"Weird Eco Habits" Winner: John T. Unger

Congratulations to the winner of our "Weird Eco Habits" contest: John T. Unger and his Eco-BDSM. The voting was close, though, with John edging out Brad Hole's Urban Chicken Coop my a mere three votes! We would like to thank John, Brad, the other finalists, and everyone who entered for making this a truly fun contest. For winning, John will come away with a Vy and Elle bag and Loomstate T-shirt from our friends at Greenloop. Please show Greenloop your support by checking out their site. And now, everything you wanted to know about the creation of eco-bdsm, but were afraid to ask - we have a quick Q&A; with our contest winner: John T. Unger.
Why do you think people respond as they do to something like eco-bdsm?

There are a few reasons that the response has been so high. Part of it is that the design quality is very high, but that really accounts for the smallest part of the response.

A large part of the appeal is that the products challenge people to look past stereotypes: common perception of the sustainable design community might seem at odds with something like BDSM. By introducing recycled products which are a bit edgier than people expect, I hope to help people think beyond preconceived notions. As it turns out, everyone I've talked to so far in the BDSM community has been very open, friendly and articulate. Had I gone in with a standard notion of dark, spooky people, I would have been very surprised. I'm a big fan of the work of the Sustainable Style Foundation. Their notion of making sustainability sexy is so much better than trying to inspire by guilt. I'm just taking it to a bit of an extreme.

What people respond to most is the humor and irony of the product -- I mean, how often do you get to talk about sustainability and kinky sex in the same headline? And that's okay too. It's healthy to be able to step back and take a lighter view of some serious issues once in a while.

How long did it take you to come up with the idea for "Burning
Rubber"? How long did it take for it to go from idea to production?

The initial idea, like most, was semi-instant. I had been thinking all week about ways to use tire material. A friend who designs furniture mentioned he was considering making spanking paddles from his wood scrap, and Bang, there it was. At first, I just thought that it was a humorous idea, but the more I looked at it, the more I knew that it would appeal very strongly to people. The materials have some heavy sex appeal, and the tread marks left by the paddles offer something new to the market. I went forward with the project as soon as I was able to scare up enough capital to invest in materials and tools.

The design process was very intensive. I wanted a quality product, not just a novelty item. So the first step was to learn as much as I could about impact toys, how they're used, what kinds of different effects are created by various materials and so on. If I was gonna make spanking toys, I wanted them to really meet the needs of the BDSM community.

Sourcing the materials took a long time... I started with used tire material, but it proved unsuitable in a number of ways: the tread was too worn, the radial belting was hard to cut and stuck out the edges in a way that could cut people. There were health issues with dirt on the used tires. And finally, even when cut to size, used tires curve on both axes, so it was impossible to get them to lay flat for paddles or to flex freely for floggers. The project came to halt for a few months while I tried to think of a way to overcome these obstacles.

Finally it occurred to me to use retread rubber. I assumed that would mean all-new material, but I lucked out and found a source for factory seconds and waste which would otherwise be landfilled. So now the rubber is new, clean, safe, and doesn't have any of the curving or cutting issues. Also nice is the fact that much of the rubber content in retread material is recycled from used tires.

I learned all kinds of amazing stuff during the sourcing process, talking to designers, engineers, lab techs, street sign makers at the Dept. of Transportation. It turns out that when Bill Bowerman was working on the first Nike prototypes, he did a lot of the work on treads at the same place that supplies my materials.

I went through about a dozen different prototypes to make what I consider to be the ideal product. Each version has been designed to minimize waste in the production process, speed production and improve the appearance and functionality of the design. I believe in designing objects that are durable and beautiful for as long as possible, reducing the cycle of waste, so it was very important to engineer the paddles to be able to hold up to pretty heavy use. I'm sure that as time goes by and I get more feedback I'll be able to make yet more improvements to the designs.

Why use the rubber for eco-bdsm?

Well, cutting down on wooden paddles does save trees. But, really, it was partly a response to the huge problem of waste tires and partly the realization that black rubber would have a huge appeal in this niche market. The fact that the treads leave tire track welts is really cool from both a visual and sensation angle. Rubber has a long history in the fetish scene… it has a taste, a smell and a feel that sets it apart from other materials. When used to make spanking toys, rubber is great because it's firm yet flexible and tends to "grab" at the skin on impact, making it very effective at reddening the skin.

Why do you think it is important for people to support sustainable/reclaimed design?

There are so many reasons... The most obvious is that we just can't afford to be spendthrifts with the biosphere. As an artist and designer, in order to make my living, I'm continually adding more stuff to the world and encouraging people to buy it. I offset that by maximizing my use of recycled content, minimizing my own production waste and designing for permanence. I feel very strongly about minimizing my impact on the environment.

Beyond that, I enjoy the creativity of designing for recycled content. Sometimes existing objects taken out of context can provide a lot of metaphoric depth. An example of this would be my Great Bowl O Fire made from scrapped propane tanks. Using a torch to cut flame designs into a tank that held flammable gas in order to hold bonfires has a kind of layered meaning that really appeals to me.

On the other hand, when I can create work that is so refined that the recycled content is invisble, it may reach out to consumers who are less concerned with the process than the product. This encourages green consumption even without education or politics entering into the decision. When that happens, it may open a door to better consumption habits down the road.

Any future plans for this line or other related products?

I will be definitely be adding new products to the BadAss Paddle line over time. I'd like to expand into wholesale in 2006, and the rep who will be carrying the work has advised me that I need 12-15 items in order to seriously market the work to retail stores. Some of the items I will be adding include bondage restraints and collars, more variations on impact toys (rubber crops, whips, cats, slappers and straps), and possibly some bondage furniture.

Beyond that, almost all of my work includes a high percentage of recycled or reused material. On average, I'd say about 90 percent of my materials are reused or recycled, and the other 10 percent are new materials that often include recycled content. Because working with
recycled and reused material is such a strong part of my design process, I anticipate that sustainability will always be one of my prime concerns.

Anything else you would like to say to the TreeHugger audience

I would love to invite readers to check out some of my other work on my blog (http://www.johntunger.typepad.com/) and website(http://www.johntunger.com). A lot of my work which is less controversial, or has a broader appeal may be just what the Treehugger audience is looking for.

And also, I'd like to thank the readers for voting kinky!

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