How to create new designs from old materials

A selection of design experts tell us about their favourite design projects that create new things from existing materials.

Sophie Thomas, founding director, Thomas Matthews
Sophie Thomas, founding director, Thomas Matthews

“At The RSA Great Recovery office in FabLab London I see a whole load of hacking and re-purposing going on with old broken electrical waste. It’s our biggest (and growing) waste stream in the UK and, although we recycle some of it, we don’t often think about re-using and redesigning with it. When the guys at FabLab get involved, its pretty cool; parts of old washing machines turn into urban irrigation systems, mobile phones become movement sensors and even a broken printer becomes part of a new 3D scanner.” 


Daniel Charny, Professor of Design, Kingston University and director, From Now On
Daniel Charny, Professor of Design, Kingston University and director, From Now On. Image by Gareth Gardner

“My favourite transformative material of the moment has to be Biochar, a charcoal with CO2 in a stable form which is usually used as soil fertiliser. This is an important tool to increase food security and cropland diversity. Architect Elegant Embellishments has mixed it with a biodegradable binder to create a new carbon-negative building material. The sophisticated Biochar tiles consume and impound carbon and as such, decrease its amount in the atmosphere. Now that’s pretty elegant. Check their tumblr or if you’re near Basel this summer, come see the tiles at the Maker Library Network showcase at Vitra Design Museum.”


Camilla Westergaard, content editor, Folksy
Camilla Westergaard, content editor, Folksy

“I have a thing for packaging and can totally understand designer Sally Ayling‘s fascination with old tins. She uses these to create bird jewellery, where the faded prints become the feathers and the fonts become the markings. The use of the industrial to represent something natural – that intersection – appeals to me. The typography also seems to give the birds a voice, although as you can only ever see part of the words you’re not quite sure what they’re trying to say.”


Daniel Hirschmann, founder, Hirsch & Mann and co-founder, Technology Will Save Us
Daniel Hirschmann, founder, Hirsch & Mann and co-founder, Technology Will Save Us

“If you look at any Strandbeest – strangely mythical looking mechanical creatures by Theo Jansen – you’ll see brilliant examples of existing materials being used in increasingly innovative ways. His materials are PVC pipes, plastic bottles and plastic sheets – bound together with cable ties to create autonomous machines that use wind to roam the beach in Holland – and has consistently created more complex and capable Strandbeest as his understanding of the movement, mechanisms and materials improve. This is a perfect example of a person mastering their tools to make seemingly impossible things in the world.”


Clare Brass, head, SustainRCA
Clare Brass, head, SustainRCA

“There are some great examples of ‘designs from waste’. But by glorifying waste are we not justifying its existence and contributing to its very perpetuation? It’s going to the dump sooner or later anyway. For me, it’s about harnessing existing natural systems as much as it is about using existing materials to create new solutions to environmental issues. For example black soldier fly larvae, a non-pest species and voracious consumers of human waste, can be deployed as waterless ‘humanure’ processors while providing a source of protein for farm animals that doesn’t need to be imported – less aesthetically-pleasing but addressing multiple environmental problems at the same time.”  


Tom Tobia, founder, Makerversity
Tom Tobia, founder, Makerversity

“It sounds a bit ‘2012’ but there has to be no existing material more ubiquitous and in need of greater redesign than currency and financial systems. Bitcoin can be exchanged without a third party financial institution and is not contrained by increasingly arbitary international boundaries. Most excitingly, Bitcoin (or future derivatives) are essentially programmable, meaning Bitcoin can go places money just hasn’t reached yet. Balaji Srinivasan, who co-runs the Stanford Bitcoin Group, gives an example: ‘You’re driving in a hurry and need to accelerate and past other cars. Your vehicle could interface with others and pay them a sliver of Bitcoin to let you pass. You get where you are going faster and everyone is happy. Programmable currency.’ As Linkedin co-founder Reid Hoffman said of Bitcoin: the best and most most transformative ideas are not the ones that achieve broad consensus early on.

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