Wonderful Waste

Wonderful Waste with Studiomama

Old fabric scraps, wooden offcuts, and discarded chairs off the street. These materials, seen by most of the world as trash, are what Nina Tolstrup and Jack Mama, founders of Studiomama, used to create award-nominated furniture collections and exclusive quirky animal-like sculptures.

When Nina and Jack founded the studio in 2000, both of them wanted a strong sustainability ethos at the core of the business, which easily blended with an experimental approach to multiple disciplines across design and architecture.

Over the past 20 years, Studiomama has grown into a pioneering sustainable design business that champions repurposing materials with a playful, innovative, and accessible outlook. NTS caught up with Jack and Nina, featured in our second episode of Wonderful Waste, to discuss their first projects, furniture upcycling, and their vision for the future.

NTS: Please introduce yourself and tell us: what is Studio Mama?

Nina: I’m Nina Tolstrup and I started our studio with my husband, Jack Mama, in 2000. We are based in East London, Shoreditch, and we work across a range of furniture, product, exhibition, and interior design, along with smaller architectural projects. We’re really interested in the whole breadth of what you can do within design in terms of scale.

Upcycling, recycling has always been the core of Studiomama.

Nina Tolstrup
Small Town House, London. Photo by Ben Anders
13m2 Apartment, London. Photo by Moonray Studios.

NTS: What made you decide to explore sustainable design when it wasn’t yet mainstream?

Jack: For us, it was something that we immediately wanted to start to think about when we got together. Our forays into this area were very much on a personal level, reacting to the context and place that we live in and seeing how much things get thrown away unthinkingly. That’s been very compelling.

NTS: In your eyes, what was the project that was the turning point for Studiomama?

J: The pallet project was something that opened up things in a different way and is still ongoing. We were part of this group of 10 other designers called TEN which designer Chris Jackson started. We decided to set up a brief: make something that costs less than £10 within a 10-mile radius of where you live.

N: I said, we’re going to do something with pallets from around the corner of the workshop. So out of that came the pallet chair and lamp, and we made other bits and pieces too.

J: When people were interested to buy them, we thought, actually, why don’t we just sell the instructions online?

NTS: It’s lovely how people are able to recreate your design at home with whatever materials they’ve got on hand, especially by making your instructions available anywhere.

J: That was an interesting moment for us because we didn’t think much of it. But then, what happened was that we started getting all these amazing photos coming in from people who’d bought the instructions and made the project over the weekend with their kid or with their family.

And so there was a lovely kind of ongoing connection with making something that’s kind of local, but in a global way. We were like, wow, this is amazing. We can share ideas that are designed locally and then distributed globally, and then be made locally again.

N: It was the first project we did as open source. Obviously, the development of the Internet and all those new opportunities available at that time really created a very powerful experience for us.

NTS: What do you find so compelling about waste and the opportunities it offers?

There’s so much opportunity in using waste. It’s kind of cheap in a way, because it’s not been put into a stream of value, but it is a raw material that can be reinvented and reused and reprocessed in many ways.

Nina Tolstrup

N: We have centuries, if not decades, of waste in the oceans or landfills that we have to deal with, that we’d have to use and find ways of using. Looking forward, there’s a second wave where we have to figure out how the waste stays within the circular system.

J: There are already a lot of really beautiful examples of people picking up waste from different waste streams and making materials. In our projects, we’ve been trying to look at some of those things that are going on and seeing how best we can integrate them into what we’re doing as well.

N: We’ve been looking into and researching the new materials that are coming out, along with new textures and new colours. Some of the materials we used in the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen [as seen above and below] were different with a finished composite material made out of recycled plastic. It looks like terrazzo [images below] and was fantastic to use, and there are constant discoveries of new acoustic materials made out of recycled textiles or wood chips.

NTS: Are there other projects of yours where waste has been a key element?

J: The waste from the pilot [pallet] project was the inspiration for the animals. So, we had all of these strange planks and blocks of wood left over, and we decided to just see what comes from some kind of silly leftover offcuts.

N: We thought, oh, this is really interesting. You’ve got all these weird kind of holes and also the discolouration, and so when you start, it’s just quite fun.

J: There was no pre-planning or anything like that. It was actually quite spontaneous and that was the fun of it. It’s really just improvising with what we had, just purely looking at these things and playing with them, and suddenly there were these kinds of animals.

NTS: What other concepts are you exploring in your other designs?

J: Another thing is repair, something we haven’t spoken about much but has also been a huge topic as well. Nina always tries to fix and fix something until it’s got no more legs, and then we might have to find another life for it as something else. But if it can be repaired, we repair it and also play around with that.

The Re-Imagine Collection came about from our own need while working on an interior project, the townhouse that we were developing at that time.

N: That was due to lack of budget, lack of time, and we wanted to do something that was a bit special for the space and not buy furniture off the shelf. We found a really scruffy warehouse somewhere where they were selling old furniture, and I picked up a stack of chairs from there.

J: The minute we stripped one of these chairs back and we saw this really fantastic frame, we thought, oh my gosh, you can do so much.

N: And so, I managed to pick up a set of six chairs and strip, paint, and put on new fabric and seating. We can buy already recycled materials and work with them in a more traditional way—building them into projects designed to be part of a circular economy.

NTS: What are your hopes for the future and how do we tackle our problems with waste?

J: I’ve been teaching for quite a long time and I think times have changed a huge amount. The students are really in tune with the whole sustainability issue. I see a lot of really amazing projects in the courses I teach.

There are a lot of people that are quite into the environment and climate, not just young people. The dream would be to try to improve the climate situation. It’s for the young people there to help see how we can get some more equilibrium going with what we’ve been doing up until now.

Jack MAma

N: We need to have a circular economy. At the moment, that seems to be the logical solution. We can vote, we can influence, we can be part of the movement to make this change. It has to happen and there’s an urgency about it. But I think what is emerging with more research and more knowledge, are more kinds of amazing solutions.

Interviewed by Colin Chee and Luke Clark.

Edited by Claryss Kuan for length and clarity.

Images by NeverTooSmall & Studiomama