From rags to recycled riches, designers remake used products

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From rags to recycled riches, designers remake used products

For designers at the Mearry group, the idea of “mending” clothes is more than just style. It’s an act of embracing an object’s history and giving an aesthetic value to abandoned goods. Their process of redesigning recycled objects into sellable goods is a classic model of life turning into art.
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Every week, the designers collect heaps of donated materials ― used banners from district offices, abandoned sofas from thrift shops, cardboard boxes and plastic screens from construction sites ― and deliver them to a nearby laundry. Once the dust is brushed off the goods, the staff of Mearry pick them up and stack them in a large container box by the entrance of the studio. Every morning the designers pull things out of the box, tinkering around with them for hours and even days to come up with new ideas.
The sleeves of old sweaters are patched together to make a long scarf. Cardboard banana boxes are fashioned into a picture frame, leather cut-outs from unused sofas become cosmetic pouches, and old t-shirts and leftover cotton are cut into long strands to weave into hats. The most unconventional product the company has made are unique shoulder bags from plastic covers from construction sites and street banners.
The entire process of production is almost therapeutic, as the abandoned objects are given new life through intensive labor. To clarify their concept, the designers indicate the origin of the materials on tags attached to each product.
On the tag of one of the shoulder bags made of plastic screens from construction sites, for example, there is a small drawing of a factory with a brief explanation that the material was used during a renovation of the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture. Consumers are not just buying an object ― they are also buying the product’s concept and history.
“The task of our designers is to find a creative use for the abandoned objects,” says Cho Hye-won, a brand manager at Mearry, which means “an echo” in Korean. “To do that, we set our objective to convert our way of thinking to one that challenges conventional design.”
Their task is not simply to promote the idea of recycling on an intellectual level, but to stylize their concept as a fashionable code to follow.
“The majority of our consumers are people in their 20s and 30s,” says Ms. Cho. “They seem to like our products, not because they’re recycled products, but because the designs themselves are cool and new.”
Samuel Jung, a former designer at LG Electronics and a senior researcher at the Kaywon School of Art and Design, agrees that brand merchandising is vital to promote recycled products.
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“Many recycled products involve vast manpower,” Mr. Jung says. “To charge a price that meets the labor that’s put into the product, they need a certain brand power that can lure people with their concept.”
That’s slowly happening. More and more designers are recycling used products as a new mode of style. Mearry, which is officially launching this week after months of online sales, introduced the commercial potential of recycled products for younger consumers in Korea, where vintage outfits and home accessories are increasingly a hot concept in fashion.
Perhaps the enhanced awareness of ecological living and the “slow life” movement had something to do with it as well. For years the idea of recycled goods in Korea was almost non-existent. Then as flea markets and second-hand stores became fashionable shopping outlets for middle class Koreans, the idea of used and recycled goods quickly attracted a cult following.
One of the signs of changing attitudes was the rapid expansion of the Beautiful Store, a non-profit organization that has opened up to 72 charity shops since 2002, focusing on the idea of recycling as an alternative to material abundance.
You can get a glimpse of their artful taste through the foundation’s rooftop on the main branch at Anguk-dong ― a cozy garden made of recycled objects.
The items include chairs that are built of maple wood, a wind-charm made of silver chopsticks and spoons, lights made from wine bottles and plastic soft drink bottles cut to form the shape of a traditional Korean roof.
One of the Beautiful Foundation’s recent projects was to hand out donated goods to artists and designers to transform them into new products.
Their latest partner was C3, a club of young product designers at the Kaywon School of Art and Design, who recently held an exhibit at the foundation in Seoul, using recycled objects donated from the organization.
The students made lamps from colored straws and disposable wine glasses, a message board from a laundry board and a wall clock from an old tambourine.
“We found the materials for recycling products were almost infinite,” says Kim Jeong-hak, a participating freshman at Kaywon. “It was really a matter of tinkering around with stuff from your junk drawer to see what you could do with it.”
Others take the idea of recycling further to form a community of sharing.
“Ddasi” started when Lee Hye-won, chief member of the group, posted writings contemplating abandoned objects in an urban sphere in a monthly magazine released by a local environmental collective. Years later, the group has grown into a collective of women who promote cotton sanitary pads made from used T-shirts. The idea is focused on recycling, but others interpret their activities as a form of new women’s movement in Korea that has gone from militant protests to small changes in their daily life.
“The emphasis is that we make things with our hands,” Ms. Lee says. “That’s very meaningful for us, because that’s always been a traditional way of forming a community of women in many countries. But let’s just say that as we use our hands we talk about a lot more. Many of us are interested in many issues. Some of us want to move outside of the city later on in our lives. We talk about that. We also talk about the environment and life in general.”

by Park Soo-mee

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