In January 2018, Vanessa Yuan and Joris Vanbriel debuted ecoBirdy at Maison & Objet in Paris. It was one of the most talked-about launches—a collection of colorful, kid-sized furniture made from recycled plastic toys. The project had been two years in the making—involving intense research into plastic, plastic toys, and their recyclability—and was accompanied by a children’s book designed to introduce young people to ideas around a circular economy and sustainable future.
Prior to ecoBirdy, Yuan and Vanbriel had worked in design and fashion, but after several years they found themselves wondering why they were creating something new if so much good design already existed? Their response, ecoBirdy, is an answer to current needs facing the world today.
WHITEWALL: What was your inspiration, in terms of design and aesthetic, for the chairs, table, lamps, and container?
VANESSA YUAN & JORIS VANBRIEL: For Charlie Chair and Luisa Table, the first idea was to make a functional and ultra-comfortable furniture set for kids. Secondly, we wanted the look of our kids’ furniture to match to elegant and modern interior design. The shapes of our chairs and table are visually recognized by their functions, a comfortable seat and an easy-to-use table.
For the Rhino Lamp and Kiwi Container, the idea was to draw attention on the endangered animal species. The shapes are rather abstract and subtle.
WW: Why did you choose to keep the bits of recycled plastic visible?
VY & JV: The speckled look in our product was chosen not only for aesthetical reasons, but also to make our furniture pieces visible results of recycling. Each piece is unique, the colors would never be equal, some may not be perfect. But by understanding the meaning and its making of, we believe people could discover the beauty in the imperfection. It might be confronting and also changing the perception of treating waste and how we live.
WW: You developed ecothylene, a unique material for ecoBirdy, which means there is no need to add pigmentation or resin. What are the properties of ecothylene?
VY & JV: Ecothylene® is the outcome of our research on how to sustainably recycle plastic toys, products known as difficult to recycle. The usual look for recycled plastic is grayish, dullish, and not very attractive. Our aim was to change this and make something colorful out of the colorful plastic waste.
The smooth surface of the material makes it easy to clean and maintain, while it’s lightweight makes it easy to move. Ecothylene allows products to be made in one piece and guarantees high strength and robustness. The recycled plastic used to produce ecothylene is accurate sorted plastic and 100 percent recyclable. This means that ecothylene can easily be recycled again by any plastic recycler.
We don’t use any additional pigments to color ecothylene. Instead, we chose to keep the source material visible. This is done on purpose and emphasizes the beauty of its pattern.
A significant amount of energy is saved compared to other production processes.
WW: The collection is also accompanied by a storybook and school program. Why is that important for you, to introduce young people the story behind the design?
VY & JV: Social and environmental responsibility is important for us. It was part of our business idea to collect discarded plastic toys. We could have shown kids some images of plastic floating in the sea, but it wouldn’t be so touching as when we tell them about the toys, something they know very well. The storybook, Journey to a New Life, is inspired by real life and research data. It is not only a story about waste, but a process of facing problems and finding solutions.
We really hope, besides the aesthetic and functionality, the entire story of ecoBirdy could inspire the younger generation with the concept of circular design and sustainability. We believe we need to start from the youth; it is important to change the future they would be living in.
WW: How is the current global health crisis impacting the way you think about your role as a designer, especially in relation to sustainability?
VY & JV: Both quarantine and keeping social distances are new life experiences for most people. As a big part of designer’s job is making improvement on our society and lifestyle, this circumstance is definitely inspiring.
Many reports show that when human activities decrease, our mother nature gets healthier. I think we have been given the opportunity to understand how important that is, finding a balance between convenience of human life and our ecosystem. If we apply the idea of living on primary essentials to the rest of our life, good, meaningful, and sustainable design are more important than ever.