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published on 18.08.2021

OpenStructures - The object becomes.

A conversation with Thomas Lommée & Christiane Högner, fouders of OS, Alexandre Humbert, director and Giovanna Massoni, curator.

OS_Studio is a Brussels based design studio with a clear political agenda. The major driving force behind OpenStructures is the open modular design system. Next to their activities as designers & researchers, Högner is teaching at Kask, School of Arts in Gent, while Lommée is leading a Bachelor Studio at Design Academy Eindhoven.

What is a kitchen?
(Christiane) A kitchen is an infrastructure to prepare a meal and to put ingredients together, to do chemistry, so that there is something produced, something that we like to eat…

(Thomas) I think it's a place to cook, to make and also to improvise. And I think it's also a place for learning; it's an infrastructure for self-learning. Maybe it's also where you learn not only about taste but also about chemistry, about physics, about how different components react to one another, work together or not.

(Christiane) It's also a library with cooking books, where you learn from others, their experience and their background. And you can dive into their worlds. And it's funny to compare it with design because with cooking books, we don't ask ourselves the question of whether or not we are allowed to follow someone else's path or experience, we just do it naturally.

(Thomas) What's also nice about a kitchen is that it confronts you with the cycle of things, not only with products that are ready to be cooked. It also confronts you with organic waste in a way that you also need to give it a place in your kitchen after cooking.

How was OpenStructures started?
(Christiane) Ten years ago we were trying to understand how things around us were working, and by analysing them, we were trying to implement them ourselves in our daily workflow. And then we started to involve different people.

(Thomas) I think for me, staying with the analogy of cooking, I can remember that when I was studying, I had no idea how to cook. What I thought was, the higher I put the heat, the quicker it will be ready. I had no idea and it really took a very long time to come to a kind of an acceptable level, where the meals were edible. I better understood the ingredients, the processes, the time that is needed, and all those parameters.

I think it's very similar with this project: it was for so long just a lot of open-ended questions and a lot of trying and a lot of really not knowing where it would end. But just by doing it and passing on from one object to the next, and asking somebody else again about what was working and what wasn’t, what is the role of the designer and what is our role, what is the role of the producer, and so on…

(Christiane) I think cooking is a very nice analogy because there's so much food around. We're surrounded by prepared food, like in every supermarket it's all processed food, it's all ready to eat. And it's so easy to just go and buy it and it's ready-made, but it leaves you illiterate in a way because you're then dependent on others to cook for you and all you can do is open the package.

Comparing it to design, we are surrounded by so much stuff, and so many objects that don't involve us as a user. You're just there to sit on your chair and put on the lamp. And once you don't need it anymore, you have to dispose of it and buy another one. Whereas if you understand the materials and the ingredients better, you can value them more, I think. And you also get more autonomous and literate to deal with our material world: you're not just a passive consumer, but you value something for its material, for the combination and the design also.

(Thomas) I also think, both with cooking and with this project, that you're a bit more relaxed if things go wrong. Because you know that anyway, you're learning. I mean, you understand better that it's part of a bigger process, and that you will be learning your whole life. And the components also have a role to play. Maybe they didn't work for me, but they might work for somebody else later on, or maybe somebody else will improve them. I think that, with both the cooking and this project, the focus is no longer on a certain result, but more on the process of learning. And that's why I'm also convinced that this could work for many people. It might introduce a new kind of perspective on how to use the things that surround us on an everyday basis.

(Christiane) Whatever you do, you're part of a longer cycle. And that's the case with cooking and how the ingredients are harvested or grown and delivered to us and processed by us. And that's similar to the materials and the objects that surround us. We’re becoming more and more aware that they are also part of bigger cycles. I mean, how many years does a tree first have to grow before you can make use of its wood?

(Thomas) In this project we're obliged to be so careful about how things are connected and how things are assembled; and if we disassemble them, where to put what, in order not to lose track of each component. I do think this reflects also on how we handle materials and packaging outside of our professional life. We're also taking apart cardboard boxes and separating the tape from the paper. And not only to save the planet but just because it also feels better, somehow, to consider this used cardboard as a raw material.

How will it be in 10 years?
(Christiane) We will still be cooking in 10 years as well. But I think a big part of our work is actually not the cooking itself, but creating the environment for it. And that's not just the kitchen, it's also the food storage: giving things a place, both physical and digital. We're very busy at the moment with the structure.

(Thomas) I also think that within 10 years, it may be hopefully about passing on the knowledge. Teaching other people how to cook, in the best case. We hope that this 'kitchen' that we have created, can also welcome other people, kids as well as students, professional designers and architects, as well as everybody who feels like making, disassembling and sorting …

(Christiane) Therefore the 'kitchen' becomes a place for encounters and not just for production. I've started by talking about the abundance of food, at least in our part of the world. And food waste also. And at the same time, fewer and fewer people are able to cook. And it's similar with products: fewer and fewer people are able to make a simple shelf.
This productive culture - buy, use and dispose – is getting so fast… And at the same time, we’re not even able to change a battery anymore, because there is no suitable screw.