A new class of furnishings aren’t just made from earth-friendly materials and processes—they’re designed to last more than a lifetime.
Sustainability has been trending for quite some time in the design world, but there’s a new eco-minded buzzword on everyone’s brain: circularity. This business model advocates for products to be in use for as long as possible as a way of reducing waste. To that end, circular design values creating items that are durable, reusable, easy to disassemble, repairable and recyclable. From a consumption standpoint, it can mean everything from restoring (rather than replacing) a vintage piece to only buying products made from recyclable and renewable materials.
Put simply: “Circularity in design is an approach to product and system design that aims to minimize waste and make the most efficient use of resources,” says New York–based Laurence Carr, who specializes in regenerative design. “It focuses on creating products, services and systems with resource efficiency, life cycle assessment, upcycling and biodiversity in mind.”
Designers can apply circular principles to a project in a variety of ways—from start to finish. During the client onboarding process, Lucy Penfield begins by identifying any and all furniture items that can be upcycled or repurposed. “It is certainly much easier to cast off old furniture and buy new, but that doesn’t feel responsible,” says the Wayzata, Minnesota–based designer. “Giving an old item new value through a change of location, color, or reupholstery brings great joy for all.”
If you must buy new, Carr suggests looking for pieces crafted from reclaimed, recyclable or third-party-certified materials. Her designs for Studio Laurence, for instance, are made in partnership with B Corp–certified manufacturer Nature’s Legacy, using zero-waste processes and innovative biomaterials. “Always start with a product’s end of life in mind,” she says. “Will it be recycled? Upcycled? Is it biodegradable? Where and how? What manufacturing process will be used to make the product? Is it carbon neutral?”
Carr also recommends seeking out manufacturers and makers with repair and reuse programs—brands such as Fyrn, whose handcrafted solid wood pieces can be broken down and replaced in parts; and Double R Design, which offers both restoration services and upcycled vintage finds revamped in contemporary fabrics and finishes. “It’s incredible how long a wood frame will last,” says Double R founder Rachael Rosenblum. “They usually just need a little updating [to] be passed down from generation to generation.”
Circular thinking should also come into play when discarding furniture pieces. In Minnesota, Penfield regularly donates castaways to nonprofit organizations such as Bridging and Hope Chest for Breast Cancer, which rehouse items to homes in need; in New York, Materials for the Arts, a program of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, accepts everything from fabric and wallpaper offcuts to furniture. “We’ve grown to occupy a 35,000-square-foot warehouse in Long Island City, where we serve over 4,000 member organizations, including almost every public school in New York,” says MFTA executive director Tara Sansone. “We welcome companies to drop off supplies at our loading dock, and we can also arrange trucking to pick up from donors—we want to make donating and supporting creative reuse as easy as possible for everyone.”
In a perfect world, these choices would be easy—we’d live in homes furnished with zero-waste pieces that biodegrade or stand the test of time. Until then, Carr says it’s essential to ask how we can apply the concepts of a circular economy to the built environment: “The more we designers understand how our industry contributes to waste and climate change problems, the more we can get creative in ways to mitigate those challenges.”