I’m not a big collector but I do have a row of aluminium stovetop espresso-makers in my dining room. As most of them are old, probably 1950s-1980s, I’ve had to replace many of the ring-shaped rubber gaskets which give a good seal.
I lived, for a year or so, in Budapest and while there I was a regular visitor to a ramshackle shop run by an old fellow who spent his days repairing coffee-makers and soda siphons. The dark, dusty shop was a crowded cornucopia of spare parts and bits of machines that might, one day, exactly fit some sad-looking wreck a customer would bring in. This was a place of design resurrection in which these stovetop workhorses could have their lives extended almost infinitely. It was a delight, a museum of eccentrically shaped aluminium forms, rubber gaskets, broken handles and brass flanges.
Occasionally, a new handle might not quite match, or a plastic knob would have to be bodged together to work in its new location, but the coffee kept on flowing. There was an understanding here that objects had a life of their own. These were things that would age and change, wear and tear, and which could be patched up and resuscitated.
The Budapest shop, with its long-failed mid-century neon, has now disappeared, along with the idea at its heart. Contemporary production is geared to replacement rather than repair, driven towards consumption rather than the valuing of an object that serves faithfully. In a few fields, watches and shoes most notably, some semblance of repair remains. But in the world of contemporary objects, the idea of repair has largely vanished.
This disappearance of a whole layer of craft is now provoking a few designers into rethinking the way we make things, shifting the discourse from incessant production to intelligent adaptation. Glenn Adamson, head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, recently curated a show at east London’s SO Gallery entitled Fix, Fix, Fix. Touching on the intriguing territory between art, design, craft and repair, the show placed repaired utilitarian objects (a car engine, say) besides artworks and did not make the distinction between the two very clear.
“There is a popular enthusiasm for fixing at the moment,” Adamson tells me. “The perfect repair is invisible to the eye but no repair is perfect. My job at the V&A is to get people to look closely at objects, and that’s what we’re doing with Fix, Fix, Fix, by getting people to detect the presence of repair.” That respect for repair and opposition to throwaway culture is something that British designer Sir Kenneth Grange, creator of Britain’s first parking meter and Kodak’s Instamatic camera, agrees with. “There’s a fundamental decency, a respect in things that are designed to have a long life,” he says. “I’ve tried to design so things can be repaired or replaced. It encourages people to continue owning. What could be better than that?”
Many designers are working on intelligent solutions for repairing and reimagining but the products we use day to day have almost all been conceived on the basis of what seems a very obsolete philosophy of “planned obsolescence”. The phrase dates back to 1932 when it appeared in a pamphlet by the now-obscure Bernard London entitled “Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence”. The idea was to use fashion, styling, perhaps even quality, to build into the product a limited lifespan beyond which it is not desirable and needs to be replaced by its successor, encouraging an accelerating cycle of consumption.
London suggested that, after a certain period, the government should confiscate all products of a certain type and destroy them, thus stimulating new markets. For London, planned obsolescence was a force for good. For Vance Packard, in his influential 1960 book The Waste Makers, it was the “systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals”.
In 2007, the designer Martino Gamper addressed the issue of disposability in a magical project, “100 Chairs in 100 Days”. Using discarded chairs that he had gathered over a couple of years, Gamper reimagined and mashed up bits of odd chairs to create a vigorously mongrel collection of new pieces of furniture, making one new piece a day over 100 days.
The result is both humorous and serious, asking questions of a culture that disposes of things so easily. But “100 Chairs in 100 Days” also constitutes a kind of alternative modern design history, a familiar cross-section of the most successful commercial designs. The collection stands as an imaginative adventure in repair and the stitching together of seemingly disparate bits, recalling the British artist Richard Wentworth’s photographic series Making Do and Getting By, London 1980, in which he documents the ingenious and curious ways people adapt and repurpose objects.
Away from the galleries and in a more real world of repair, there is Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, who invented the remarkable Sugru while studying at London’s Royal College of Art in 2009. Sugru is a flexible putty, allowing the user to repair or rework existing products. Whether it’s fixing a broken bicycle seat or adapting the handle of a potato peeler for arthritic hands, this is a material that allows users to refashion products in a way that might once only have been achievable with sophisticated tools. The putty won Ní Dhulchaointigh last year’s inaugural London Design Festival Design Entrepreneur award, and annual sales have reached $2m, with a customer base of more than 100,000 across 100 countries.
The most visible and innovative recent outbreak of repair in design is seen through a project called Fixperts, an organisation founded by designers Daniel Charny and James Carrigan that links people with the practical knowhow to solve everyday problems. Charny describes it as “a social project, an open knowledge-sharing platform … Fixing does not have to be a worst-case scenario but can be something which combines imagination and skill and brings immediacy back to design.”
The idea behind Fixperts is to create a network of designers who “micro-volunteer” to help people with specific problems and attempt to quickly find a solution and implement it.
“Designers are good at observing, good at making, good with materials,” says Charny. This process is then filmed and posted on a website to become a tool or a resource for others facing similar problems.
The problems range from improvements to the tiny kitchen of a coffee bar in Warsaw to the customisation of a wheelchair’s arms to make it more suited to the user’s specific needs and comfort. The most impressive instance of its efficacy so far has been the cycle paramedic who had a problem with housing his “Introducer”, a simple device used to clear a patient’s airways in emergencies. The Fixperts created a tubular casing attached to the bike by Velcro so that the device was accessible and secure. When the London Ambulance Service saw it, it ordered 50 more for all the city’s other cycle paramedics. It is a simple solution to a common problem. “Fixing is a type of making,” says Charny, “and making is a type of thinking. For me that is the key.”
Now, with our contemporary concerns with sustainability, “planned obsolescence” looks increasingly unacceptable yet seems to remain the norm.
We have become intimate with recycling but repairing is still a little alien. Designers need to design for repair and we need to look at repair as personalisation. Time, age and wear inscribe the traces of our lives into the objects that surround us. Those signs of use need to be seen as things of beauty, as evidence of our intimacy with our stuff. Repairing is, as Daniel Charny says, “a way of thinking”.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic