, an opportunity for new life, ideas and growth.”

From the Reimagining Fashion Workshop, which looks at designing zero-waste artifacts; to Edition Office’s Cathedral of Circularity, where visitors are invited to “…bring anything from a toaster to a state of the art road bike for repairs”, Melbourne Design Week is showcasing sophisticated, imaginative approaches to reusing waste. With a large reservoir of design cast-offs available, creative practices can provide inspiration, including solutions, of how we can close the loop on the way we waste.