The most wonderful thing about the internet is that, for all its excesses, it’s still the most democratic platform for ideas in the history of, well, ideas. Its still-revolutionary capacity to disseminate a great concept regardless of marketing budget or celebrity endorsement is what allowed Nina Tolstrup, creator of the Pallet Project, to inspire action on a bigger scale than she had ever imagined. Other visionary entrepreneurs are also tapping into it to effect profound changes in the way we consume design.
One of the first serious challenges to the status quo of expensive, exclusive contemporary-design retail came last year with the launch of made.com. Its aim is to cut out the middle man and sell designer furniture at dramatically lower-than-market prices. The brainchild of the Chinese-born, French-educated and London-based entrepreneur Ning Li, made.com uses crowdsourcing to avoid unnecessary overheads. visitors to the website can choose from elegant existing designs but are also encouraged to submit their own, the best of which are worked up into prototypes and showcased online before being opened up to a voting system. The most popular designs go into production, and those who voted are rewarded with a discount. As orders are placed directly with the manufacturer to the exact quantity sold, there is no unsold inventory, no storage costs and no waste.
Critics of made.com argue that crowdsourcing is to design what Pop Idol is to music. The technology guru Jaron Lanier has suggested that it actually threatens creativity. “The wisdom of crowds is what we call in the trade an optimising function, meaning that [it is useful] if you can set up a problem where you just want a simple answer,” he has said. “Crowdsourcing is good at that, but for synthetic creation, there just aren’t any examples of it being good – it leads to what we call design by committee; dull, derivative stuff.”
made.com may never produce the most avant-garde of designs, but by offering elegant, well-made products to customers on a budget, it proves that social egalitarianism is as noble a goal as design innovation. Meanwhile, for designers whose business model is based on them selling their designs to a major client, which manufactures the products and sells them under its own name, the realisation is dawning that they can deal with their customers more directly.
One of the first to experiment with this brave new world has been Industrial facility, the designers behind elegantly detailed designs for Muji, Yamaha, IDeA Japan and whirlpool. founding partners Sam Hecht and Kim Colin decided to start selling their own products online, direct to consumers, under the banner of Retail facility in 2009. Originally they simply wanted to make items with limited availability – designs that were only ever produced for the Japanese market, for example – available to anyone, but they quickly realised there were considerable business advantages as well. “we had no idea how successful it would be,” says Hecht. “we have started to think about our brand in its own right.” They didn’t need to do much to generate a cult following, drawing customers to their site purely on the strength of their designs.
A handful of other designers are doing the same. Jasper Morrison, who began his career developing designs for SCp, Vitra and Cappellini, has taken the online ethos and run with it: he’s opened a bricks-and-mortar shop, called simply Shop, in his own east London studio, where he sells the designs he now produces under his own name. Barber Osgerby, which made its name designing elegant, thoughtful furniture for Isokon Plus and Cappellini, hopes to do the same this year.
The Pallet Project, though, has become the most exciting design project so far to find its legs on the web. It is a collection of simple, stylish furniture made from discarded shipping pallets, but its structure, distribution and explosive international growth are all entirely dependent upon its innovative online presence. Its creator Nina Tolstrup, a danish designer based in London, has spent years designing everything from loo-roll holders to alarm clocks for habitat and other major clients. In 2006, she was approached to take part in a sustainability- themed exhibition called 10, Ten, X. Ten designers were each invited to submit one product, which had to be produced on a budget of £10 and made from materials found within a 10km radius of their studios. Tolstrup’s design was devised to be simple enough for anyone to construct it: she presented a concept, not a product. “when people saw the furniture in the exhibition, they started asking me, ‘where can we buy it?’” she says. “But that was obviously not the idea. The exhibit was making a point about sustainability, and it would just defeat the whole idea. so I thought I would put the instructions of how to build it on my website and let people do it themselves.”
She posted the design instructions, named a price of £10 to download them and sat back and waited – and it snowballed. “The project had a life of its own,” she says proudly. An exemplary exercise in upcycling, it allows people to transform the waste of consumer excess into useful, robust items for their homes, and the range now includes chairs, tables, lamps and stools. As Catharine Rossi writes in the forward to a booklet on the range, “pallet furniture is a project of empowerment for the designer, maker and consumer alike.”
It was swiftly picked up by charities in columbia, the Philippines, Brazil and Argentina. Amistad o Nada, in Buenos Aires, teaches unemployed residents of the villa 20 slum to make the furniture and sells it in an art gallery on the other side of town. when she heard about the Amistad o Nada project, Tolstrup organised an auction of pallet chairs that had been customised by artists including Rachael Whiteread, Cornelia parker and Gavin Turk. The profits paid for a new workshop for the slum workers, complete with shop front. “It has created in me an interest in a new way of working as a designer – an open-source way of working,” Tolstrup says. “I would love to give my designs away for free.” §