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Designer Dialogues: OpenStructures

12 January 2022

9 min. to read

© Wouter Kooken
BLANK SPACE MAGAZINE portrays different creative makers in their workplaces while interviewed by colleagues. What fascinates, inspires and drives them to do what they do? Especially for, BLANK SPACE MAGAZINE edited the interviews into interesting short stories. Designer and writer Dewi Kruijk went to Brussels to meet with Christiane Högner and Thomas Lommée of design studio OpenStructures to talk about their design system and the impact they aim to make.

What has driven you to start doing what you do?

Christiane: We both worked in exhibition design. Many spatial installations and objects are designed for one specific event and used for a ridiculously short period of time. For fairs this is particularly short: a few months, sometimes only a few weeks…

Or just one week even…

Christiane: Voilà, and then the whole installation disappears. Being involved in building them up made us realise that these physical objects don’t just disappear into thin air but go straight to the dumpster. This complete lack of reuse was one frustration. At the same time, we observed that there are all these different sizing systems on the market, which are rarely compatible. If you buy sheet material, for example, different standard dimensions are used for different kinds of materials, so they cannot easily be combined. You have to stick to the sizing system of either this supplier, or the other. Although the world has entered a stage of great scarcity of raw materials, and everyone is thinking about circularity, the how still remains complicated.

In your perception, what is it that distinguishes closed structures from open structures?

Christiane: Most products are designed in such a way that you can’t make any adaptations yourself. A coffee machine, for example, is just a sealed off plastic box with a button on it to make the coffee. You have no clue what happens inside and you can only experience the output. My mother’s coffee machine was broken and we went to a Repair Café, hoping to get it fixed, but in the shop they even told us: just buy a new one, it’s more expensive to repair it. This tendency of products to be more and more designed like black boxes, and the fact that everything is outsourced, has increased our dependency on suppliers or brands, as they draw you into their service system. So instead of sharing know-how, the exact opposite happens: companies are secretive about their products, merely to get an advantage on the market and stay ahead of the competition. This way, people become nothing more than consumers.

Thomas: The peculiar thing is that many objects are designed and thought out in detail, up until the point they’re sold. So much care is put into that process, which, as a consumer, makes you often clueless once you want to get rid of a product. You either throw it away or, at best, sell it again. So we should wonder how the act of disassembling something can become more interesting, also in places such as thrift shops. The OpenStructures (OS) project is about developing a vision on that period after use. We think about disassembly, restocking, reusage, creating a database of particles…

Christiane: It is not that we want to design all of these elements, we want to think about these things, because they simply cannot be ignored.

© Wouter Kooken

This reminds me of something you said in another interview you said: “it’s the idea that furniture doesn’t have a final form but it can evolve endlessly”. Why is that important to you?

Christiane: Education for designers and architects is often based on making objects for eternity. The reality, however, is that they often won’t, because as designers we know that styles – whether you want it or not – change. And not everything you make ends up as a design classic.

Thomas: We are also used to looking at something and immediately having an opinion about it, saying it’s beautiful, ugly, interesting, uninteresting… But when something is modular and it contains the possibility of change, you can ask yourself: what could it become? What can I change about it? How can I make it interesting for myself? Which part do I need to remove to see the potential? The possibility to disassemble an object and the idea that an object can migrate from one user to another, assembled in the way this user wants it to function, is essentially about integrating the element of time in a design. An object is created, assembled, sold and then lives its life. It actually has a life, and when the object is modular, it can evolve with its owner. In this sense, I find the possibility to adjust and facilitate that material flow interesting. It is also very different from thinking about objects as static.

Because the designs and parts are conceived from your grid, there is a certain type of form language that serves as the base. To what sense do you think it is possible to have very distinctive handwriting within this context?

Thomas: What we’re doing is to create a certain language, a grammar, and give it to others for them to write stories or poetry with.

Poetry is a beautiful word to describe a possible outcome.

Thomas: It is obvious that we ask designers to work with a certain script, which defines the outcome to a certain extent, but the personalisation that occurs within this frame is what makes it interesting. And the more words and combinations are added to this language, the richer it becomes. The pieces share a certain DNA but have, in my opinion, different handwriting.

How small do you go in terms of components? Because you could also ‘cheat’ the system and just keep on creating new parts to make the objects you want to make.

Christiane: We are aware that the system only lends itself to a certain scale. There is a limit to how small parts can be. On the website it looks as if we make components, but it’s actually the other way around. Designers get a brief; they have to design something, say, tables for an exhibition. Then they just start doing their thing, but they do it within the realm of the OS system, which sometimes means they create new parts. In the end, it comes down to a choice of certain dimensions to make the design compatible with the OS system, so you can disassemble the tables after their first use and see how the parts might be recombined with parts of other objects. This way, the starting point is often an object that can be taken apart if it isn’t used again, but it can also continue to exist in the form that it was designed for.

Thomas: Eventually, we do offer finished objects, but if you take them apart, you would have some sort of game. You’d have a bunch of versatile pieces that can be combined into something else.

Christiane: Our studio is next to a thrift shop that is full of things that can’t be taken apart. Whether or not you want to take apart an object to begin with, by at least implementing the possibility of reuse or reconfiguration in the design, it becomes more versatile. So, it doesn’t have to be thrown away, it can be something else.

What do you hope to achieve now, as well as in the long run?

Thomas: Firstly, there is the platform, and secondly, the designs on it, which range from experiments to products. But the third component would be the space: a new type of public space, to install that, test it. A mix of…

Christiane: …a library, maker space…

Thomas: …archive, thrift shop, workshop, coffee bar. Something like that. A place in the city where people could go to, where they could get OS things, return OS things, repair things, meet people, be inspired.

Want to read the full article?

You can find the complete interview in BLANK SPACE MAGAZINE - issue #4