"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."
Writer Sally McGrane flew to Copenhagen from her home in Berlin to visit the Mountain Dwellings. She was particularly impressed by the Victor Ash murals in the garage of wolves and moose atop wreaked cars. What she found hard to believe, however, was that David Zahle, a resident and one of the architects who helped design the building, has never had any dreams about the "car cathedral" under his home.