Cheap is chic! Why being frugal is the next big thing in design


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It feels prefer it’s been ages since being frugal was in. Our grandmothers clipped coupons, canned tomatoes, and saved leftovers in crockware. Milk was delivered in glass jugs, which have been then put again on the porch to be refilled; basic items of furnishings have been handed down over generations. Our grandmothers weren’t attempting to be hip; they have been simply being sensible.

As we extra totally embraced modernity, these wise practices appeared like vestiges of the previous to be dropped in the title of progress. The invention of plastic created a disposable tradition, one ruled by velocity and comfort. This mentality prolonged to the design of our areas.

We now discover ourselves in an existential disaster. A rising inhabitants, a restrict to the Earth’s sources, and a heating of the planet that, if not reversed, may finish us. The design business is extremely wasteful in this regard. In response to an Environmental Safety Company report revealed in 2018, 600 million tons of building waste goes to landfills yearly. It took carbon to make all that stuff, and we are able to’t afford to emit an equal quantity into our ambiance to interchange it. Buildings contribute a whopping 40% to international carbon emissions, the greatest piece of the emissions pie. And supplies are an 11% slice. It’s time to look deep and begin retooling our design processes to return to embracing frugality. We all know it is sensible, however frugal may also be horny!


O+A began working frugally once we opened our doorways in 1991. We continued that manner for nearly a decade. Our mode of design was to reuse workstations, chairs, something we may save once we have been taking a shopper from an outdated area and designing them into a brand new one.

A lot of our preliminary purchasers have been tech corporations in Silicon Valley, and despite the fact that we have been designing new server rooms and engineering dens, a lot of what we have been doing was reconfiguring area; taking present furnishings and laying it out in new areas as these firms expanded. It was very a lot a startup mentality. There wasn’t some huge cash in the Valley but, and corporations have been increasing quick. They knew a well-designed area may domesticate creativity, however their body of reference was typically a repurposed storage: scrappy and thrifty. “Hit the floor working” was our motto at the time, and being frugal match that mode.

One thing shifted throughout the dot-com increase when enterprise capital flooded Silicon Valley. Abruptly, our purchasers had cash—younger upstart CEOs wanting to spend. Ikea furnishings additionally turned accessible round this time. Throwing out the outdated and shopping for all the things new turned the norm. Disposable and low-cost merchandise opened a Pandora’s field that couldn’t be closed. It was uncommon to have a shopper prepared to make the most of their outdated furnishings. Personalization and customization contributed to the drawback, as a result of personalized furnishings was much less prone to be handed right down to another person—and customised areas may solely be demolished.

It was round 2012 once we reached our peak of . . . let’s name it design extravagance. We have been experimenting and attempting to make workplaces look much less like workplaces and extra like motels and houses. We designed an workplace that had smoked mirrors, copper particulars, marble counters all over the place, lovely brass lighting fixtures, and unique plush furnishings. Every part wished to be new, shiny, and trendy, the extra distinctive the higher.

As California’s wildfires elevated in frequency and depth, as flood zones round the world appeared to endure 100-year occasions on a seasonal foundation, certainly as the warnings from local weather scientists grew steadily extra dire, our agency started to rethink its follow. What may designers do to be an answer to the drawback, somewhat than making issues worse? When the pandemic hit and all of us needed to draft our kitchens or bedrooms to home-office responsibility, the want for big change couldn’t be ignored.

A number of designers and corporations are exploring higher methods to design with thrift and frugality. Adam Strudwick, a designer for Perkins&Will in London, coined the phrase “reversible design.” Whereas he doesn’t body it in phrases of frugality, he is how one can design with supplies and merchandise that may be programmed in advance for reclamation and reuse. In different phrases, he’s planning forward for frugality. Strudwick envisions short-term pavilions manufactured from modular parts which are screwed, clipped, or stacked collectively as an alternative of nailed or glued. That makes it doable to salvage the materials for reuse with out damaging it.


Kay Chesterfield, a longtime native upholstery firm right here in the East Bay, just lately rebranded and is embracing the concept that utilizing outdated furnishings and refreshing it is higher than shopping for new. The corporate calls it “Re-Up.”

Katie Storey, principal of Storey Design, based the Good Future Design Alliance in 2020 for these eager to develop into “low-waste pioneers.” For a subscription payment, designers get linked with sources to assist them reallocate furnishings and building waste. She arrange a consignment furnishings store to resell gently used furnishings in San Francisco’s design district.

In Indiana, in the meantime, Schott Design is so keen about decreasing waste that it has created a spin-off enterprise the place designers from different corporations can exchange products on its platform.

At O+A we’ve at all times developed an eclectic palette of furnishings for our purchasers, and we’ve got typically included used or classic objects. (In fact, used furnishings isn’t essentially frugal in budgetary phrases. A $10,000 George Nelson classic chair is the epitome of opulence. However it does obtain environmental frugality: Treasured sources don’t get used to create one more piece of furnishings the world doesn’t want).

We just lately had the alternative to work with a frugal-minded firm. This shopper gave us a mandate to reuse all the things doable from different websites for its new area. It took much more up-front planning, and our contractor was essential in monitoring down and verifying the existence of things like fabric-wrapped panels, lighting fixtures, kitchen gear, and furnishings. It ended up saving the funds, and the new blended seamlessly with the outdated. The carbon and waste we saved was most likely much more than we notice. It undoubtedly helps to have a dedicated shopper.

We all know we have to change the manner we design now if we’re to contribute to a viable future for the next era. At O+A, we’re three most important buckets: design for restoration, design for discount, and design for redesign.

  • Restoration takes a tough and artistic have a look at how one can method a mission from the begin. We wish to determine all the things we are able to salvage and reuse once we first stroll onto a job web site—not simply furnishings, however lighting, heating and cooling techniques, carpet tile, doorways and {hardware}, casework, something not glued down.
  • Discount appears at supplies and considers how one can use them in the most effective manner, minimizing cuts and limiting the variety of finishes used on a mission.
  • Redesign explores how one can plan for disassembly, so supplies and merchandise might be simply reused in the next mission. Like our pal in London, we’re reminding ourselves it’s not exhausting to design cabinetry that may be eliminated and used elsewhere with out destroying it in the demolition course of.

Frugality is coming again into style if for no different cause than necessity. For our planet to outlive, waste-free design needs to be a cornerstone of all the things we construct. Can it’s horny? It’s our design problem to make it so. Like these milk bottles designed to be reused repeatedly, our areas have to have longer lives.

Verda Alexander is cofounder of the San Francisco inside design agency Studio O+A, whose purchasers embody Slack, McDonald’s, Microsoft, and Nike.