Recycled design

Rouben Mohiuddin’s Chico State class makes furniture from recycled, repurposed materials

Rouben Mohiuddin works with Henu Huang on the prototype of her table made from a found orchard-walnut slab and recycled copper tubing.

Rouben Mohiuddin works with Henu Huang on the prototype of her table made from a found orchard-walnut slab and recycled copper tubing.

Photo by christine g.k. lapado-breglia

More about sustainable design:
Go to to find out more about Rouben Mohiuddin’s sustainability-focused design/build firm Design SI.

“It’s the only senior-level studio class in the Art Department that allows both art and design students to be a part of it, which is great, because it teaches them how important it is for both the artistic process and the design process to inform each other,” said Chico State interior-design instructor Rouben Mohiuddin of his Furniture Design and Fabrication class.

Mohiuddin developed and first taught it in the fall of 2009, after working as a sustainability-focused architect in New York City. Mohiuddin also heads up local firm Design SI, which—no surprise—is focused on sustainable design and construction.

Equally unsurprising is the fact that his furniture-design/fabrication class is strictly focused on “working with reclaimed, recycled materials,” as he explained in a recent interview. Instead of relegating abandoned logs and boards and other discarded pieces of wood to the fireplace or chipper, his students are turning them into such practical (and beautiful) items as benches and chairs.

“It’s an experimental, exploratory class. We ask ourselves, ‘What can we do with these recycled materials?’

“Since the Dada movement [of the early 20th century], we [artists/designers] have always used reclaimed things—found objects—in the making of art. In the end, with all these reclaimed things we’ve created new things.

“Sustainability, economy and efficiency are some of the positive implications that go hand in hand with using recycled or re-appropriated materials in design. No design can be considered good design unless it at least attempts to address some of these concerns.”

Mohiuddin’s 18 students this semester were given the assignment of “produc[ing] prototype full-scale furniture, building with sustainable materials using sustainable practices.” Students have been instructed to produce “utilitarian” pieces, at the same time as they have been asked to bring out “the wonder and beauty of [the] potentialities [of the salvaged wood].”

Julie Valuskova and Mohiuddin with Valuskova’s “hula-hoop chair,” made of found claro-walnut wood and plywood.

Photo by christine g.k. lapado-breglia

Some of the key points that Mohiuddin asked his students to keep in mind in regard to their designs are:

• Use local available materials and resources whenever possible.

• Design [pieces] to foster debate and challenge the status quo surrounding existing products/materials.

• Design to enable separation of components in the product at the end of its life in order to encourage recycling or re-use of materials and/or components.

• Encourage modularity in design to permit sequential purchases, as needs require and permit, to facilitate repair/re-use and improve functionality.

• Design to create more sustainable products/materials for a more sustainable future.

“Recycling as a design strategy is often associated with environmentalism, yet it is clearly more complex than just a desire to tread lightly on the planet,” said Mohiuddin. His class also “investigates cultural and contextual implications of furniture and product design. … We are making furniture that is meaningful so that it is functional art.”

By way of explanation, Mohiuddin posed a question he might ask a student: “So you find a piece of claro walnut in Chico, and knowing that it grows only in Chico, what would you do with it?

“The materials we design with can be place-specific,” he noted, “so we should talk about it in a place-specific way. Somewhere in the design, the design should back up where the material came from. … I strongly believe architecture and design are bound to situations, reflecting the spirit of the age or spirit of the time; it is a construct, intertwined within the phenomenon of a place. … Design should not so much intrude on a landscape, but rather serve to explain it.”

Mohiuddin—conscious that “one of the largest waste-producing industries is architecture and design”—emphasizes that “all design should be inherently ‘green.’ Good design is not about color, style or trends, but instead about thoughtfully considering the user, the experience, the social context and the impact of an object on the surrounding environment.”