While good design should last a lifetime, Cult Design’s sustainability initiative offers preloved authentic design pieces a chance for a whole new existence. We sit down with Richard Munao to talk about how Cultivated came to be, what we can learn from the Danish – and why buying once but buying well is one of the best strategies for sustainable living.
October 26th, 2021
Even though Cultivated was first established in 2013 and then relaunched as a comprehensive initiative during the Melbourne Design Week in 2021, it seems evident that the sentiment behind the program has always been a part of Cult Design’s ethos. The appreciation of Scandinavian design – and, by extension, the affinity for furniture that tells a story – was the very reason Cult Design came to be almost 25 years ago. “We’ve always been a firm supporter of Scandinavian design.
That’s how we started our business,” recalls Richard Munao, the brand’s Founder and Managing Director. “The Scandinavians – particularly the Danish – have a lot of products that we sell that go back to the 50s, 30s – even the 20s. They’re not in the fashion design business – they’re in the longevity design business. So that was very important to us.” This idea of extending the lifespan of an object, or giving it a second life altogether, has always been close to Richard’s heart – and in 2013, it started taking a more pronounced shape.
The sustainability landscape at the time was predominantly defined by the requirements established by GECA and the Green Building Council of Australia, which – Richard explains – were mainly concerned with product design that allowed for the furniture to be disassembled and disposed of accordingly. “In my mind, that didn’t answer the question about designing products that last a lifetime,” Richard says. “To me, the solution was more in designing products with longevity in mind than worrying about putting things into the right bins.” Richard points out that some organisations position their offering as “green” but don’t necessarily have programs that address what happens with the product at the end of its life. “Witch Cultivated, we wanted to ensure that we would minimise what goes through recycling bins – and what goes to landfill,” he states.
Even today, the amount of furniture that ends up in landfill is staggering. With the equivalent of 800,000 three-seater sofas, 1.65 million dining tables, or 3.4 million coffee tables thrown away each year in Sydney, there is an undeniable need for a decisive shift in perspective that initiatives like Cultivated help foster. Richard highlights the idea of purchasing authentic, high-quality design pieces as a vital way to decrease the amount of product that ends up put out for council collection. “I’m mystified by the number of products you see on the corners of streets or footpaths, where people simply throw things out,” says Richard. “Buy once, and buy well. You don’t get a Mercedes-Benz and put it on the side of the road for someone to pick it up and drive away.”
I ask Richard how Cultivated has changed since the original launch. “Back then, there wasn’t a company that could recycle textiles. Now, there are lots of businesses that do that. That means we can fulfil the dream of having a circular economy within our Cultivated collection,” Richard says excitedly. The ability to reuse or repurpose textile is paramount to ensuring that processes like reupholstering generate holistically sustainable outcomes. “For instance, when we work with a piece like the Egg chair, we have foam that is 30 or 40 years old.
Rather than just adding a new cover and making the chair look new, we think about what happens to the elements we’re replacing,” Richard explains and adds that he has just seen the prototype of a beanbag-style seat made out of recycled foam. “Textile waste can be a huge problem. We create beautiful things, but I do believe that if you create something that has the potential to become waste, it’s your responsibility to take care of it.”
The commitment to giving elements that may have been considered inapt because of their wear and tear another chance is the cornerstone of Cultivated. It permeates buy-back, refurbishment and recycling – the program’s three key areas of focus. “Sometimes, particularly in a commercial context, you may not want to take that same meeting chair to your next fit-out. Through our buy-back service, we can take it back, rework it, and put it into another project – giving the client credit towards a new product,” Richard explains. “Then there’s refurbishment. Sometimes the product could be refurbished and put back into the same space, or a different context altogether.”
Richard brings up the example of the Art Gallery of NSW, which wanted to buy 160 new Series 7 Chairs to add to an existing set of 140 pieces. Cultivated bought back the existing 14-year old chairs and offered the gallery credit for new seats. As a result, the gallery bought 300 new pieces, and Cultivated resurfaced the older ones. Today, these reworked designs can be found in the private dining room in Customs House and other places around the city. “All of the 140 Art Gallery of NSW chairs were upholstered, made to look like new, and have gone to new homes. To me, that’s beautiful,” Richard says with exuberance.
Richard adds that the Cultivated team of craftspeople have an excellent knowledge of Cult’s products and can resurface them in a way that celebrates their original design intent and artistry. “They are trained and have even been to Denmark. We want to ensure that we can put the authenticity badge on what we put back into the market and maintain the same quality the original product had,” he says. The only brand in the market that offers this kind of service, Richard envisions Cultivated expanding in the future – beyond Cult’s design offering. “Like in the automotive industry, there are service centres or mechanics that can service specific products. I see Cultivated becoming an authentic provider of servicing of collections beyond our products,” says Richard, recognising a broader shift he is noticing in the perception of longevity across the board.
Since Cultivated’s inception eight years ago, the appreciation of reuse and incorporation of aged and end-of-life furniture in the built environment has undoubtedly increased. Today, specifying a Cultivated product can contribute to a Green Star rating. “If you’re putting a second-hand product into the market, you are, in fact, recycling,” Richard says. “You have to demonstrate where the piece came from and show that it’s not an ex-showroom display item, and you automatically get 100 points.”
With the exponentially growing awareness of the potential within this space and the unique positioning of the Cultivated collection, it’s no surprise that the program has just been awarded a Good Design Award in the Design Strategy category. “I think it is an initiative that hasn’t been done before. Speaking to some of our overseas partners who have been around for 70, 80 or even 140 years, they find Cultivated quite remarkable,” Richard says. He is proud. But for him, the awards aren’t so much about gaining recognition. “For me, it’s a platform to share this initiative, go out there to a wider audience and bring more people on board. I think it shows that we care about what we sell and what happens to those products throughout their lifecycle,” he adds.
Education and leadership within this space are needed. There is still a tendency to discard the old and move on to the new. Richard mentions the six-star rated Barangaroo development that came fitted out with all-new furniture as an example of this attitude. “Some organisations left their old offices and fit-outs when moving into the new spaces. But you’ve got to show depth beyond moving into a six-star rated building – you have to show that you’re looking after what you’ve used,” he says. “To leave a building with all its furniture and make it someone else’s problem is a fundamental breach of your business’ sustainability story,” he says. However, he says there is a push to do the right thing, heading towards what Cultivated is already doing. “I think what we are doing now is, in fact, the future,” he adds.
And where is Cultivated headed? “My dream is that we will have Cultivated in a vintage shop, much like the ones we see in Denmark,” Richard shares. “Where people understand the value of buying something second-hand and will choose it over something new because they love the patina, and they love the story behind it, too.” Richard adds that he hopes we see it in Australia too, one day. “One step at a time,” he adds with a smile.
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