At Organelle Design, repurposed objects light up a creative cool
It doesn’t look like a lab, at least not on the outside, but that’s effectively what it is. From the sidewalk of the tree-lined East Vancouver avenue where it’s situated, the home that Alex Witko and Courtney Hunt share with an assortment of housemates doesn’t appear different from any of its neighbours. But it’s a safe bet that most of the other houses on this street don’t have carports stacked to the rafters with a jumble of ancient school chairs, disassembled library shelving, and the skeletal remains of long-dead bicycles. Witko and Hunt are the principals of Organelle Design, and their home is a living laboratory where they conduct experiments in industrial design and incorporate the results into their day-to-day lives.
Hence the light fixtures illuminating their dining room, which are made of old bike parts and brand-new wooden coat hangers, everything neatly held together with plastic zap straps. Repurposing materials both new and salvaged in unexpected ways is central to Organelle’s practice. “We spend a lot of time in the alley, walking through random neighbourhoods in Vancouver, and have certainly found a ton of stuff,” says Witko, interviewed alongside Hunt at their dinner table. “At first we were kind of overwhelmed by the amount of waste that is out there, that’s just available.”
Of course, making objects that are as aesthetically appealing and functional as the aforementioned Hangelier isn’t simply a matter of gleaning trash from laneways, and that’s where the lab work comes in. “It became very clear, after lots of trial and error, that you’d be foolish to think that you could just pick up a couple of things from alley A, B, and C and somehow mash them together and come up with something beautiful,” Witko explains. “And in fact, a lot of the time in our work is spent trying to find out what that interface is between different materials.”
Given their methodical approach, it’s something of a surprise to learn that Hunt and Witko didn’t set out to become industrial designers at all. Both are recent university graduates with degrees in architecture (Witko) and environmental design (Hunt) who quickly encountered a distinct lack of opportunities that lived up to their grand ambitions. As Witko wryly notes, “Not too many young architects get to design monumental buildings fresh out of school, certainly not in North America.”
So the two have channelled their energies into, as Witko puts it, “making things”. Their business got a major boost when they became involved in one high-profile venture: Lu’s: A Pharmacy for Women, at 29 West Hastings Street. “It was a project where the UBC school of architecture worked with the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective to design the interior of a pharmacy,” Hunt says. “As a studio, we were asked to come in at the end and help design a bench for the reception area, and chandeliers.”
For the former, Organelle connected a number of found chairs via a painted plywood bench that snakes between their front and back legs. The lighting includes Hangeliers, pendant lights fashioned from metal colanders, and hanging lamps made by fastening plastic water bottles to a chicken-wire grid mounted on bike rims.
At present, none of the above is available at the retail level, but Organelle is selling the wooden Hangelier and its plastic-hanger cousin through the DIY Web sites Etsy and Supermarket. The studio does intend to get its products into stores, though, and Witko is keen to change the perception that found-material pieces are folk art and not serious design works.
“We’re interested in seeing how we can marry good modern or contemporary design and the found-object ethos in a way that can be appreciated by a wider audience,” he says. “I don’t think we’re interested in just having a niche aesthetic.”