Good Design Shouldn't Be a Luxury


Brno-based designer Josef Rozehnal is a friend whom I appreciate not only for his passionate upcycling vision or his boundless creativity when turning our old auto-repair shed into something resembling an actual winery; I mainly enjoy how he always comes up with interesting questions, pushing me to search for genuine answers. So this time, we switched sides and made Josef the first "hypha" of our Mycorrhiza, a series of interviews with people beyond the wine world whose work I enjoy and get inspired by. 

I love synergies, overlaps, cross-pollination with people outside of my field/country/culture/usual mind patterns. In fact, I make wine partly because it's a proven and user-friendly way to reach such people, and I enjoy this sprawling creative network and its exciting flow of new ideas and concepts. So much so that I wanted to share it with other people, too. So, Mycorrhiza* was born – a series of interviews with inspiring people across different industries, giving each other new impulses and "nutrients". I don't know who is the fungus and who is the plant in this metaphor, but I'm 100% positive that this symbiotic exchange is just as essential to our lives as the one taking place in the soil beneath our feet.

Our first such symbiont is designer Josef Rozehnal, the founder, manpower and brain behind Nahaku Studio and a tireless promoter of upcycling (= reusing discarded objects or material in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original). Among other things, Josef is the designer of Chateau Nestarec's gradual remodelling – the "sedimenting" walls and the painted floor of our tank hall as well as the lighting fixtures made from our old vats in our Betonarka event space were all born in his mind. But Josef is mainly a friend who often asks us interesting questions that make us search for interesting answers. So, we directed the questions at him, for once – about working with big companies, greenwashing, or “playing with waste”.

Words Milan Nestarec & Lucie Kohoutová / Pics Josef's and Milan's archive

How could the wine industry make more use of upcycling?

Probably by washing bottles, which isn't happening, but that's really just recycling anyways... Cosmetics! If the winemaker doesn't use pesticides and other chemicals, the grapes produce a very "clean" waste, which I guess might be suitable for cosmetics. The dm-drogerie drugstore chain has recently launched a new range of products reusing secondary raw materials from the food industry, such as orange peels, etc., and I was very pleased to see that.

Do you ever encounter prejudice due to your focus on upcycling?

Nowadays we are mainly approached by clients who know what kind of work we do, but I still do get some recurring concerns, even from architects, such as if the result will look, erm, I wouldn't say expensive, but noble, since it is made from waste. Maybe it comes from the negative connotations associated with the term, waste. But the repurposed material can actually be extremely valuable, it might just be a cut-off part of a larger ensemble, or the leftovers from cutting out the primary products that we then use creatively.

Indeed, I recall a recent conversation with a restaurateur friend about a similar issue – they are trying to make their restaurants as zero-waste as possible, which of course makes perfect sense because they use quality raw materials and rightfully want to process them in the most efficient way, out of respect for the ingredient. Yet we both felt that you have to be careful about how you talk about it because you don't want your customers to feel like you're feeding them waste.

I like to look for parallels between cooking and design as both are close to my heart. I even used to earn my living by cooking for a while – when we started the studio, I'd work on Nahaku stuff during the day and cook at night, which was pretty hardcore... but I enjoyed it. In both fields, you're working with a certain raw material, and there's fundamental skill involved. You can have the noblest of ingredients, but if it falls into the hands of a moron, they'll going to ruin it. You simply need to know and master how to process it, whether it's fish or brass. Another extremely similar trait is the importance of proportions, of scale. When you're making a Bundt cake, there has to be some ratio of oil to flour for it to work, and likewise in design – the result won't be good if an element dominates when it shouldn't. It's all about composition, having a balance.

Speaking of cooking – do you have an established "recipe" for your creative process, or does your design usually start with, hyperbolically speaking, a piece of drain pipe?

More like the piece of drain pipe [laughs]. Our atelier is a kind of material lab – it houses many variations of different materials and components, so we try different possibilities, and we play around. For us, the material is always key, and because it's a waste material, it has certain properties and limits that are quite interesting to look at, or to apply processing methods from other industries.

So yes, it all stems from the material. It has to be interesting, for example visually or quality-wise. And for this whole affair to make environmental and business sense, the material has to be (by-)produced repeatedly and in a certain quantity, because that's the only way it can be turned into a product design that will be mass-produced and therefore have some real impact on the environment.

I was just wondering, can upcycling ever gain enough momentum and the critical mass of customers in order to have a real environmental impact?

Only when the finished product is mass-produced, thus cheaper and available to everyone, so it will sell more and thus a big enough volume of waste material will get processed. There's an educational aspect to what I do – not that I want to lecture anyone, but it's important to promote these topics so that more people, mainly those in a position to foster change, start to think about them. For example, it's important to implant upcycling already into primary production. Even if you create a disposable product, it may already have a clearly defined second life cycle. I.e. once it has exhausted/fulfilled its primary purpose, and for various reasons, usually due to logistics, it doesn't get reused, its planned second life begins. And the ideal I try to reach is that the product is already originally produced in a way that makes this transition into the "afterlife" as smooth as possible.

