Text by Emma Orlow, AD CLEVER
Have you ever made a chair in your frying pan? The furniture designers at Detroit-based Thing Thing Studio have. Their Pan Fried Stools, made from melted crayons, are just one of the many ways they recycle colorful plastics, cooking them up into creative, reimagined furniture designs. Established in 2012, the studio is run by Simon Anton (an architect, urban researcher, graphic designer, barista, and teacher) and his collaborators: Eiji Jumbo (a surfer, machinery teacher, and gardener), Rachel Mulder (an architect, urban planner, and furniture designer), and Thom Moran (an architect and conceptual artist). Every one of their designs is as unique as the careers of their founders, and uses materials directly sourced from Detroit.
It's a fitting hometown. Named the United States' first UNESCO City of Design in 2015, Detroit boasts more than one environmentally conscious design shop. Take the Heidelberg Project, which repurposes condemned buildings into beautiful outdoor art environments. Thing Thing sees Detroit's economic downturn as an opportunity to herald in a new legacy for the city, one that is more sustainable and design-forward. All of their designs pay homage to those who built it; the auto industry, Art Deco architecture, Mayan Revival gems, Motown, techno, and Afrofuturism are all points of inspiration.
“Ask yourself why people are willing to pay a premium for objects created in Detroit,” says Simon. "It is the quality, creativity, and absolute resiliency that makes Detroit such a special place."
Before formally founding Thing Thing, Anton and his team saw that amidst the environmental crisis of plastic production, they as artists had a platform to make a change—in furniture design, at least. Currently, many of the production processes and materials used for even high-end furniture designs create a large CO2 footprint. But plastic waste is abundant—why not use it? “Large companies have trouble using [plastic waste as a material] because they are so concerned with homogeneity. As independent designers, we are more excited by the interesting things that happen when products aren’t homogeneous copies—interesting color blends, textures, showing a real love for the material,” Simon explains. Plus, according to Simon, this also spares the plastic from heading to the “global south to be burned,” releasing further toxic gases into the atmosphere.
Most plastic waste is recycled into a brown-gray industrial sludge. But Simon and his crew source theirs before that happens, sorting plastic finds by color—Folgers Coffee reds, Arm and Hammer yellows, Downy light blues—after consumers have discarded them. They find them all over Detroit: in automotive factory waste, among dollar store rejects, at recycling centers, and, yes, sometimes by dumpster diving.
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Then we arrange the bottles into a rainbow! 🌈 Did you know that most colored plastic is recycled into a brown-grey industrial sludge plastic? By simply sorting the colors we are able to add value to this ubiquitous material.
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From these finds, Thing Thing makes clocks, vases, public art, benches, and other pieces that are speckled to perfection. “Part of the joy of the process is working with clients to design custom blends to fit their project," Simon says, speaking as if he's a chef in the kitchen: "Add a cupful of shredded Tide bottles to match an orange pillow, a splash of Downy to bring out the blue notes of the carpet." Their furniture-making process involves actual campfires, frying pans, and procedures that are recorded as recipes. Their pillow-shaped LED lamps, for example, blend rescued buckets, milk crates, powder, straws, and shopping bags, with a proprietary mold-making process that involves a fire, a bicycle pump, and aluminum foil (we’ll leave the details to the experts). The foursome are as much mad scientists as they are savants of sustainable interior design.
But what Thing Thing is most known for is its Pan Fried Stools, which are created custom for clients. “The truth is, we've created a secret blend of plastics recycled from different sources (consumer plastics, automotive factory waste, dollar store rejects, et cetera) to achieve the perfect pattern of streaks and splotches," says Simon of the recipe. Technically you could make one yourself—but that'll involve wearing a face mask and relegating a skillet to plastic furniture creation only. "It is our opinion that you let us do the baking for this one," he says. If you like what you see, shop Thing Thing through their website, where prices for a custom piece range from $350 to $600 depending on size and leg materials, or go see them in an exhibit: The team's latest designs are currently on view at the London Design Festival’s “Plasticscene,” along with those of other makers creatively reusing plastic.