Bret McCabe talks to architect and designer Will Holman about the philosophy and projects behind his new book, Guerilla Furniture Design
Will Holman has been turning trash into furniture for most of his career, though it was never the focus of his job. It was what he did on the side because he needed something to sit on or eat off of and wasn’t always in the position to buy it new.
The architect/designer spent the past decade working and studying in various projects that are in some way concerned with social design, that intersection of design thinking and social change that, over the past two decades, has emerged as a loosely organized field, with graduate programs and various projects around the country. Holman’s career took him everywhere from the Cosanti Foundation, part of the late Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti project in Arizona, to the Rural Studio and YouthBuild Greensboro in Alabama, and even to Chicago, working at the ReBuild Exchange store and ReBuild Foundation neighborhood revitalization endeavor founded by artist Theaster Gates. Through most of this time, Holman had his trusty Toyota Corolla, a few tools, and not much money, and if he needed something, he built it with materials at hand.
This decade of making things he needed has led to Guerilla Furntiture Design: How to Build Lean, Modern Furniture with Salvaged Materials (Storey Publishing), a collection of Holman’s furniture ideas that comes out April 7. Most of these projects were originally posted on Instructables, the online forum for do-it-yourself projects, the experience of which hassled Holman to consider how open-source thinking can help the built environment.
“All of these projects are prototypes in the public eye, on the Internet in a huge public forum that wasn’t available to people that many years ago,” Holman says of Instructables, which debuted in 2005. That platform “has created a huge and awesome feedback loop where people comment on my Instructables. They point out flaws, modifications. What I’ve started leaning toward the last year or two is the idea of open-sourcing objects. That’s been enormously successful in information, but how can we use these collaborative online environments to create a hackable physical world that uses the hive mind of the crowd to constantly iterate and improve things?”
This casual observation is a good introduction to how Holman’s mind works: an eye on the big picture but aware that so many smaller factors shape it, open to outside input to improve his own thoughts, coupled with the lack of ego willing to accept that outside input. I sat down with Holman — note: he is a BmoreArt contributor, a former Robert W. Deutsch Foundation fellow and is currently project coordinator for the Baltimore Arts Realty Corporation, the non-profit development organization that, like BmoreArt, is funded in part by the Deutsch Foundation — to talk about making things out of necessity, what architects and designers have to say about economics, and what change we should be talking about when we talk about social design.
Bret McCabe: Tell me how you first started doing guerilla furniture design. I ask because your Instructables profile says you joined the site in 2008, and that you’re interesting in designing things for free, that are recycled, make creative use of material limitations, and are fun. And looking over your background you’ve worked in a number of places where design/architecture is intimately intertwined with philosophical outlooks or an educational component, whether that’s Arcosanti or the Rural Studio or YouthBuild or the ReBuild Foundation/Rebuilding Exchange. So you have both pragmatic experience with the larger discussions and practice of social design and also understand how difficult it is to sustain a career doing that over the past decade. So your own pursuits in guerilla furniture—did this start from a design problem, a philosophical consideration of materials, pragmatic economic decisions, some combination of all of the above?
Will Holman: I think it was a combination. I made my first piece of furniture when I was a freshman in college, then I just kept making little things as they occurred to me because I had access to tools and I made a lot of things out of cardboard because there’s a lot of dumpsters filled with cardboard. So the cost of failure is very low. When I moved out to Arcosanti in 2007, I didn’t expect to stay there very long but ended up staying a year. So I started scrapping together pieces from construction debris. I didn’t have the wherewithal to start blogging then, and I thought [Instructables] was an easy format for me to explore, and for a couple of years there I put one out every month.
They were all self-explorations on the side, mostly driven by my own economic considerations as I moved around and didn’t have a lot of money. I was mostly in remote, rural areas, so I couldn’t just run down to Ikea, and I ended up building stuff out of necessity. I think it intersected with my philosophical bent because many of the designers I admire or learned about in school, and I think it’s been lost in this day and age, but a lot of the original premise of modernism was to make accessible, inexpensive design for the masses out of industrial materials. So I wanted to adapt that [thinking] to what is now America’s greatest industrial material, which is waste, quite frankly.
Also, I didn’t have a lot of tools. The majority of [the projects in the book] were made with a circular saw, a jigsaw, and a drill. They could fit in the trunk of my car, and I always had them around.
Do those constraints—free, recycled materials, a limited tool set, etc.—affect the design process?
