ScrapLab: A Social Story

Miki Friedenbach and Laura Leavy, partners in work and in real life, developed a social conscience during the 2001 Argentinean crisis and from then on they have been focusing in helping the unemployed by providing them with design systems they can adopt to turn trash into appealing products.
It all started with their first project along with fellow designer Alejandro Sarmiento, which was called Contenido Neto and had PET bottles and cartoneros as leading stars. After a few intense years implementing that program and learning about social work, they came up with a division inside their studio called Scraplab and a project of their own: a shape that can be knitted into a fabric to produce all types of products.
In this interview, Friedenbach and Leavy speak out about their background and projects, but also -and probably, most important- about how hard but challenging it is to work with people in need. "Suddenly, design doesn't matter that much," says Leavy, "what matters is the mother that thanks us for giving his son self-esteem and something to be proud of."TreeHugger (TH): -What got you interested in social issues?
Miki Friendenbach (MF): -I'd say the 2001 crisis.
Laura Leavy (LL): -Yes, when the crisis paralized the country and we started to see cartoneros in the streets, it was a big hit for all of us. In a personal level, we were thinking about having a kid and the issue was "to leave or not to leave" (note: because a lot of professionals were emigrating, principally to Spain). So when we decided to stay, we also decided we had to do something in our professional life about what was going on in the country. Cartoneros were recovering trash and selling it for a very low price in that time, so it occurred to us that with some design, they could get a better price for their work, A friend of us, designer Alejandro Sarmiento, one day came with an idea: the same way people used to cut leather strings, you could work with PET bottles. So we called design students to come up with products with this material, and we presented the idea in the Metropolitan Design Center (note: a government institute that supports design initiatives and always has fairs). It had a big impact among designers and also among housewives and unemployed people, who were looking for a way to make a living. After two years of negotiations, Argentinean Coca Cola decided to endorse the project and supported some workshops in very poor neighborhoods. With the PET program, we also taught about micro entrepreneurships, reading and writing. Nowadays we have one workshop still functioning but we don't have formal sales because the product doesn't have enough quality (as the workers don't have proper sewing machines). Plus, the Coca Cola program ended, so we're trying to figure out a sales program.

TH: -Who was involved in the project?
LL: -We're partners with Alejandro in everything, but I was mainly the one who took part in the implementation. I prepared the teachers, went to the classes. It's a very tough experience, but also beautiful. Even though you're teaching these people a technique, you find yourself before a mother with a baby that hasn't eaten, or a woman who asks you how she can have time to work and do the housework. Things that have to do with human contention and go beyond a designer or instructor's duties. Another thing I learned was the conscience of how long this type of projects last. It takes a lot of time to form and teach a group how to work, and with people in need you have to take into account things like weather: if it's raining or they had a blackout at home, they can't make it to the class.

TH: -What drove you to go on?
LL: -The feeling that I was doing something different, and that I really was throwing in my two cents. Besides that, things like a lady coming to me and saying: "thanks for teaching these classes, they are three hours in which my kids are out of the street. Now the smaller ones see that their brothers are doing nice things with the bottles and realize they can do it too". I guess the most important thing is to change that point of view: it's not a bottle anymore, it's something yours that can be turned into something else. The workshops change their point of view; they raise their self-esteem and help them solve house issues. They have a group they belong to, where they feel important. In the last chat we have with the kids that participate in the workshops we try to show them they are an example to other kids, and that's powerful. I guess that was what got to me the most.

TH: -So how did it continue from there?
LL: -We already had an area in the studio dedicated to investigation, and after that experience we decided we were going to focus in those two issues: recovered materials and social responsibility. That's how Scraplab was born. After that, we started investigating different materials leftovers like TetraPack, rubber and leather, and we found a technique that starts with the cut of a special shape that can be then knitted into a fabric. This fabric can be used to produce different elements: we made a lamp, a carpet and cushions. But the pattern is the product itself. Now the idea is to work with communities to produce, but we have to figure out how. What I like about this project is that it's available for blind or challenged people, and also for support groups, because manual activities make people relax, talk about their problems. We've presented the technique and we received offers from people and organizations, so I guess in a few months we'll have products for sale. The problem is it is one thing to do this as a marketing strategy, and another very different one to try and do it as a social project. We can have machines producing this, but we really want it to be a social help.

TH: -How did you first become interested in working with recovered materials?
MF: -Over 15 years ago, when a friend and I opened a shop where we would sell lamps, tables and jewelry mainly from auto parts. But what I find most important of the work we're doing now is that we don't design objects, but processes. We're developing tools for people to come up with products. They're easy to use and they don't require installations or energy. It's an equation where everyone wins: people, ecology and us.

Though Scraplab doesn't have products on the market yet, they hope to have some by March. They're actually looking for partners, so if you're interested contact the designers at laboratorio at friedenbach dot com or -better yet, as mail replies are slow- call them at .


Pencil case covered with knitted recycled leather.

First picture: the knitting process, with recycled rubber.
Second: a recycled leather cushion.
Third: a recycled tetrapacks lamp.

Tags: Argentina | Buenos Aires

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