To be truly sustainable, an object must be easy to repair thus disassemble. And this requires a new way of designing. Which, finally, also takes hold in the world of furniture

There is a powerful image, from two years ago, which alone gives, better than many words, the sense of what it really means, today, to think of a design in a circular key. The image comes from Ore Streams, the Formafantasma  project dedicated to the cycle (and recycling) of electronic devices. It is the frame in which all the components of a PC, from the smallest to the largest, are arranged on a plane, reminding us of the complexity and ingenuity that are hidden behind the tools of everyday life.

That image is powerful because it activates an inverse suggestion compared to what we would expect from design: it does not make us think of the expertise in the assembly of components that makes a beautiful and functional object, but, on the contrary, leads us to reflect on the disassembly a computer, a tablet, a smartphone, in every small part, so that all of them can go back into circulation and be reused at the end of their life cycle, avoiding the use of new raw materials.

In fact, we know very well that most of the objects produced today, and not just the electronic ones, cannot be disassembled, or at least they are not in all their components. To say, in one of the Ore Streams videos, the Formafantasma report the testimony of the recyclers who complain about the difficulty of distinguishing the black rubber cables from the copper electric ones. A hitch that prevents tons of material from being fully recovered.

There is no need to bother Victor Papanek and his half-century-ago complaints against industry and design itself, accused of fueling the planned obsolescence and non-repairability of objects, to understand that what we would expect today from creatives and from companies all over the world it is a solidarity pact that pushes to design and produce objects, analog and digital, that can be repaired, disassembled and therefore recovered in their parts at the end of their life cycle.

For this reason, the great bet of circularity, even before the use of innovative and recyclable materials, is a different approach to design, which leads to methods that make an armchair or a PC repairable or disassembled.

Read also how essential design is to achieve a circular economy

It is the feature that made the Fairphone famous, the Dutch repairable smartphone that saw the light in 2013. But also the one that begins to appear in the design of high-end Italian furniture, with the Sengu collection by Patricia Urquiola for Cassina – one of the more interesting and recent cases furniture designed to be dismantled at the end of a life that, however, is imagined to be very long, as befits furniture designed to pass from one generation to the next.

The challenge of designing for disassembly characterizes the beautiful story of  Astep, the Copenhagen-based lighting design company founded in 2014 by Alessandro Sarfatti  to create and curate timeless inventions with an innovative approach.

In this sense, Pepa shines in the Astep catalog, born in collaboration with Francesco Faccin, a patent candidate lamp for its innovative technology. Sarfatti tells: “We wanted to create a product using sustainable materials that are easy to repair and disassemble. Unlike most other portable lamps, Pepa uses standard AA NiMH batteries, which can be found in any tobacco shop or supermarket. Batteries that can be easily replaced as they age, when generally the lithium ones built into the lamp are destined to become electronic waste, dying themselves and causing the lamps to die as well”. 

Pepa, on the other hand, combines sustainability with the aesthetics of a simple gesture (it turns on and off and adjusts in intensity by rotating the body like a pepper mill) and is designed to be repairable by the customer. “The printed circuit itself can be easily replaced by the customer because it is not glued into the product ”explains Sarfatti. "Charging takes place through any type of cable, from smartphones, laptops or monitors: in our homes and offices we already have enough and of all kinds, we didn't want to add yet another”.