Interview with Alex Valich of Redstr/Collective
[This interview was conducted by guest fashion/design-contributor Eviana Hartman. -Ed] Alex Valich will admit he’s a designer first, an environmentalist second. redstr/collective, the Williamsburg, Brooklyn-based studio Valich founded with partner Christine Warren, crafts humorous pieces that subvert traditional forms both baroque and utilitarian. It also happens to be responsible for some of the best green product design on the market, using materials ranging from sunflower seed board to Plyboo to used PET bottles. At HauteGreen, the duo will exhibit a rug made from scraps from the latest collection of the British fashion design duo Boudicca. Eviana Hartman talks to Valich about the challenges inherent in designing green.
When did you decide to incorporate green materials into your work?
Christine and I have felt since the beginning that it was important to be as responsible as you could without getting crazy.What do you mean by crazy?
Well, just like, ‘I won’t do anything that’s not eco.’ That’s a little ridiculous, I think. Um, and it’s also just impossible. We’re very interested in new materials and technologies. A lot of the new materials happen to be eco-friendly. If you’re going to be someone who produces stuff, you want to do stuff that is designed well enough and is good enough and is timeless enough that people don’t throw it into the landfill.
Explain the concept behind your Boudicca scrap rug.
They gave us their scraps from their fall collection, and we basically designed a rug around the look, if you will. Boudicca was named after this great Celtic priestess warrior, and we did this Celtic design. These are rugs that could be made for fashion companies to have in their corporate offices.
Boudicca used Ingeo in that collection. Did that make it into the rug?
That was the other thing that was really cool. The problem was that we didn’t get that part of the scraps until it was too late.
Do you believe in the idea of a green aesthetic?
There was this whole thing where you could tell something was made from recycled bottles or a bunch of tires stacked together. But now it’s kind of become more a rehash of mid-century modern. They’re just being like, ‘oh, I made it out of plyboo so it’s green.’ But if it’s not really that interesting as a design piece, it doesn’t matter what you made it out of. It’s going to get thrown out in five years if the person’s sick of it.
But do you design form around the material, or vice versa?
We try to do our concept-driven design, and then we try to use green material. It just depends on what kind of designer you want to be. I can’t compromise that vision based on whether eco material is available or not. If it’s available, we’ll definitely go for it, but I mean if it’s not there, I just can’t do it. But I make sure I’m designing something that people can have for years. The other thing we try to do is space-saving design. I think we’re wasteful with real estate. Like, ‘Oh, I need to have a 2000-square-foot apartment and I’m a single male with a little dog.’ No you don’t!
Your concepts do often reflect the idea of re-use, both materially and metaphorically.
We kind of look at ourselves as DJs of design: We kind of sample and mix all different sources together to come up with something new. A lot of times that requires either recycling byproducts of materials or even recycling ideas. Which I think is the most avant-garde form of recycling.
What have your experiences been with some of the green materials you’ve used?
We use Plyboo, which is great. It cuts really well, it sands good, and all you have to do is put a little eco-friendly oil finish. We used sunflower board to replicate a granite type of look and it was perfect for that. We use a lot of wheatboard: It’s lightweight, and it paints pretty well.
What about Environ, the recycled paper board used in your Spinderella Table?
Actually, it sucks. I’ll be honest. They stopped manufacturing it. It was an interesting product and we were really excited about it and bought a lot of it. Not only is it eco-friendly, but those tables are technically endangered species [laughs].
What was wrong with it?
It was a little unstable. Because it’s made of office paper, staples would show up in it. Our guys would cut it and it would ruin their bit and that’s a 200-dollar charge I have to pay. To finish it, you have to kind of varnish it to death because the paper just soaks it up. There is eco-friendly varnish but it wouldn’t work on this particular product. When it wasn’t finished it looked really dry and dusty-looking, and if you put a sweating soda can on it, it just sucked it up and expanded.
What steps have you taken to make your studio sustainable?
We use energy-efficient lightbulbs. We try to run our equipment a little as possible.
We try to use eco-finishes. We try to extend our supplies as much as possible—for financial reasons as well. In our packaging we use recycled kraft paper and we don’t get it offset-printed—we silkscreen it ourselves with water-based ink. Offset printing is one thing I’m little semi-against in a way. The quality of work doesn’t look good. And it’s funny, but it smells bad. If you ever buy Metropolis and you actually stick your nose in it—like, it makes me nauseous.
How much more expensive is it to use green materials?
Let’s use Plyboo as an example. It does cost me 200 bucks a sheet to buy it, whereas for a nice plywood I might pay 100 dollars a sheet, but that nice plywood I’d probably have to spend a lot more money on the finish. It’s pretty cost-effective. I don’t feel guilty about having a coffee table that retails for 700 dollars because of the way it looks. The wheatboard used to be more expensive, and now that the price is down I’m happy to use it. We tried to get certified wood as often as possible. It costs a bit more but it’s worth it. Like, lightweight MDM is nasty stuff. I got an eye infection from one project. It’s essentially glue with a really fine dust. If you can imagine that being cut, you’re refining refined stuff, and God knows where it came from. That’s what’s kind of nice about using the wheatboard as a substrate. I mean, your shop might smell like baked bread.
What advice would you give to aspiring green designers?
A lot of the products are technically green, but what goes into manufacturing them isn’t. Research not only what the material is, but how you’re going to need to finish it and cut it. If the thing is impossible to cut, you have to use lots of power on the machine to cut it. We thought OSB [oriented strand board] was a great product. The wood is from a sustainable forest—that’s how they pimp the product. And then we found out the glues they use are totally not eco-friendly. We sold 500 OSB crates in a year and a half, and we had to stop. I was getting headaches and I was getting sick from it. It’s like, ‘okay, we’ll kill a baby seal.’ [Laughs] It’s close to that bad. Like, ‘oh, you’ll get cancer from this, but it’s fine.’
[This has been a guest post by Eviana Hartman. -Ed.]
Photo of Alex and Christine: Olivia Barr