It feels like 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 were then put back on the porch to be refilled; classic pieces of furniture were handed down over generations. Our grandmothers weren’t trying to be hip; they were just being practical.
As we more fully embraced modernity, these sensible practices seemed like vestiges of the past to be dropped in the name of progress. The invention of plastic created a disposable culture, one governed by speed and convenience. This mentality extended to the design of our spaces.
We now find ourselves in an existential crisis. A growing population, a limit to the Earth’s resources, and a heating of the planet that, if not reversed, could end us. The design industry is incredibly wasteful in this regard. According to an Environmental Protection Agency report published in 2018, 600 million tons of construction waste goes to landfills annually. It took carbon to make all that stuff, and we can’t afford to emit an equal amount into our atmosphere to replace it. Buildings contribute a whopping 40% to global carbon emissions, the biggest piece of the emissions pie. And materials are an 11% slice. It’s time to look deep and start retooling our design processes to return to embracing frugality. We know it makes sense, but frugal can also be sexy!
O+A started working frugally when we opened our doors in 1991. We continued that way for almost a decade. Our mode of design was to reuse workstations, chairs, anything we could save when we were taking a client from an old space and designing them into a new one.
Many of our initial clients were tech firms in Silicon Valley, and even though we were designing new server rooms and engineering dens, much of what we were doing was reconfiguring space; taking existing furniture and laying it out in new spaces as these companies expanded. It was very much a startup mentality. There wasn’t a lot of money in the Valley yet, and companies were expanding fast. They knew a well-designed space could cultivate creativity, but their frame of reference was often a repurposed garage: scrappy and thrifty. “Hit the ground running” was our motto at the time, and being frugal fit that mode.
Something shifted during the dot-com boom when venture capital flooded Silicon Valley. Suddenly, our clients had money—young upstart CEOs eager to spend. Ikea furniture also became available around this time. Throwing out the old and buying everything new became the norm. Disposable and cheap products opened a Pandora’s box that couldn’t be closed. It was rare to have a client willing to utilize their old furniture. Personalization and customization contributed to the problem, because customized furniture was less likely to be handed down to someone else—and customized spaces could only be demolished.
It was around 2012 when we reached our peak of . . . let’s call it design extravagance. We were experimenting and trying to make offices look less like offices and more like hotels and homes. We designed an office that had smoked mirrors, copper details, marble counters everywhere, beautiful brass light fixtures, and exotic plush furniture. Everything wanted to be new, shiny, and fashionable, the more unique the better.
As California’s wildfires increased in frequency and intensity, as flood zones around the world seemed to endure 100-year events on a seasonal basis, indeed as the warnings from climate scientists grew steadily more dire, our firm began to rethink its practice. What could designers do to be a solution to the problem, rather than making things worse? When the pandemic hit and we all had to draft our kitchens or bedrooms to home-office duty, the need for big change couldn’t be ignored.
Several designers and firms are exploring better ways to design with thrift and frugality. Adam Strudwick, a designer for Perkins&Will in London, coined the phrase “reversible design.” While he doesn’t frame it in terms of frugality, he is looking at how to design with materials and products that can be programmed in advance for reclamation and reuse. In other words, he’s planning ahead for frugality. Strudwick envisions temporary pavilions made of modular components that are screwed, clipped, or stacked together instead of nailed or glued. That makes it possible to salvage the material for reuse without damaging it.
Kay Chesterfield, a longtime local upholstery company here in the East Bay, recently rebranded and is embracing the idea that using old furniture and refreshing it is better than buying new. The company calls it “Re-Up.”
Katie Storey, principal of Storey Design, founded the Good Future Design Alliance in 2020 for those wanting to become “low-waste pioneers.” For a subscription fee, designers get connected with resources to help them reallocate furniture and construction waste. She set up a consignment furniture shop to resell gently used furniture in San Francisco’s design district.
In Indiana, meanwhile, Schott Design is so passionate about reducing waste that it has created a spin-off business where designers from other firms can exchange products on its platform.
At O+A we’ve always developed an eclectic palette of furniture for our clients, and we have often included used or vintage items. (Of course, used furniture isn’t necessarily frugal in budgetary terms. A $10,000 George Nelson vintage chair is the epitome of opulence. But it does achieve environmental frugality: Precious resources don’t get used to create yet another piece of furniture the world doesn’t need).
We recently had the opportunity to work with a frugal-minded company. This client gave us a mandate to reuse everything possible from other sites for its new space. It took a lot more up-front planning, and our contractor was crucial in tracking down and verifying the existence of items like fabric-wrapped panels, light fixtures, kitchen equipment, and furniture. It ended up saving the budget, and the new blended seamlessly with the old. The carbon and waste we saved was probably even more than we realize. It definitely helps to have a committed client.
We know we need to change the way we design now if we are to contribute to a viable future for the next generation. At O+A, we’re looking at three main buckets: design for recovery, design for reduction, and design for redesign.
- Recovery takes a hard and creative look at how to approach a project from the start. We want to identify everything we can salvage and reuse when we first walk onto a job site—not just furniture, but lighting, heating and cooling systems, carpet tile, doors and hardware, casework, anything not glued down.
- Reduction looks at materials and considers how to use them in the most efficient way, minimizing cuts and limiting the number of finishes used on a project.
- Redesign explores how to plan for disassembly, so materials and products can be easily reused in the next project. Like our friend in London, we’re reminding ourselves it’s not hard to design cabinetry that can be removed and used elsewhere without destroying it in the demolition process.
Frugality is coming back into fashion if for no other reason than necessity. For our planet to survive, waste-free design has to be a 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 again and again, our spaces need to have longer lives.
Verda Alexander is cofounder of the San Francisco interior design firm Studio O+A, whose clients include Slack, McDonald’s, Microsoft, and Nike.