Social Unit’s low-cost bedroom units

Almost one year ago to the day, I was introduced to two people at 19 Greek Street who told me all about their low-cost bedroom units designed for the homeless shelters of Amsterdam. Produced in sheltered workshops with recycled plastics, Wouter Kalis and Corinne de Korver devised the design as a low-cost solution offering a space for each homeless person to have, even if it is just 3m².

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The version shown during London Design Festival last year was a luxurious two-tone loft bed; a combination of a typical classic dutch cupboard bed and a chinese platform bed. at the foot, the bed has a vanity table and storage functions. This broadened the usage of the bedroom units beyond their original design whilst using the same materials and concept that they started with.

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Talking to Wouter & Corinne, I learned more about how they started and what they planned to do next…

Atelier Tally: You began working together on a project to manufacture a sustainable and low-cost solution to bedroom units for homeless people. When I saw this idea it dawned on me how clever, simple and absolutely necessary it is. What made you want to create this?

Social Unit: By chance, we learned about the interiors of homeless shelters in Amsterdam. Mostly they are not very appealing places to stay. Furniture is broken, their stuff is spread out over the room, it feels chaotic. We started playing around with ideas of how we could improve things. We then involved the Dutch Salvation Army, together we formulated basic values for furniture suited for shelters. It had to be easy to clean and gorilla-proof, for us it was very important that using our design would make you feel good. Our design is a 3m² (32 sq ft) combination of a bed and storage space based on the old Dutch design for a cupboard bed. Lying in the bed with the curtains closed, you get a safe, cozy feeling. We tested it in a pilot project and participants became much tidier, and slept better! Also, they spent less time on the streets, hanging out.

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Atelier Tally: How is the structure manufactured, from what materials and what processes does it go through to become the finished product?

Social Unit: The bed is made out of recycled consumer plastics, like beer crates and bottle caps. It is manufactured in social workshops, by people with a distance to the labor market. To make sure they are able to make it, the structure is kept very simple on purpose. Mainly woodworking techniques such as drilling, sawing and milling are used. The beds are assembled on location from a flat pack by a specially trained team from the Salvation Army.

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Atelier Tally: You later exhibited a version of the unit at 19 Greek Street which was aimed at a luxury market, still using the same materials and processes but different proportions and some added luxuries. Do you see your designs as completely democratic in this way, that homeless people can be afforded the same quality of design as the higher spenders?

Social Unit: We like minimal design, for us beauty lies in simplicity and functionality. Luxury in this case is more about context than about details or added functions, the shelter unit is also used for children’s rooms and boarding schools for example. The design is democratic in that sense, it fits different purposes, simplicity is a luxury too though just as exclusivity is.

The high-end version is more elegant and has some added functions, tailored to specific needs. The shelter unit is more sturdy and more low-fi. In a sense we are more autocratic than democratic as designers, we are making the decisions according to our standards. Our design principles of social labor, recycled materials and positivity might be democratic again.

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Atelier Tally: Why was it important for you to design and make a product that was sustainably made and ethical? What experiences have you had which led you to create this bed?

Social Unit: We think it is possible to re-use materials like plastics and work with people who do not find jobs in normal society, and still create something beautiful and refined. Maybe it even has a beauty because it is made that way.

The plastic material is often used for marinas, stables, and picnic furniture. Not very refined or elegant, that is a shame. We are very enthusiastic about the use of plastics for designs that can be made out of wood as well, and we wouldn’t feel very comfortable bringing more stuff, more virgin plastics into the world. We love the idea of showing the possibilities of reproducing waste material into beautiful things and giving people, who somehow dropped out, a job creating them.

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Atelier Tally: Finally, what is next for Social Unit? Will you be expanding this product or do you have other ideas in the pipeline?

Social Unit: We are working on a few new ideas. The bed unit is being developed for hotels, boarding schools and an outdoor park hotel and we are working on a seating system made out of recycled plastics that comes out later this year.

Daniel

Having worked in design for the past decade, Daniel started ateliertally.com as a discussion of timeless, modernist product design. Trained as a graphic designer, he also has an avid interest in typography. You can follow him on Twitter @ateliertally.

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