On tour with upcyclers
Pharmacy glass, chalk, lampshades: the OFFCUT pioneering project gives used raw materials a second life. But how does implementing the intention to fund such an endeavour work in everyday life? Since news of the project got around, the upcyclers Silvan Kuhl and Volker Schnarrenberger have had to refuse a donation once or twice. The two also explain why a doll is just a doll, but a doll’s leg is almost art.
Last autumn in Basel, Volker Schnarrenberger stood in front of the kind of mouth-blown glass panes that are used in church windows. The glass shone in all colours, symbolising craftsmanship at the highest level. A glass factory had closed down and now there were still these panes that would never decorate a church. A shame for them to end up in the bin. That’s why they contacted OFFCUT, the materials market that gives things a second life. The first store was opened in Basel in 2013. A project that, in the midst of a throwaway society, battles against the fact that once used, high-quality materials are already at the end of their life cycle.
In Zurich, a collective of creative minds opened a second store a year ago, which, like the one in Basel, is a paradise for hobbyists, artists and creative people. A place that inspires and motivates to make something new out of things that are old, used and at first sight sometimes worthless. It’s called upcycling.
And so Schnarrenberger, a trained technical model maker who is studying to be a primary teacher, stood in front of those square meters of glass and took a few of them with him. He couldn’t save everything for posterity. Which is unfortunate, he says today. He often has to leave things behind. Because glass panes are something for connoisseurs and experts who know how to handle glass. Which is not true for the majority of people. But nevertheless: some of these pieces of mouth-blown coloured glass are now in Basel and Zurich.
The second upcycler also works here. Silvan Kuhl is a scenographer and the co-founder of OFFCUT Zurich. He offers a tour of the shop on the former SBB railway yard in Zurich Altstetten. At the front there is a big table where visitors can drink coffee or sometimes even make something, under the light of white lampshade frames. Recently, Matthias Wehle, who is responsible for materials procurement in Zurich together with Kuhl, collected a donation of materials that were almost historical from a lamp factory. Right behind those are the bales of fabric from which the factory made its lampshades. Some of them with silk, which is quite expensive if you buy them retail. Here a meter costs a few francs.
One aisle farther down: doll arms, doll legs, doll heads, spare parts, all individual pieces. Why have they been dismantled, why haven’t they been put together into whole dolls? Kuhl and Schnarrenberger look at each other. This is a question they always ask themselves when they decide whether something belongs in the OFFCUT materials market. A doll is just a doll, says Kuhl. But a single doll’s leg, for example, could become a component of a work of art or a decorative piece. Or it might replace the missing leg of another doll to make it whole again. Kuhl adds: “In principle it’s quite simple. We don’t take chairs. But we do find four chair legs interesting.” Something new can emerge from this. Whether it’s a new chair, a table on legs or something else, it’s entirely left to creativity.
“Sometimes we experience very emotional moments.”
This question guides the two upcyclers in their work: does it have any creative potential? If so, accept it. If not, then don’t. In Zurich and Basel, the materials are sorted, given away and labelled among others by volunteers who support the project.
The tour continues, passing by paper from the studio of a deceased artist. Some sheets of paper were handmade in Japan. For the artist’s children, who cleared out her studio, it was important the paper didn’t end up in the trash. “Sometimes we experience very emotional moments,” says Kuhl. And not infrequently people thank the two for giving materials the chance to end up with other fans of the project.
OFFCUT is a place for people who love materials, handicrafts and quality. In this small space, they can find things they would otherwise have to look for in many different specialist shops, or to which private individuals normally have no access at all.
Just like these pharmacy bottles and laboratory glassware, which the upcyclers show us during our visit. They come from the Pharmacy Museum Basel, which closed a section of its collection and sold the rare items after an employee retired. These are delicate products that aren’t recyclable, but are sold at OFFCUT. Who buys all these things? “Our clientele,” says Schnarrenberger, “is a cross-section of society. They include men in suits and women in business clothes, while at the same time labourers in blue overalls are in the shop getting a sheet of wood.” These are located at the back of the shop and often come from exhibitions or film sets. The location in Zurich in particular closely networks with the creative industry. Five people from the cultural and creative sector built up this shop according to the Basel model.
There is always more than enough wood in Zurich, as well as cardboard and foam remnants, which both materials markets can collect free of charge from a mattress factory whenever they want. A few months ago, Schnarrenberger simply contacted the company on the phone at random because the demand for foam was growing all the time. Their uncomplicated collaboration has existed ever since.
The two teams in Zurich and Basel coordinate, exchanging ideas and complementing each other. OFFCUT also offers news on its website about what’s available in the shops. What the stores aren’t accepting anymore right now: office supplies such as files and folders. For a while they were almost flooded with them, and they want to give the valuable space to raw materials with more creative potential.
“The great thing is that people come to us with ideas.”
Word has got around that the pioneering project receives or collects both rare items and things for everyday use. Social media has helped to build a community. But it’s mainly word-of-mouth propaganda that’s been responsible for the materials markets becoming known in their targeted circles. Good organisation, an appealing presentation and an original and diverse range of products are the reasons why customers are so enthusiastic. And those who are enthusiastic tell others about it.
It’s mainly institutions such as museums or theatres, decoration and textile companies or DIY stores that contact OFFCUT and donate their materials. But private persons also clear their attics and bring their art and handicraft supplies to OFFCUT. Schnarrenberger says they explain that they no longer need their own storage, since there is now a materials market. “The great thing is that people don't come to us with a fixed notion of which product they want, but with an idea.” This then becomes more concrete during their visit – also as they talk with the staff. “Rarely does anyone leave our shops empty-handed,” he says.
“Today, the materials mostly find us and not the other way around.” As opposed to in the beginning, the two upcyclers hardly make active acquisitions anymore. They often don't have the time, says Schnarrenberger. “Because an email isn't enough.” You have to go by, inspect the goods, discuss the quantity and time of collection. “A lot of people want us to come right away. But we simply don't have the capacity.” Many companies, Kuhl adds, also want them to take away a minimum quantity. This is difficult because OFFCUT has no warehouse.
And the two upcyclers are convinced: in Switzerland there are enough high-quality materials to fill many materials markets. OFFCUT is working on this vision with the support of Engagement Migros.