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January 12, 2011
Originally published in Rethink Recycling

For Brussels-based furniture designer Christiane Högner, inspiration comes less from glossy design mags than the castoffs she finds on the streets of Belgium.

German designer Christiane Högner's home

The two-bedroom apartment German designer Christiane Högner shares with her partner (and their new baby) in Brussels is a testament to the couple's philosophies: There is beauty in the ordinary, if you just keep your eyes open for it. And its corollary: Don't accumulate too much.

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All for One shelves

At home, Högner still uses the prototype for her colorful All for One shelves to file papers and magazines.

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Modern dining room with German beer-garden table

The elegant olive dining table is a traditional German beer-garden table the couple bought second hand and painted.

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Dining room with Arne Jacobsen chairs

Mixing and matching goes a long way: the well-worn Arne Jacobsen chairs are real, but the Tulip table knockoff is Ikea's Docksta. "Tell them, as soon as we have some money saved, we're going to buy the original," says Högner. The vintage Dieter Rams sofa came from Högner's parents, and the vintage work lamps in the living room came from a drafter's studio.

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Modern dining room with beer-garden table

Thomas Lommee and baby Emilia Luz work at the beer-garden table under hanging lamps given to the couple by friends. The baby bassinet, which appears to be made from a wicker laundry basket and some sturdy rope, was also a gift from friends.

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The kitchen offers a lovely view of neighborhood gardens.

The kitchen offers a lovely view of neighborhood gardens.

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Beer-garden table with hanging lamps

Högner found the collapsible blue metal Beanstalk Camp Kitchen stands at a flea market, and was immediately attracted to their color. But, she says, her favorite part about the quirky coffee tables in her living room is that "the legs fold up!"

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Wine rack shoe rack

In the entryway, wine racks are reborn as a place to keep shoes.

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Bedroom with white bedding and mini orange lamps

The orange his-and-hers lamps in the bedroom came from Högner's sister's childhood bedroom. "My sister prefers new things," said Högner. "But my dad can't throw anything out.

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Electrical Table by Christiane Högner

Högner's E.T. (short for Electrical Table) solves the modern person's problem of what to do with all those ugly cords by turning an electric strip into a work table (or vice versa).

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Stuffed shirt throw pillows

The Dad Pillows are the ideal stuffed shirts: throw pillows that have left the torso in favor of the sofa.

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Metal shelving system with wooden storage boxes

The pair rescued the wooden Belgian school chair on their shelving system from the trash.

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Intrastructures storefront

The couple's office is located in a small storefront space just around the corner from their apartment. Their "library" is kept in the window.

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Stacked colorful pillows sofa

The cushioned sofa was originally a project in which Högner made a sofa from sandbags. This iteration takes the sofa's smallest component--the pillow--and builds up.

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Laptop envelopes

Högner designed Envelopes to store laptops because she couldn't find any sleeves she liked--and that protected the laptop if it fell--on the market.

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German designer Christiane Högner's home

The two-bedroom apartment German designer Christiane Högner shares with her partner (and their new baby) in Brussels is a testament to the couple's philosophies: There is beauty in the ordinary, if you just keep your eyes open for it. And its corollary: Don't accumulate too much.

Högner/Lommée Residence

“Shall I order?” asks Christiane Högner, sitting under a string of naked lightbulbs in the exquisitely simple L’Epicerie bistro. It’s a charming spot in Brussels’s Ixelles district, just down the street from the studio she shares with her partner, Belgian design researcher Thomas Lommée. “Actually,” says the German designer with a wink, “there’s no choice anyway. There’s only one dish every day. It’s always different, it’s always good, and the owner does everything herself. I think it’s a great concept.”

It’s no surprise that this one-woman restaurant’s high-quality, take-it-or-leave-it approach appeals to Högner, a hands-on furniture designer who hates waste and thrives on what she finds. To spend an afternoon in the apartment she and Lommée share with their brand-new baby daughter, Emilia Luz—-a rented flat resplendent with repurposed flea-market treasures, appliances rescued from the trash heap, and Högner’s own creations-—is to rethink everything you’ve ever bought to decorate your home with, not to mention what you’ve thrown out.

Over lunch, Högner tells me about the genesis of her colorful All for One shelves. A simple metal frame holds “drawers” that are actually old plastic boxes used in Europe to transport croissants and loaves of bread. She first noticed the latticed boxes  nearly a decade ago, walking by local bakeries while she was studying interior design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. Where others might see a bunch of junk, Högner recognized something lovely and started using the crates to build sturdy industrial storage towers of green, orange, red, and blue.

