Just like fast fashion, there’s fast furniture: the cheap furnishings you buy from big box stores and online outlets, made from materials that aren’t the best for the environment or that long-lasting. These coffee tables and nightstands are pre-made—you pick a box off a shelf, or have one delivered to you from a warehouse—meaning you have to find a design that fits the space you need to fill. And when you need something new, you’re likely to just toss that table in the trash, adding to the some 9 million tons of furniture that ends up in landfills every year.
Ordering custom furniture that would feel less disposable is expensive and can take months to be made and then delivered. This gap in the furniture market is what the founders of Model No., an on-demand, custom, and sustainable furniture company, hope to fill.
Model No. has launched a line of end tables, organizers, coffee tables and more that are 3D printed on-demand using agricultural waste from corn husks, sugar cane, and sugar beets. There’s a base, pre-set design to every piece, and they can then be customized with your specific shape, dimensions, and color.
Making furniture on-demand may address the paradox of how many tons of furniture are made and tossed every year but also how few options there are for consumers. In 2017, 12.2 million tons of waste were generated from furniture and furnishings, 80% of which, or more than 9 million tons, ends up in landfill, up from 2.2 million tons of total furniture waste in 1960. But Model No. CEO Phillip Raub says, that doesn’t mean customers really have a lot of choices. If you have a small dining space where you want to put a table, he says, you might go to a store and only find tables that are 72″ in length—too big for your needs. You won’t buy one of those tables, but they’ve already used up raw materials and caused greenhouse gas emissions. “That’s one of the problems we’re solving with this on-demand customization,” Raub says.
The 3D printed elements of Model No.’s furniture are made with resins that are 100% upcycled from agricultural waste, but not every piece of their designs is 3D printed. For the parts that aren’t, like the table tops, the company uses highly recyclable materials like sustainably-sourced hardwood and aluminum. Fast furniture, by contrast, is often made of particleboard or MDF, which can’t be recycled because they contain adhesives, and which have the potential to off-gas formaldehyde.
The company is already thinking about their furniture items’ end of life, too. “One of the reasons the company is called Model No. is that each product has its own individual number, and in theory you could send that product back to us, we can grind it down, and build you something new.” That arm of the business isn’t available yet, but it’s in development. And to tackle the issues of shipping emissions, Model No. is planning in the long-term to set up “micro-factories,” so they can 3D print in locations that see a lot of demand, rather than shipping their items all from one large distribution center.
Model No.’s furniture may not be Ikea-level affordable—coffee tables can range from $400 to $1,630, and side tables from $260 to $670, with smaller furnishings like vases and organizers under $50—but the hope is that the furniture is made exactly to your needs, and the whole process completely regenerative and less costly to the environment, which could change how we look at consumption and resources. “I hope to challenge not only the industry status quo. I want other people to be thinking about this, Raub says. He pointed to when Allbirds told Amazon to not steal their designs alone, but to steal their sustainability practices. “[Their point was] ‘We want everyone to create a better product,’ and we feel very genuinely the same way.”