I think the core of my aesthetic philosophy is this idea of elevating the humble—cardboard, two by fours, whatever it may be. When you look at a typical DIY website or, going back to the ’50s, the old Popular Mechanics home owners encyclopedia, it looked DIY. The material isn’t resized from how they bought it off the shelf. It’s very clunky, a lot of right angles, it’s meant to be easy to make. And I wondered, Why can’t it be easy to make, inexpensive, and designed, have some intentionality about it? So, right here [points to the table on the book’s cover]—that’s just a two-by-four but if you cut a taper on it, which is not a hard thing to do, and put a notch in there so there’s some actual joinery. Now it looks a lot better than if I just slapped together three two-by-fours at a 90-degree configuration. And it’s more stable structurally.
Since I moved around a lot, the majority of these things come apart. They use exposed mechanical fasteners and you can unbolt them, knock them flat, and, at the time, I had a Corolla, and you can fit an awful lot of stuff back there.
That plays into the whole sustainability sphere of thinking where I’m trying to design for the whole life cycle of the product. First, using salvaged materials, but then by using these mechanical fasteners and flat-pack designs, you can disassemble it, reuse the constituent parts or dispose of it in a sustainable way. Think of a shoe—it’s rubber, it’s leather, it’s foam, and they’re all bonded together and you can’t strip them apart and recycle them in any meaningful way. Every design in the book includes disassembly and disposal instructions, which plays into only using waxes and natural oils for finishes. Trying to think about it in a real holistic way.
All the things you’re talking about here are reflective in some ways of larger discussions going on in social design but on a smaller scale. Have you been able to learn things from larger projects that feed back into a piece of furniture?
I’ve been deeply influenced by thinking about sustainability, as an entire umbrella of thinking—not just environmental but financial, social, there’s a whole sphere of interrelated things with the way that we use objects in our economy. So much in our built environment is disposable, even buildings, and [sustainability] is trying to be both intentional about both what we’re making in the first place and how we use and how we get rid of it. Some of these structures in the book are disposable—they’re made out of cardboard. But I’m trying to be thoughtful and intentional about how that life cycle plays out.
I was going to ask—is there a prototype stage for these? Or is the prototype the platform on which it’s shared?
I think it depends. Some of these came out whole cloth and some of these have gone through long development processes. The road sign chair—I did dozens of experiments with how to fold aluminum sheet and went through a lot of iterations before I figured out the most labor-efficient, clean-looking one. The cardboard cantilever chair, I built four or five of those over a period of seven years and I revisit it occasionally, thinking, Maybe it would work better this way. But other ones, most of the iterations took place on paper and then it worked OK the first time.
Tell me more about your first piece of guerilla furniture, what led to its development.
It was during the second semester of my freshman design studio in college. We had an open ambit to pursue making what we wanted within a certain framework, so I decided to make a series of chairs. My dad [John S. Holman] had run for office the year before, unsuccessfully, and we had a huge stack of campaign signs in the house that I spent all summer before my freshman year running around town sticking into people’s yards. So at winter break I got this stack as tall as me and brought them down to school and I built a chair out of it. It was not the most handsome or successful chair, but it was my first stab at using some discarded thing. There was an added catharsis of taking some of the emotional defeat and turning it into something positive that put a smile on my dad’s face. Even though it wasn’t the best chair, they put it proudly on the porch for a few years before it kind of disintegrated.
Do you get better problem-solving thee things the more you make? Do you see scraps or salvage or materials you can use and then figure out what you can make from it? Or is it more that you have something you want to make and then go scrounging for the materials to realize it?
Most of the furniture has been stuff I’ve used in my daily life, so it’s been an intersection of opportunity and need. What do I have that’s available to me and free? And what did I need in my house at that particular moment? This book contains 35 projects and on my hard drive I have, I don’t know, over the past ten years I’ve probably built 150-200 projects. So this may not be all the best ones but I do keep discarding things that don’t work as well as I would like. My younger sister, god bless her, has inherited a lot of furniture as she’s moved into her first apartment. As I moved, friends of mine might need a table. And that gave me the opportunity to start over a little bit.
And then some of them were pure formal experiments, the road signs in particular. I’m fascinated by their materiality, their graphic quality, and the life cycle of them. They’re very hard to recycle because of that coating on them, so they usually end up just stockpiled in some dump. And I was fortunate enough to find access to one of those dumps when I lived in Alabama. I had this huge stock of material and, you know, I lived in a small rural town, there wasn’t a lot to do on the weekends, and I had a stack of signs, a mallet, and a circular saw. So maybe if I try this it’ll work that way. And many, many failures later I eventually arrived at something stable. We still have a couple in our apartment.
Do you have any favorites—either because of their design components or because they represented a solution that you didn’t see or they solved a need you had without having to invest a great deal of cash?