I'm now working on a cool pilot project with the legendary Pilsner Urquell brewery, whose craft beer sub-brand called Proud plans to supply cafes with beer conditioned in small disposable Key kegs. We're talking tens of thousands of units, ie. tons of material that can't be recycled, although the Key keg is often misrepresented as something you squeeze and throw in the plastics bin. This is bullshit because it's actually composite and therefore not recyclable. However, it is possible to give it a second life by upcycling. So, for the past 3 years, we've been fine-tuning the process of transforming these kegs, once used, into the most functional, simple, and affordable light fixture possible. The point of what I'm doing is to show that it can be done, you just need a certain mindset.

Also, this type of packaging is quite costly, so I'd be simply annoyed to see it discarded. We're actually creating a circular deposit system of sorts, where we encourage people to keep and return the packaging instead of just throwing it away. That's also why I'm working with Proud – they have a logistics network set up, an indispensable feature of this project that would be impossible to handle on my own.

Pilsner Urquell is a brand that has a lot of weight and credit, so I suppose it's also easier for them to convince the customers to cooperate.

Absolutely. That's also why I work with other established brands like the furniture maker TON, O2 network operator, Moet-Chandon, or Mattoni mineral water. Working with the big players allows us to reach as many people as possible. And at the same time, they're operating in volumes of material that I'm looking for, that can make a difference.

Do you get any diss for that? I sometimes get the impression that the art and design scene condemns these collabs as being a sell-out. Which is a shame to me, since this approach might mean that potentially meaningful projects are unnecessarily restricted to small / DIY volumes, therefore their chances of reaching that critical mass and creating a real change are minimal.

Exactly – why shouldn't quality products be sold to as many people as possible? Design is not supposed to be a luxury. I know that's the perception here, but design is above all supposed to be functional and serve well. This pen is design, your car's door handle is design, everything is design! It can be good or bad, but design is an inherent part of any product, always.

At the same time, it's true that for some brands, partaking in such initiatives might be more about greenwashing than having a real will to change.

I'm not naive, I know that everyone is trying to ride the sustainability wave right now. Sure, I don't find that ethical, especially when companies are making outright false claims, but on the other hand, I feel like it still does a lot for popularising the issue. Most of the greenwashing is done by the big corporations that reach the most people. If Nestlé, even on a dubious basis, says that sustainability is important, or Coca-Cola uses green bottle caps, it makes people think, even those who might not otherwise have been reached. Sure, 70 percent of them still won't care or will dismiss it as some green bullshit, but I still see an upside in the 30 percent who might start thinking about it.

What do you enjoy about working with Nestarec?

We're both quick to pivot, to change things on the fly. Milan also uses a rather unusual kind of building, we're converting a tin shed into a winery, ie. a specific type of operation where you have to think about how best to organise it and create a natural flow. I enjoy the big scale too – there are so many surfaces where one can let loose! Such as the facade design we're working on now.

Perhaps most of all, I love that Milan is not afraid to go for unconventional solutions that make fun of himself or his industry. He doesn't take himself seriously, and I find that great in a business where, just like in mine, one often encounters big egos and self-aggrandizing antics. I really see a certain similarity between winemakers and architects or designers – yes, they're important crafts, but let's be real, they're redundant. When/if the shit really hits the fan, people won't be drinking expensive wine and building lavish houses, they'll have more important matters to deal with. [laughs]

Do you consider wine an art?

Absolutely, just like every well-mastered craft is an art to me.

Can beauty have an impact on our environment and our thinking?

I'm 100% positive that surroundings can cultivate people. The things we are surrounded by have what I call a "frequency" based on their quality and values, not only aesthetic but also ethical and emotional. I hope I don't come across as some sort of new-age looney, but I believe that when we imprint the best of ourselves on something, it remains and permeates through the object. And if you pass by it a hundred times and every time you smile, or if you associate it with something pleasant because it is, for example, a nice gift from a friend, it definitely has an effect.

Do you think that if something is out of the norm or out of the established order, it's automatically better?

Absolutely not. Not all shit that breaks the rules is automatically good. In fact, there's a lot of nonsense being created around us, for example, this ubiquitous trend of pouring epoxy resin over wood, a complete misuse of the material as far as I'm concerned.

In line with the metaphor of mycorrhiza that inspired us to start these conversations, is there someone you'd like to see continue this network? Nominate our next symbiont!

Hmmm... how about Timo, the Brno-based street artist? I like his view of the world, and his quips on work and our society that are always fucking entertaining. And he's great to talk to, he's an interesting thinker.

*Mycorrhiza is a mutualistic association between fungi and plant roots that exists in almost all plants. The plant supports the fungus by providing carbohydrates needed for fungal growth, while the fungus helps the plant by increasing its root surface area The importance of mycorrhiza has long been underestimated, but recently it has been shown that 70-90% of all plants are mycorrhizal. Therefore, mycorrhiza has a very large impact on plant life.

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