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UP revived

Recently, I read in the newspaper (NRC, 28 November 2020) a piece on the start of a ‘circular department store’ in Leiden in the Netherlands. The items they sell were discarded or unfit for sales, but designers gave them a fresh appearance. For example, Jurgen Bey engraved glassware and Max Lipsey sandblasted all kinds of loose ceramic cups and bowls so that they become a matching set.

It reminded me a lot of the project Saved by Droog that we presented with Droog more than ten years ago in Milan. When we started this project in 2009, we were in the middle of the financial crises; about 500 companies in the Netherlands went bankrupt every month. Their stocks were offered at online auctions and we bought up all kinds of things: folding chairs, handkerchiefs, buffet trays, flower pots, glassware, tables and so on. We asked designers to see these leftovers as raw material for creative reinterpretation, in other words, to redesign them.

Ordinary flowerpots in all shapes and sizes were flocked blue so they got a luxurious look and combined with blue flocked trays, they could form attractive sets. The folding chairs were painted with tiny decorations by local nail polishers. Jurgen Bey printed the handkerchiefs with newspapers reports and offered them as embroidery patterns. We sold these products at our presentation during the Salone del Mobile for quite some money, after all they were small editions. However, sales went so fast that the presentation turned almost empty before the design week was over, and we had to raise the prices.

100 Blue Containers, 2009

Saved by Droog was followed by UP in 2011. This time it was not about bankruptcy but about true dead stock: the hundreds of thousands of brand new products that are destroyed or recycled every day because they have production faults or do not sell. I wondered if we could upscale the Saved by Droog project by working together with companies: redesigning their unsaleable stock and put the new products back on the market. This became the UP-model.

We cooperated with five companies: textile producer Vlisco, hotel porcelain manufacturer Wegter, glass factory Leerdam, warehouse Makro and medical company Mediq Suomi. Designers were invited to work with a number of products from their dead stock and we presented the outcome in Amsterdam, Helsinki and Doha. We also organized a symposium where the possibilities and impossibilities of the UP-model were discussed in detail.

UP conference 'New is the New New', November 3rd, 2011. Machinegebouw-Westergasfabriek, Amsterdam

UP was a pilot that we enjoyed working on and even earned me a spot on the “150 women who shake the world” feature of the American magazine Newsweek. But it became clear that it wasn’t that easy to re-market large amounts of dead stock via redesign, at least not for the participating companies. One problem was that the approach was too creative, resulting in products that did not match the demand of the segment in which the companies operated. For example, Annelys de Vet turned ordinary cups and saucers in an interesting conversation piece by adding a graphic layer, perhaps too elitist for the company that is targeting on big hotel chains. Studio Droog added a set of wheels to ordinary Makro buffet trays. The renewed trays were very attractive and had much appeal in the press but they did not fit in the Makro range at all. Eventually, none of the five companies continued.

Annelys de Vet, My Cup of Thoughts, 2010

But there was also a waste processor involved in the project and they wanted to continue. We agreed that they would notify us as soon as they received a shipment of goods that we could possibly do something with. And they did. At one point we received a call that they had 20,000 perfume bottles and a few hundred car tires, and if we would please pick them up the next day because storage is expensive. That caused some panic: where would we leave these things and how long would it take before we could process such quantities? We came to the conclusion that it is not so easy to redesign big quantities of dead stock. Not only for logistical reasons, but also because the additional costs of processing existing products did not outweigh the production of new products in huge amounts in low-wage countries. As far as I can oversee it, it could only successfully be done in collaboration with the companies who produced this stock while remaining close to their market segment.

So for us it is easier to work with small quantities and sell them on the design market. But then, with small numbers it can happen that at some point the materials are finished and so it can happen that a product that sells well cannot be sold anymore. This is certainly not the case with the Rag Chair, designed by Tejo Remy 30 years ago. The chair has been sold by Droog since 1993. Tons of old clothes and rags are used for it and as long as people throw away clothes on a large scale, the supply is endless. We have recently partnered with a luxury fabric producer for a special edition of the Rag Chair, made from brand new leftovers - the company’s dead stock. The plan was that the chairs would be presented at this year's furniture fair in Milan, of course as a high-end product. The pandemic has put a stop to this, so we have to wait for better times. But the UP story has been revived.

Tejo Remy, Rag Chair, 1993


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