I think there’s two that stick out. One is the cardboard cantilever chair. That was more of a formal experiment I was trying to figure out. Cantilever chairs are the most daring and complex of chair forms, and they have this long modernist lineage back to Bauhaus. Those are made out of spring steel, so the challenge to make one out of inherently weak material like corrugated cardboard and Masonite was irresistible to me to try and solve on an engineering level. My first couple of attempts didn’t work that great. I eventually came up with a hybrid structure that was part corrugated cardboard, where the grain was cross-laminated with 1/8″ Masonite. So the Masonite’s strong in tension, corrugated cardboard is strong in compression, and it’s bridged with paper tubes from Uline. The whole chair costs maybe $20 and is held together with wheat paste. And it worked, finally. I still don’t think it’s perfect. I think the ergonomics aren’t ideal and there are a couple of things I could keep tweaking on it, but maybe in another year or two I’ll forget how much work it was and try again.
Then there’s a set of flat pack bookshelves in there that I was really proud of. It all comes from one sheet of plywood and I came up with a system where the shelves themselves act as the lateral bracing. It seems like shelves are either sturdy, affordable, or good-looking, but never all three. So this thing is just rock solid—you can use it like a step ladder if you need to—and it all knocks down to a package about four feet long. It has a nice intersection of modularity, affordability, material efficiency, and sturdiness.
You’re making things that you’re using on a daily basis, they’re functional in your life. How has doing this over 10 years or so feed into your own ideas about larger issues in social design or problems or ways of thinking in any way? I ask because you’re getting pragmatic experience with your own ideas and work in a lot of ways that designers might not because they’re not spending the day to day time with it that you are.
The joke about architects is that they make beautiful buildings with leaky roofs— why don’t they live in it? For me, [the book] plays into this larger social design perspective in that I’d rather teach someone how to do this and have them empowered by the skill set. It’s more about information about the thing and the thing itself is a little less important in the overall scheme of thinking.
I want to try—not to be too grandiose about it—there’s been a huge new resurgence of DIY thinking, the maker movement, and the maker movement is great because it’s getting people to make things and think more critically about how things come into their lives. But it’s also a little bit focused on drones and rockets and there’s nothing inherently wrong with these things, but they’re toys. And I want to bring some of that thinking and empowerment to things that are directly useful in your life.
And you’ve been doing this in a lot of different environments—desert, rural, urban. How does place play into social design thinking?
Well, social design is a very large, complicated, and somewhat thorny issue. I met my wife in Alabama where we were both working for separate social design projects and we both followed career paths, she in graphic design and me in architecture, with a social bent throughout. And we both have very complex and mixed thoughts about it. I think it’s very easy in the pat Internet culture to parachute in, do something, take some pretty pictures, smile, but where’s the follow-through? What’s happening a year from now? What’s the tracking? What’s the long-term, unglamorous, gnarly work that has to be done?
I mean, what are the implications of walking into a community and saying that it needs to change—especially as a white guy, well-educated, who grew up solidly middle-class. What does it mean when I walked into a poor community of color in Alabama and started trying to design housing for folks?
The implications of that have influenced everything that I do. They’ve encouraged me to be far more patient, to listen to people as much as possible, to slaughter your ego in the service of what you’re trying to do. Because it’s easy to grandstand on the back of some of this stuff and think, ‘I’m doing such great stuff for the world.’ And that kind of attitude is very dangerous and sanctimonious.
I think we could point to any number of social design projects and agents and say this one took a holistic approach to its project or this one decided we have a solution, let’s go find a problem. I just imagine if you’re doing social design, the social needs to have as much weight as the design.
And by no means do I have any sort of answers. I’ve certainly had my share of mistakes and wrong turns and unintentional cultural blind spots through this career. How it relates to the book is that— I’m going to go back to the maker movement, which, just that name, “movement,” politicizes it to some extent. It’s by demographic very white, middle-aged, affluent, and when you’re doing something like this book, the concept of open-sourced design is trying to drop out of the cultural cycle of buy, consume, discard, recycle that, for better or for worse, everyone participating in the American economy has to be in to some extent. But here’s a corner of your life, even in a basic apartment, here’s a way to reclaim some of that turf. You’re own aesthetic, your own tastes, your own labor, free material, limited tooling, and by building the skills you have the empowerment to go back and hack it, to modify it, maybe gain the confidence to do something more complicated. It’s so much better to share a meal with your friends around a table and say, I built this.
That kind of stuff is building a whole culture in people that we’ve largely forgotten. We used to be a nation of makers. You worked in a factory. You lived on a farm. The whole sector of consumer objects and technology used to be very hackable and fixable and understandable. And now we’re, How the hell do you make a phone? What’s inside it? How do you fix it if it breaks?
