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Product Design and Upcycling During COVID-19

By Andrew Connor

June 17, 2020

Photo of Rebuilding Exchange's empty workshop
Making an in-person design experience virtual

Mass closings amidst the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic presented significant challenges to small businesses and organizations. And the unpredictable “reopening” process brings considerable uncertainty as well.

That is especially true for Rebuilding Exchange (RX). Through salvaging and sales, the Chicago nonprofit promotes the adaptive reuse of old building materials. And through in-person workshops, Rx promotes woodworking and crafting as a hobby and a career path.

Because this is such a person-to-person, community-based business, everything was interrupted. If we didn’t figure out how to pivot in such a way that there was some cashflow coming in, the organization would be majorly set back.
—Ted Burdett, an RX board member

RX has been working with IIT Institute of Design’s product design workshop, led by Studio Professor Martin Thaler, since the beginning of the spring 2020 semester. Initially, the students’ design brief was to create a portfolio of standardized products made from materials that RX salvages. But as the pandemic shuttered RX’s warehouses mid-semester, making those consistent products took on new importance.

“A large portion of revenue comes from warehouse sales. That business has truly been a brick and mortar business. Everything that comes in is so unfriendly to e-commerce because it’s all one-off; there’s no standardization,” says Burdett.

While RX has pivoted to selling some reclaimed goods online, a consistent product line would add an extra boost to its operations. Materials such as doors, floorboards, and other previously used materials don’t always come in standard sizes and finishes, which makes designing a consistent product catalog difficult.

ID students had to create designs that work well within those constraints.

There might be certain things that they might not get to make–such as high volume, wholly standardized designs–but I think those constraints allow for creative stories and experiences. Somebody interested in an RX product is interested in the material and the life it had before it arrived in their hands. I think that is something that is really unique about what RX has to offer.
—Aamena Ansari (MDes 2021)
Design for reclaimed mobile

Ansari’s design for the workshop is a mobile with a minimalist aesthetic made from reclaimed wood and rope, which users can decorate with their own charms and precious items. The design is simple enough in that it could easily be manufactured by RX, shopped out to other manufacturers if RX is unable to regain access to its workshop, or be sold to customers as a kit or set of instructions to assemble at home. That adaptability is vital, given that RX doesn’t know what the future holds.

The decision to make a mobile, Asari says, was informed by our connection to memories and the way we process grief during the pandemic.

“One classmate in particular, Rodrigo Dyer (MDes 2021), and I were talking about this idea of grief and reflection, and what is actually meaningful in this time,” says Ansari. “So I was thinking how cool it would be if RX was a platform for people to connect with those materials—like a shell you got at a beach on vacation or a piece of brick from your old childhood home, things like that—where holding it can really evoke an emotion or a memory.”

Other ID students sought to create products of particular relevance while communities practiced social distancing. With a significant proportion of today’s workers doing their jobs from home, students devised stand-up desks, room partitions, and shelf systems from reclaimed materials.

For now, RX expects to select a few student projects to prototype and potentially sell through its online marketplace in the summer.

“I think that it’s really cool to work with ID’s design group and to see what happens in synthesis,” says Burdett. “This was a group of totally creative people who combined those initial findings with a new reality that got totally dropped on them. They came up with really cool ideas that pilot a whole bunch of directions for us.”

This story was published on IIT News.