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Normalizing circular design

On average, work spaces and offices re-design their interior every five years. During this process new items replace old furniture, and existing carpets and lights are discarded. Often these items have a lot of life left in them, especially when they’re cleaned and refurbished. Sabrina van Dongen of circular interior design studio Furnify has made it her mission to find second hand treasures all over the country to help redesign and transform (office-)spaces. 

words: Tessa Jol

What drives Van Dongen is a higher purpose: “I see myself as an accelerator who helps spread awareness about the significance of a circular model in the interior design world. An interior can meet the current high standards and focus on reuse and sustainability at the same time”, explains the interior designer passionately. “It is crucial that we value what is already there instead of purchasing everything new. At home as well as at work.” She works closely with designers and craftspeople who have knowledge of materials and recycling, and aims to create brand new pieces from existing furniture.

Upcycling and restyling   
What does circular interior design mean exactly? According to Van Dongen there is a substantial supply of second-hand furniture that can be refurbished and reused. “We are the link between the increasing demand for ‘second life furniture’ and the current supply of used interior items that are available for circular purchasing. Instead of burdening our planet with the production of new furniture, we use existing pieces. In collaboration with designers and craftspeople, we upcycle and restyle pieces into brand new designs, often preserving the original features of the item. After this process, the piece has a story and meaning, and is good as new.”

A circular brand 
Furnify was launched in 2010 to meet a need of its parent company D/DOCK. They were shocked about the amount of waste that a redesign process creates, and they raised an eyebrow about people’s laxness about throwing away perfectly good furniture. There must be a different way to do this, they thought. Now, Furnify consists of a multidisciplinary team specialized in circular processes that ensures that each design concept includes circularity, sustainability and authenticity. Furnify also communicates the importance of these aspects in design to each (potential) client.

In the current landscape, the clients themselves request a sustainable interior. “Thank goodness!”, says Van Dongen, “because our ultimate goal is to normalize circular interior design.” In 2018 the company landed a project from ABN AMRO Insurances for a new circular and sustainable office space. Irene Snel, interior designer, and Sanne van Middelaar, interior architect at D/DOCK, created a new interior inspired by nature and sustainability. The project turned into a remarkable collaboration between several partners, including Furnify and suppliers of circular material. “We managed to create a design that was almost completely circular”, says Snel, “which means we’re on the right track. When we started this project, we asked every party involved (demolition, waste management, electricity installation, signage) what they could do to support a sustainable building process. We were able to reuse panels, walls, light fixtures and furniture, and some pieces were upcycled into something new. We were very mindful during the process and we feel this added a lot of meaning to the design.” All parties involved helped the process along, including Van Dongen: “90% of the furniture and accessories used in this space are so-called ‘second life’ pieces. It’s a combination of reused existing pieces and purchased second hand pieces. The last 10% of the pieces are made sustainably, but were purchased new.”

Treasures between the trash 
Before each project kicks off, Van Dongen and her colleague Clarice van den Berg tally up an inventory of all the pieces in the client’s space to see what can be reused or renewed. Each piece of furniture and accessory is added to a database and photographed so the designers can keep it in mind for their design concept. The team determines how the pieces can be upcycled for the right look and feel in the new interior. Then, the interior designers determine what pieces are missing and how they can source these in a sustainable way.
“During this process we often uncover unexpected things”, says Van Dongen. “It’s a little bit like solving a puzzle. The client has to be open to the fact that it is often possible to make each level of an office building look the same, but not always. That is the beauty of our service; we look for treasures between someone else’s trash and we place these pieces in the new interior. However, finding these treasures, isn’t always easy.”

“Our client, ABN AMRO Insurances, wanted the same sofa in the hallway of each floor”, adds Van Den Berg. “Unfortunately we couldn’t find enough identical sofas, so instead we chose an old tailor made sofa that was previously used in Maastricht’s city hall for the remaining two levels. These large round sofas became eye catchers after they were refurbished into beautiful lounge sofas amidst a campfire setting where employees can enjoy a bit of quiet time. It’s great to see that shortages can make for even better solutions!”

Outside of the box 
Max Kortenhorst is a longtime Furnify collaborator. His label Circular Customs specializes in the production of circular products, prototypes, interior pieces and custom work. “To lift furniture or material to a next level, you need someone who can think outside of the box and has incredible knowledge of recycling and materials”, explains Van Dongen. “Kortenhorst is that person. He is always available for brainstorm sessions to think about creative solutions. We once co-created planters that were made out of old fire distinguishers for Salone del Mobile. We added expansion tanks that were transformed into ottoman seats and an enormous chandelier was made out of bicycle chains. The latter found a new home in the interior of a large real estate company in Amsterdam (OVG).”

Boardroom Tafel

For the ABN AMRO Insurances office, Kortenhorst created two separate tables out of the base of an existing large boardroom table. He added a frame of recycled wood and a top coat made of black waste paper bins that were available in the space. “This is the ultimate form of circular design, but the process was lengthy”, smiles Sabrina. “Kortenhorst spent hours pounding on hundreds of garbage bins with a heavy hammer to granulate the plastic so he could melt and mould it into a table top shape. He even had to adapt his oven to manage the drying and pressing of the melted plastic. Eventually, the size of the table was designed to fit his oven. We added some coloured waste from edging bands that we sourced from the plastic furniture industry to break up the dark look of the black plastic.”

‘“I firmly believe in the power of collaboration; working together and using each other’s expertise to create beautiful and circular interiors for a sustainable future. A great example is our new project called DB55. This is an old warehouse in the Houthavens in Amsterdam that we are renovating in collaboration with D/DOCK in which we are aiming for a 100% circular design. We’re building this for our circular business community. When completed, it will be a work place for re-designing and recycling furniture with a courtyard, restaurant, flex work spaces, studio, event space and art space. In the past, we have urged many clients to tackle their redesign project this way, but now we are our own client. And that’s the most difficult client to have. However, when this project is completed, we will have learnt valuable lessons that we can’t wait to share with the community, and we are continuing to take steps in the right direction. Follow us for more soon.”

Van Dongen’s mission is to make circular interior design the norm in ten years and that she can focus on sourcing second hand treasures and on other environmental causes that make the world a better place.

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