“I liked it that the system was so universal, and that even if the box is a little broken, it still works,” she says of the multihued boxes that bakeries use interchangeably. The idea for a metal frame came about for practical reasons—“I got tired of stacking, because what you’re looking for is inevitably in the bottom one”—and in 2003, the One for All shelves were born. “Spotting beauty in contexts that are not meant to be beautiful, that’s something that drives me,” she says. “Walking down the street and seeing something like a blinking diamond and thinking, ‘Yeaaaaah, I can use that for this or that.’”

A strong sense of social responsibility runs through Högner’s relationship with objects, found or made; the One for All metal frames, for example, are produced in a workshop that employs people with mental illnesses. On the way to her apartment, we stop in at the studio to say hello to Lommée, who has just rocked the baby to sleep. Two dozen bulbs, plugs, and sockets lie on the table—part of an exhibition he is working on about “open design.” Picking up a two-headed electric outlet that has a plug from the 1930s stuck in one side and a plug from the 1970s in the other, Lommée explains that he’s interested in standard systems (like the outlet) that allow companies to design for the same purpose, over long periods of time. “This slick Apple plug works in the old-fashioned French ceramic outlet,” he explains. “They’re all compatible.”

Though Lommée is primarily interested in the way that universal systems open up the design field to many different kinds of ideas, Högner points out that standardization also means that fewer things are junked—a 20-year-old lamp’s plug still fits your socket, but you might have to throw out a computer (or a car) if you can’t find a replacement part for a specific model and year.

“We are both suffering from an overflow of things,” explains Högner. “Living in a rich country, in Europe, in the Western world, we have so much stuff. The idea is: What is useful? What is useless? What is too much?”

“It’s a bit like trying to understand society, to understand how things are evolving,” says Lommée.

“That’s your analytic approach,” she says to him. “I’m interested in creating objects that stimulate. I don’t want to buy furniture that stands there and says ‘I am a design buyer,’ I want to buy something that triggers the imagination.”

When we reach their turn-of-the-century flat, I immediately see this principle in action. Across from the One for All shelf’s first prototype, a pair of painted metal wine racks holds the couple’s shoes. An elegant dining table is, on closer inspection, actually a folding wooden table and bench from a German beer garden bought secondhand from a party service and painted olive. A wicker baby bassinet, a present from friends, hangs from the ceiling—but, as Högner points out, “it looks like a washing basket; I’m not sure if it is.”

Because many of her objects were produced in limited quantities, she doesn’t have many on hand. Sitting at the dining room table, she takes her laptop out of the foam and textile Envelope she came up with in 2008 because she couldn’t find a nice, tactile laptop cover that would still protect the device if it dropped (she still uses the prototype for her own computer). Clicking through pictures of her pieces, I get a sense of the varying elements in her thinking.

Certainly, there’s the idea of recycling: In one project, she covered furniture she found on the street with a white rubber coating to give it a second life. In another, she collaborated with Lommée on a model kitchen; her contribution included a drawer that displayed junk-store cooking utensils. But there’s also a practical element: E.T., a table that acts as a giant electric strip outlet, so you can plug all your appliances right into your workspace, is something every modern person could use. Other pieces are whimsical, like Sandbank, which uses sandbags to construct a couch. Still others make something implausible incontrovertible: For an exhibit about China, she hung up multicolored plastic bags she had collected on the street in Shanghai to create an ethereal environment.

Högner, who grew up near Lake Constance in southern Germany, says it was standard for children to learn from a young age about separating trash for recycling and the importance of keeping waste to a minimum. That impulse is still visible: The Italian gas stove, for example, came from Lommée’s parents, who were going to throw it away because it was broken. Högner had always liked the model, so she and Lommée had it repaired. Fixing it was only slightly cheaper than buying a new stove but, she felt, worth it.

Still, a concern that “things are not going well in our consumer society” poses an existential challenge for a person who makes objects. “It’s a struggle, to realize there’s so much already,” she says. “This is a dominant theme in my work—why make more?”

Högner’s answers to that question show that rethinking the throwaway impulse can be more rewarding than buying off the shelf. In addition to reusing (as she did with her Dad pillows, made from old dress shirts, which are lying on the divan), the key is to think creatively. Spotting the blue metal Beanstalk Camp Kitchen stands at a flea market, Högner saw their potential to become a great-looking coffee table. In the kitchen, a set of low shelves look sleek—and came from a hardware store.

Last but not least, Högner’s approach brings her into contact with the human element, the history (material, emotional, social) that every object, whether it’s from Dieter Rams (like her vintage couch) or Ikea (a Knoll Tulip table knockoff), carries with it. On a recent trip to the Netherlands to buy All for One boxes, for example, she met the bakers whose independent store was closing. “They ended up telling me everything about the bakery business,” says Högner, as she makes tea.

“I like to take things that are not usually used in a living environment,” she says, then pauses to reflect. “It’s not so much fun to go to a shop that sells furniture. It’s too easy.”

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