The World is a Big Refrigerator, Let’s Learn to Use the Leftovers


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A giant refrigerator presents a lot of options. Photo:

Recently, I was invited to speak at a conference about sustainable design. I was planning to talk about designs that improve our quality of life, but instead, at the last minute, I decided to prepare something that would more effectively illustrate my philosophy that “green is good, but common sense is a lot better.” Of course, I respect LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and other similar organizations, but I believe designers should do more than just belong to associations. They should use common sense when they design something.

My talk began with a vision I’ve had for years: the world as a big refrigerator, full of leftovers. One of my passions is cooking so I began with a cooking lesson. People stared at me like I was at the wrong conference. I explained that for me, the best part of cooking is opening my fridge and using the scraps. I tell this story because I believe that designers should think in a similar fashion. As designers, we should be able to take whatever is in this “fridge” and create designs using those existing scraps. We have plenty of material to use, but we lack a cohesive system to organize those pieces.


Scraps, leftovers, remnants, whatever you call 'em, they are still plenty useful. Photo: Antonio Larosa

While cooking, I started giving some examples to build credibility to this theory. The first was a project I had undertaken with my students at a big design school in Georgia. A large hotel company had come to us and asked for new furniture designs for one of their chains. Our proposal was to take the existing furniture and modify it rather than starting all over. We took the existing pieces and tweaked them to fit their new design scheme. Some of the wood used for the changes came from taking apart and rebuilding the existing furniture using the same material. We modified the furniture legs, transformed armoires so they could hold large, flat-paneled TVs, replaced existing hardware, cut where necessary and, in less than two days, were able to save about 140,000 pieces of furniture by reusing what was already there.

Scraps become something new

Leather scraps begin to take shape as something new.

I then shared a collection of furniture I designed about 10 years ago for an Italian company. The idea sprouted from walking around factories that made leather bags and shoes. Rather than have the masses of scraps sent to landfills, I used these “leftovers” to make a new line of furniture accessories. The main design in the collection is a flower, and the flower is not purely decorative but suggests that you can recycle even the smallest piece of leather into a new design.

New scraps

Something old is new again. Photo: Antonio Larosa

This goes to show that the simple concept of looking around and reusing whatever we have—our leftovers—is working to some extent. However, what isn’t working is the system itself. Every city and county should work to create smaller, local “refrigerators” and fill them up with scraps from construction sites, manufacturing facilities and other remains from the detritus of modern life that can be repurposed to make new designs. Instead of throwing away these remnants these should feed into a shared store. There are a few examples of spaces like this in the United States (Urban Ore in Berkeley, Build it Green in Brooklyn, or West End Architectural Salvage in Des Moines) but we need a cohesive, world-wide movement to push this type of thinking to the forefront of the design world.

But it’s not just the design world we need to convince. We should encourage every level of government to think along these lines and then perhaps this theory of living in a large refrigerator will no longer be just a theory. Just like the two examples I gave, we can design products using solely recycled materials.

As a small child I remember my grandmother would save every glass jar and cardboard box and reuse these materials for everything. I was struck by this and learned that what she was doing wasn’t about being “green” or being a part of a fancy association but rather doing what designers and governments should be doing every day: using common sense!

  • Beautiful stuff! We’d love to have you on Krrb. I’ll email you!

  • Donnie Criswell

    Great analogy! I can totally relate…I live by an architectural salvage store in Boulder Co. I begin visiting the store 1 year ago picking up remaining lumber from old fences and decks that were torn down.  I begin building furniture out of this “reclaimed” lumber and have even scaled this concept and created a design / build firm focusing on the use of reclaimed material.

    check us out:

    we have actually acquired a few SCAD graduates along the way :-)

  • Love the analogy Tony. There is so much in the world that is underutilized or just simply thought of as trash. I think it really is just a shift in mind-set but getting there is the tough part. I think you are right that if there were some type of system in place that would take this material and present it in a palatable way we’d be much farther along in this shift than we are today.