You’re starting to bring up some stuff that I wanted to ask you about. I think designers and architects don’t get asked about economics enough, even though what they do is a huge part of the economic chain. Your own career has taken place during a time where I think we’ve seen, and what you said about the maker movement made me think of this, but I think since 2000 we’ve seen a fair amount of DIY activity and cultures in general, and I wanted to hear your thoughts about how economics plays into that. I mean, ReadyMade magazine was around from about 2001 to 2011, so its lifespan was bound by two recessions. So what sort of role does economics play in getting people to think about having some agency in the objects in their lives?
I totally agree with you. I don’t think [economics] gets talked about enough and I think it’s the most radical, from a political perspective, aspect of all this. We built a house in rural Alabama for $29 a square foot. That’s wild. And it’s also a healthy, livable house, the guy who lives in it, if the plumbing breaks, he can fix it, he can put it back together. It’s a hackable house. It’s a platform of a house. And everything in it is off the shelf. It’s sustainable economically, environmentally. It’s very simple to build. Local contractors can replicate it. So I’m trying to apply that thinking with mixed success to the furniture. How can I make this a little easier? How can I reduce the number of steps, reduce the number of fasteners, reduce the number of parts, strip it down to that sort of simplicity? There’s a whole section at the beginning that describes all the ergonomic factors, it’s relatively brief, but to arm people with that basic knowledge that even if they have a shelf at their house leaning over, they can read that section and fix it. They understand fundamentally why it’s doing that and can correct that.
This gets into so many fundamental and economical questions—I don’t understand how we’ve arrived as a culture and society to a place where it’s cheaper to manufacture something from clear-cut lumber halfway around the world, put it into a container ship running on barely refined oil, ship it all the way around the world, and it’s cheaper than something made here. And the way this dichotomy usually ends is like fast food or grass-fed beef. OK, it’s either super cheap and crappy and nobody feels good about it. Or it’s super expensive and bespoke and handmade. And I don’t think it has to be that way. I think there’s a middle way where it’s still inexpensive but you can get that design quality out of abundant resources, the waste our own culture produces.
Finally, I wanted to hear your thoughts about how social design ideas and expertise can apply to the preexisting built environment, and I know this is a big question. You mentioned building a hackable house for $29 a square foot. Paolo Soleri started building Arcosanti as a city from nothing. When you start from zero you can think about all those little questions and problems ahead of time. How can we start to respond to the buy, consume, waste situation given everything that’s already here? How can these ideas play a role in projects that where the social and design are coming together, such as Station North and urban renewal and using art as a catalyst for development?
That is a big question. I think a lot of it to me is trying to be deliberate and holistic and look at things from a systems perspective. To shrink that down to a level of a chair, there’s a materials system, a structural system, an ergonomic system, an esthetic system, and they all have to interact in something that’s relatively usable. And when you blow that up to the scale of a house or an apartment building or a neighborhood, those scales of complexity keep going up by factors of 10.
But that’s a problem with a lot of these renewal initiatives is that, where the thinking is “Oh, it’s great, we’ll use art as a lever for redevelopment. We’ll put in a tax credit and then we’ll get some events going, and some street banners.” Those are all well and good but we’re not thinking about that in a more economic and politically systematic way. I have a great luxury through my day job to explore a lot of these questions on a daily basis and try to think about them in a long, patient, deliberate fashion that most projects don’t get to be thought about. I think that’s important—the biggest overarching lesson I’ve taken from all of these design initiatives is that it’s important to be a an active participant in the community. You have to be embedded. You have to go to the community meetings. You have to meet everybody. You have to go to the parks. You can’t parachute in and expect to apply some design thinking and march out.
The Rural Studio is a good example because the students are only there for one to two years but the institution remains. So some of the personnel may turn over but the important thing for the local community is that the institution is stable. It has a stable program every year. It’s putting out x number of buildings every year. It’s evenly spread over housing specific projects. It’s a stabilizing force even though there’s a lot of instability within it.
So on a city scale a lot of these initiatives are subject to political whims. Every four years somebody else gets elected, midlevel managers turn over, new people are appointed, and that kind of instability and seesawing is the most damaging thing. To me, what’s important are the people doing the kind of very quiet, steady work over years, [who say] “We’re going to continue, we’re going to build the necessary coalitions, and we’re going start small and demonstrate economic success.” I think everybody wants to go in and be a savior on day one and do something splashy. But it’s very slow work. And what are we changing and why are we changing it? Did anybody ask for that change? Did we ask the right people about that change? What does it mean to understand the community you’re walking into? There’s no magic bullet to learning how these things work.
Please join the author for a book release and signing party this Saturday, March 28 at the Station North Tool Library!