6 min read

By Prof. Dr. Uwe Demele.

Increasing demands are being placed on living and working spaces. Aspects of both technical functionality and well-being now need to be compatible with networked, personalised equipment in the context of “smart environments”, while at the same time taking into account healthy living and the ecological sustainability of all furnishings and building materials. So what can we learn from high-quality craftsmanship and iconic designs?

This approach to interior design draws on the strategies that form what is known as the circular economy. Arranged according to the ascending circularity of value creation, these are: recover, recycle, repurpose, remanufacture, refurbish, repair, reuse, reduce, rethink and refuse. Preference is given to locally sourced, non-toxic and renewable natural resources in order to achieve good eco-efficiency and a healthy indoor environment. Transport routes are shortened to keep emissions low. Some examples include the use of local woods for interior finishing, or loam for plastering walls. Recycling and upcycling concepts are also becoming more widespread. These are intended to deal with shortage problems by bringing items such as furniture – or their components – back into the material value chain after they have been used. By reusing materials and extending their life cycles to the full possible extent, the aim is to keep products in service for as long as possible instead of simply dumping or burning them.

These ideas are based on the principle of using existing resources more carefully, which in turn is motivated both ecologically and financially. In circular construction and furnishing concepts the material and energy cycles are guided by nature, but in a way that goes much further than the purely bionic approach. The logic behind this is as simple as it is conclusive; in natural ecosystems there is neither waste nor wastefulness (an analogy is the cradle-to-cradle principle). The cycles remain stable in the long term, and they do no harm to the entities involved. From the point of view of sustainability, it is only logical to extend this concept and apply it systematically to the design of our facilities; as a result, buildings and interior fittings will automatically be of high quality, made to last. Master craftsmen have always been committed to this ideal, and we can learn a lot for the future by looking at what they did in the past.

Example of upcycling for an office: teak desk by Svend Aage Madsen refurbished according to strict ecological criteria, using raffia, with a reupholstered chair
© Workplace / Prof. Dr. Uwe Demele

Iconic designs as role models 

Iconic designs are prime examples of the circular working and living environment, because the design strategies, materials and manufacturing processes used to produce them are geared towards longevity right from the outset. Which is why it is worth upcycling and reusing these objects.

Critical to success when upcycling design classics is not only the treatment of wood, plastic and metal surfaces, but also the choice of suitable materials for long-lasting upholstery. A mix of classic and high-tech textiles has proven valuable. Vegan textiles made from pineapple, wine, cellulose, Lyocell fibres, nettles, water hyacinths, hemp, organic cotton and linen have been tried and proven. Textiles made from sheep’s wool, milk protein fibres, fish skin or even recycled plastic retrieved from the oceans are also being put to use.

Example of upcycling for residential and business premises:
two Danish easy chairs by H. Brockmann Pedersen from the 1960s, upholstered with sustainably produced wool fabric.

Discovering modern furniture and product design

The annual Design Börse Berlin is a source of inspiration for creating high-quality living and working environments using original vintage design classics. This year the event will be held from 15 to 17 November in the Löwe-Saal at Wiebestraße 42, 10553 Berlin. Visitors will have the opportunity to see what the international design market has to offer on 2000 m² of exhibition space.

Spaces of the future – for digital and sustainable transformation

Academia is helping us along the way to sustainable space concepts by conducting research into sustainable design strategies and business models combined with digital technologies. Our current awareness of values also makes it clear that ethical demands are being asserted in a symbiosis of digitalisation and sustainability. Digital technologies are also stimulating materials research. Rapid prototyping processes can now be used to produce a large number of components and furnishings. And manufacturing costs are further reduced by smart production processes.

Furniture components (for upcycling, for example) or even whole items of furniture can be easily produced from biopolymers using 3D printing. Smarter city logistics solutions are shortening transport distances.  Digital platforms also enable us to put into practice the idea of sharing and caring. This means that people who are enthusiastic about sustainable space concepts can connect with each other in real time. Smart Stores complete these transformation processes. Sustainable shopping based on the platform economy making use of apps, information and feedback loops to optimise the creation of circular value; all of this is already a reality, as are the possibilities afforded by smart living and working.

Data flow in the smart home and workplace

In the future it will be possible to create whole worlds of experience. To what extent you want to engage with this, though, is another question. Familiar buzzwords here are IoT, furniture robots, artificial intelligence, for example in the sense of an “emotive coach” (to assess the human condition in the space through self-learning algorithms) or augmented and virtual reality, for generating interior arrangements via an app with corresponding spatial simulations. Artificial intelligence can also play a significant role in furniture production by serving as a link between designers and machine learning systems.

However, apart from smart applications, the use of digital components is mostly relevant for the manufacturing and design processes, where there is greater potential and need for optimisation. It also makes little sense to equip every object in your home with digital components, unnecessarily digitalising your entire interior. Essentially, the function performed by an item of furniture is limited. Without being transformed into a device, it can neither convert energy nor interact with you.

The fact that every trend has its counter-trend should not be forgotten. All-encompassing digitalisation may possibly trigger a protest reaction, prompting people to change their lifestyles by completely ridding their homes of digital components. It is also worth considering that the historic values embodied by vintage objects might just restore the emotional bond between individuals and the products of a human craftsman – a bond which has been lost through too much digitalisation.

Accordingly, the concept of “Circular Living & Working Spaces” challenges us to anchor the needs of the relevant stakeholders more firmly in interior design approaches; this is understood to be a rational and ethical reflection, although there are also emotional aspects. This is why forward-looking engineers, managers and interior and product designers incorporate elements into their strategies that go beyond mere economic considerations. They take into account the entire value chain, they command technical, digital, sustainable knowledge, and they are able to handle complexity using cybernetic technology.

About the author

Uwe Demele is a professor in the Department of Design at the Fresenius Berlin University of Applied Sciences, where he heads the international Master’s programme “Sustainability in Fashion and Creative Industries (M.A.)” as Dean of Studies. In his academic work he explores complex scientific and theoretical, socio-psychological and economic contexts in the fields of the furniture industry, real estate, spatial concepts and the creative industries, among others. His work focuses in particular on the overarching topics of digitalisation and sustainability. He also has extensive business experience and has held a wide range of leading roles, including those of company founder, managing director and leader of initiatives such as the recent BMBF project “upnovation.de – Innovationsforum Upcycling”.


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