Designing for Repair: Things Can Be Fixed
Good fixers think like designers, and it’s clear that designers need to think more like fixers, too.
Critical design is a contested territory, an often-nebulous arena of thought experiments fraught with equal parts moralizing and optimism. Some designers have co-opted the mantle of critical design for self-promotional or marketing purposes, muddying the waters further. In other cases, like at The Agency of Design in London, ambitious, idealistic young designers are tackling real problems in materials, energy, and waste with fully functional prototypes. Themes in critical design such as designing for repair, designing for failure, and designing for “cradle-to-cradle” type life cycles will be considered with a special emphasis on explaining why these issues are frequently taken up by unique critical designs, prototypes, and small-run bespoke objects but only rarely dealt with in real-world, mass produced products.
The Optimist toaster, by The Agency of Design, features a heavy, cast-aluminum shell fitted with a manually operated industrial-quality odometer, and cleverly uses side-mounted trap doors to allow the toaster to function without moving parts, aside from the timer. These doors recall a historical cul-de-sac of the toaster’s formal evolution, which was prevalent from the late 19th century and only abandoned in the 1970s: the “tipper” style, which functioned in a similar way. Each Optimist casting incorporates the specific date of the toaster’s manufacture. Should a heating element or anything else inside break down at some point, the machine is designed so as to be easily—but not too easily, as it requires hex keys—disassembled, and be as simple as possible to repair. Everything necessary would be available at your local hardware store, with a little luck. This is a toaster designed to last a lifetime, or possibly even longer—it’s timelessly styled and attractive enough to become an heirloom, assuming one’s progeny retain something of today’s fondness for industrial chic.
The odometer goes to five places, so assuming a vigorous English family runs three toast cycles per day, seven days a week, it will keep stolid track for about 100 years. Should the grandkids decide they’re sick of the thing, aluminum is fully recyclable, with no downgrading problem.1 That our present system of recycling has deep issues of its own, dependent as it is on huge amounts of cheap electricity that comes largely from combusting fossil fuels, is another story. The Optimist would also be very expensive, at least initially, but cheaper to own overall than the five (or ten, or twenty, if all goes right), fifty-dollar toasters it stands to outlast over the course of its life. Adam Paterson told me that he and his partners at The Agency of Design hope to undertake small-scale production of the Optimist privately—an artisanal toaster, if you will.
Most things can be designed so as to be fixable, albeit some more easily or sensibly than others. The fact that they’re not is another harbinger of a socioeconomic paradigm that is obviously beginning to fray at the edges. Good fixers think like designers, and it’s clear that designers need to think more like fixers, too. As for the rest of us—consumers, users, people, whatever—choosing to fix our toasters, along with many of the rest of our things, is different than buying recycled-content toilet paper or choosing a Prius over a Tahoe (hybrid or conventional). Overcoming the “optionalness” of repair that contemporary mass-consumer culture presents us with is not effortless, but it is achievable. Even though we might not all be equipped, either with the skills or the tools, to take on fixing our own belongings, choosing to have them fixed for us instead of throwing them away can have powerful implications: repair can represent an easy “lifestyle” choice to make.
- Aesthetic obsolescence is inescapably real, but it takes a courageous product designer to publically admit this, in the arena of high-end and luxury goods. ↩