John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Designers in the Mexican city of León try to revive an ailing industry with furniture best described as "oil-slick chic."
Here's a unique way to reuse old furniture and seal up any bedbugs lurking inside: Coat it with a smothering layer of shiny, dripping polymer.
The immediate images conjured by this "Dermis" line of furniture, by Mexican designers Villasana, Plasencia, et al., might be those horrible petroleum-covered birds flapping about in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Hungry people might also think of chocolate-covered strawberries. But put one of these gloppy babies inside a Manhattan loft and it starts to assume an outrageous, artistic quality – call it "Oil-Slick Chic."
The story of how these weird objects were born begins with, of all things, shoes. The designers live in the central Mexican city of León, a dense metropolis that is known worldwide as the “Capital of Shoes” for its prolific production of footwear. One estimate has it that the city pumps out 60 percent of Mexico's shoes; however, that number is dwindling as cheaper suppliers (hi China!) enter the market.
With the "Dermis" line, Villasana, Plasencia, et al. intend to not just "rewrite the history of an object" but also "a city," according to a Google translation of the firm's website. Seeing their native industry threatened, the designers crafted a line of home products that employed León's stock of raw, shoe-making materials, like leather, metal fittings and sloshing barrels of liquid polyurethane. The polyurethane hardens once poured over, say, a threadbare Chesterfield sofa or a pair of '50s-era chairs, providing a slippery yet rump-pampering platform that alarms and titillates the mind. The second skin enhances the musty furniture by giving it another few months or years of life, after which it degrades, just like the sole of an old shoe.
An environmentalist might argue that calling the use of polymers "sustainable" is like saying plastic straws are great for the planet. That environmentalist would be right, mostly. Polyurethane isn't the ideal material for green applications, especially when it gets tossed out later into landfills. But it can be ground down and reused or burned like coal for quick energy, so it's not a complete waste. And let's not forget rushing out to buy a new lounger from Ikea whenever the old one suffers a few tears isn't a supremely sustainable practice, either.
Messy eaters might also be interested in the fact that polyurethane has great resistance to grease stains. No word yet if the designers' technique can preserve your treasured sofa-butt imprint.
Twin Dermis: Fifties chairs, canvas, nails, plastic coated:
Mid-century Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier, screen, plastic coated:
And a "minotauro," because why not?