Upholstery in the Maker Space

A Furniture Waste Solution in the Making

Friday Apr. 1st, 2016

On a sunny September day, I found myself exploring the nooks & crannies of our county landfill looking for furniture. A towering pile of metal drew me to the upper level – old metal kids’ desks and chrome 50’s chairs haphazardly strewn throughout. I was here to document the plight of sofas by photographing this one tiny part of our nation’s disposal system (Park County, population 16,000, extends from Shields Valley to the north of Livingston, through Paradise Valley to Yellowstone Park’s north border to the south ).

Why sofas?
I chose to focus on sofas (rather than chairs or other furniture) because I had just come out of an experience that I did not want to repeat, in the position of sofa executioner... I had contracted with a local furniture store to handle their repairs, and found myself inspecting a brand new sofa that had been dropped during delivery. When it was determined that I couldn’t repair it for less than the price of (another) new sofa – and still make a living wage – I realized it would end up here. At the landfill.

A sofa’s plight
I looked around, wondering what they did with those big pieces. Then, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye, and I heard a big engine start up. A Caterpillar track loader was beginning to move on the lower level, and it was moving toward – a sofa! I snapped a few photos as the CAT crushed it flat on the first pass, then proceeded to crunch back & forth over it several more times until there was nothing left but a pile of broken wood. Then, I noticed the slopes surrounding the pit were littered with broken wood.

This made me wonder exactly how much furniture our little county sends to the landfill. When I asked the owner of the local thrift store how many sofas they throw away each week, she told me their average is about one sofa per week. Doing the math, that’s 52 sofas per year – just from that one thrift store. And remember, this doesn’t include chairs or any other furniture.

I decided to assume for this informal research that our county reflects an average for the state and for the entire country. A simple extrapolation of the numbers based on population yields:
• 3,466 sofas thrown away each year by Montanans  
   alone, and
• 1,109,120 sofas thrown away by Americans
After a quick web search for statistics, I found out this is most likely a conservative estimate.

Why is so much furniture being WASTED?
It’s a question of cost vs quality. During my short stint in furniture repair, I gained insight into today’s furniture industry that started me on a mission to change it. Did you know that chip board or particle board forms the structural foundation of many low- to mid-priced sofas? If you don’t know what those materials are, suffice to say - once broken, they are not repairable. Essentially, we all get to fall into the old ‘planned obsolescence’ trap every time we’re forced to choose the ‘economy’ sofa over the better- built version that’s made of solid wood.

The Solution is in our Communities
That visit to the landfill was 5 years ago (2011). I didn’t know it at the time, but a solution was beginning to form of its own accord – even then. Our communities, no matter how big or small, hold more power to change the world than any one person could imagine. And I’m talking BIG changes – that transform the way we do business – the way we build things, and the way we dispose of our ‘stuff’ when we’re done with it. Our furniture has to be a part of that.

The Maker Movement
The term has only recently come into use, but it’s not a new concept. It has roots in the home crafter movement, the earliest version of which was quilting bees – people pooling their resources to create something together. They shared not just tools & good company, but also creative ideas. Today’s Maker Movement is the rebirth of this concept, and it’s taking the form of community Maker Spaces.

First appearing in the early 2000’s, and focused mainly around technology (as in 3D printing), Maker Spaces have evolved to become community centers where people come together to share tools & materials and to learn new skills from each other. These collaborative learning environments – located in libraries, schools & art centers as well as corporate campuses like Google and Apple – are set up to stretch people outside the ‘traditional’ learning environment.

How the Maker Movement can transform the way we buy furniture
Imagine this: Let’s say you have an antique chair that’s been passed down in your family. Even though it’s solidly built, it’s in sad shape after years of rough-housing kids & pets. You take it in to your local ‘reFurniture’ store, or ‘maker center’, where you can choose how to have it restored. You have three choices available to you right there at the center:

1. Hire a professional upholsterer to restore your sofa.
2. Save some money, and hire an experienced apprentice to do the work.
3. Save even more by taking a class and doing the upholstery yourself, with the
    option of training as an apprentice to get paid do the work for others as you

I don’t know exactly what this would look like in actual practice, but I’m in love with the idea. It paints a picture of a cycle that brings people together, rejuvenates an age-old tradition, and brings furniture into the circular economy.

Maker spaces are born out of a mindset of community partnership, providing tools and education to enable members to design & create things that wouldn’t be possible for most individuals working alone.

What would you create if you had the resources to bring your idea to fruition? What kind of old dilapidated but well-built furniture do you have stored in your attic waiting to be revived? Do you have any ‘uphol-stories’ that you’d like to share? I’m helping a few adventurous creatives reupholster their simple chair projects for a new video series. If you’d like to have your project considered, contact me, Carla Pyle at carla- bz@livinghomefurniture.com    

Carla Pyle of Living Home Furniture is a textile artist turned ‘green’ upholsterer, currently teaching classes at her studio in Livingston. Her vision is to instigate radical change in today’s furniture industry, which she believes begins in the collaborative learning environment of the Maker Space. Join the conversation at www.livinghomefurniture.com