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Social Furniture – SF is a social design project by EOOS in the framework of the "Places for People" project, the Austrian contribution to the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. The furniture collection forms places for collective activities: living, cooking, working.
Furniture for an inclusive urban environment
Starting point of the Social Furniture Collection was the "Places for People" project, the Austrian contribution to the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. Beside two architecture studios, the Viennese design office EOOS was asked to intervene in a refugee housing project to improve the existing situation of the residents. Along necessary short-term solutions, the aim of the project was to make a difference in a longer perspective and to create a fundamental impact in the way of integrating and engaging displaced people.
No right to work
In Austria Asylum seekers are not allowed to work while the asylum application is being processed, which can easily take years. During this period they forcibly can't make their own subsistence, are dependant on NGOs and basically can't do anything else than just waiting. Apart from voluntary german courses the only allowed way to engage is to work for NGOs inside the refugee shelter, e.g. cleaning and other simple helping tasks which is covered with a small amount of so called therapeutical pocketmoney.
Combining the resource of free time and the particular structural situation of the project site with a lack of kitchens and community spaces, the idea was developed to supply the house with a workshop to build furniture for internal use, dealing with two problems at the same time: Giving the inhabitants a meaningful way of engaging themselves and also improving the infrastructure and architectural situation inside the building.
Beside setting up and managing the workshop the core of the project was to develop a design for easy to build, universal and open-access furniture collection.
Social Furniture consists of 18 furniture designs intended for a collective self-building process. The distinctive furniture made out of yellow shuttering panels form places for collective activities: cooking, eating, learning, working.
Beyond its function in refugee aid projects, the collection exemplifies social furniture as a concern of society as a whole and can be applied at different scales and in response to various needs. All designs are easy to assemble with a circular saw and power drill, either as individual pieces or mass produced, depending on the context.
Cooking, eating, learning, working - fulfilling those purposes needs a universal design approach.
Inspired by former EOOS projects like the bulthaup b2 kitchen the entire collection is closely examining the underlying processes of human behaviour and how needs can be satisfied through the creation of minimalistic furniture.
Universal archetypes and simple construction ensure reliable and easy to build furniture. The collection shares different core elements, for example the construction of legs, certain board patterns and specified tabletop heights for easy re-assembling and combining of parts.
The collaborative aspect of the furniture pieces intensifies the collective experience: Fridge modules can be combined to a bar counter, the cooking table - accessible from all sides - facilitates the communicative process of cooking together and the chosen tabletop height gives to opportunity either to take a seat at a high stool or to stand up.
Wooden formwork panels for the construction were chosen because they are easy to process but strong. They have a waterproof, durable surface and a distinctive, yellow appearance.
Open Design Manual
Basis of all designs are easily understandable step-by-step instructions with cutting plans, that have been published as a catalogue and can be downloaded as open-source under a creative-commons licence. The printed instructions were the best way to communicate without speaking the same language. Since the beginning of the project people from over 20 nations have been collaborating in the workshop.
To better analyse the processes within the house and to support the project coordination EOOS established a "field office" inside the building to work closely with residents and both managing NGOs (Caritas and Arbeiter-Samariterbund). The presence on site also had advantages for setting up the workshop and planning the transformation of the house.
Backbone of the workshop are several skilled supervisors, who organise the shifts with the residents and the NGOs. Manufactory-style processes enable the high amount of output, that is necessary to furnish a building of up to 600 residents.
The workshop got equipped with the basic tools of woodworking - all designs just rely on a circular saw and a power drill, that are under supervision usable without special knowledge.
The first successful project was to supply the rooms, shared by two residents, with a fridge module in order to empower the refugees to buy and store their own food instead of being dependent on external catering. Therefore 300 precut fridge modules got processed, assembled and delivered within a few weeks.
Furthermore a plan of the furniture demands of the entire building was set up. 30 kitchens translate into the need of more than 400 stools of different sizes, about 50 dining tables, 30 cooking tables, 30 sink and oven tables and so on.
Additionally ongoing side projects and special orders rose the complexity and variety of the production: Beside delivering kitchens several community spaces like a children's room, a learning/PC room and a barbershop got supplied with Social Furniture.
Concepts, customisations and new typologies for special orders were developed in a close collaboration of the workshop team and the designers at EOOS.
The workshop started in march 2016 and has given about 300 residents a meaningful way of working and engaging themselves. Now, almost a year later, over 700 pieces of furniture got produced for the house and external projects. Currently the furnishing of the building is holding on due to regulatory hurdles.
The progressive, long-term character of the project gained a lot of media coverage throughout Austria, even beyond being part of the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia from May to November 2016.
The increasing popularity of the project, the furniture designs and its background story made it possible to make an appearance in different contexts outside the refugee facility throughout the city of Vienna.
As part of the Vienna Design Week in september 2016 a kitchen collection was set up as a neighbourly community kitchen. The spirit of the project was even more shown in a event at the MAK (Museum for applied Arts Vienna), where a whole microeconomical scenario including barber shop, food court, bar, stool workshop and an alternative currency demonstrated the potential influence of social furniture. Furthermore the entire Social Furniture collection was on display for more than a week in the so called Design Forum of the MAK.
The demand for locally, meaningful produced furniture led to shop designs, office and home furniture for enthusiastic companies and private individuals.
Beside self empowering the residents by crafting their own kitchen furniture and giving them back an opportunity to cook for themselves, future plans include a change in the way of organising and managing refugee facilities.
If money is short, you have to think about other solutions. To cover your needs like food or hygiene, but also administrative help or entertainment you either rely on the given, but short offers of NGOs, or you look for alternative ways. Our aim is to establish a microeconomy in order to exchange goods and services inside these houses alongside conventional money with an app- and time-based alternative currency. Spending and earning alternative money takes place (beside existing jobs like workshop and caretaking) around newly set up micro shops inside the house. Here, residents could find new ways to engage themselves in a meaningful way e.g. by working in their former jobs as carpenters, barbers, cooks or tailors while increasing their financial capabilities for utilising services of other residents.
This is also relieving the NGOs in providing services and is moving them more in a managing and organising role of a self supporting system. The size of the house also ensures a structural resilience during the constant change of people. Those micro businesses also give the opportunity to open up the house to the public by setting up Takeaways for not only increasing the community aspect inside, but also outside the house with the surrounding neighbourhood.
An app, providing all necessary financial services is currently under development and is the core of the future integration and inclusion plans.
We're standing at the beginning of our vision of integration in the future. The project is far from being finished and needs a long breath to fulfil this plan. But all the small steps in the right direction and the feedback of the participating people encourage to continue.