BRING’s first-ever Product Design Challenge is sparking plenty of interest from Lane County residents.

The challenge is igniting ideas, cooperation, learning—and, of course, interest in how reusable items can be given a second chance through creative upcycling.

Lytton Reid, who is leading the Product Design Challenge team at Rainbow Valley Design & Construction, will wait until the big reveal on Saturday, April 22 to share the final results of his company’s project. He will say that they’re converting a steel drum (shown above) into a dynamic shelving unit.

Reid isn’t a stranger to this type of creative endeavor. He collects reusable building materials to make custom benches in his home shop and he’s excited about the Product Design Challenge because it gives a public face to his passion.

“This is an opportunity to show how otherwise useless materials can be repurposed and turned into something very useful and functional,” he says. “It’s potentially inspiring for other people to think about how they might reuse things that they might ordinarily throw away—things they’re used to seeing as trash.”

The Product Design Challenge has also given Reid the opportunity to engage with his colleagues on a different level. Rainbow Valley’s team is made up of him, another designer, a carpenter, and their front office administrator. “The four of us don’t often work together, and it’s been fun,” he says. “We’re all approaching it in a very casual, relaxed way. It’s hard to choose a direction when the possibilities are so wide. So far we’ve been having fun with it and doing lots of brainstorming and chatting.”

Hot tips from an expert upcycler

Reid has a few pieces of advice for people interested in getting involved in next year’s Product Design Challenge—or taking on their own upcycling challenges in the coming year. For most folks, the most challenging and time-consuming part of  a creative project is coming up with the design. Would-be upcyclers often begin collecting found items with the intention of using them in a project “someday.”

“These things take up space, and it’s hard to make the time to modify them when you don’t necessarily have a project in mind,” Reid says. “There’s an art to keeping things around and keeping some kind of potential project in the back of your mind without ending up with a warehouse full of junk.”

One way to avoid the clutter is to use the same design over and over. “I make these benches out of entirely recycled materials,” Reid says. “Because I have a design already nailed down, I know the sizes of pieces I need. When I see pieces that might be applicable, I grab them and cut them to the size I need and neatly stack them in the shop. Then when I have enough pieces, I make a few benches and hand them out. If you have an idea already worked out, you can apply the materials as they come along.”

If that sounds too boring, don’t despair: New (used) materials with different patterns, colors or features will keep it interesting.

“Maker” students heat up the competition

The 16 students in Stan Mercer’s maker’s class at Creswell Middle School will be giving the Rainbow Valley team a real run for their money. They’re crafting new work stations for their classroom as part of the Product Design Challenge.

“The students saw it as an opportunity to build more of what we need here,” says Mercer (pictured at left).

The maker’s class is loosely tied to the STEM education philosophy, but Mercer says it was also created due to student need. A few years ago, a young man was kicked out of every elective class and needed a place to go during his free period. He agreed to hang out with Mercer because the two got along. One of the first things Mercer asked him was what he liked to do.

“He said, ‘I like skateboards,’” Mercer recalls. “I said, ‘Have you ever made a skateboard?’ And he said, ‘No.’ Then he said, ‘Have you?’ I said, ‘No, but I stayed in school long enough to figure things out.’”

Mercer and the student ended up building four skateboards together. The student discovered a penchant for both construction and graphic design, and decided school wasn’t so bad after all. He’s now a sophomore in high school, where he’s doing well academically and excelling as a member of the wrestling team.

That experience was the genesis of the maker’s class, which is now in its second year. Mercer begins by teaching the basics of design. One of their early projects is a 3D paper object that requires precision cutting and folding. They move on to projects like boats made from soda cans and crafting small wooden blocks. By using inexpensive, easy-to-find products from the beginning, it’s no big deal to scrap a design and recycle the material if someone makes a mistake.

After this teacher-led period, which is intended to teach hard skills, the class is very much student-directed. They choose what they want to make and come up with ideas for how to complete the projects.

Student-led projects spark creative ideas

It was the students’ idea to paint the top of one workstation (made from a solid core door sourced at BRING) with chalkboard paint so they could sketch ideas on it. They also proposed cutting an old metal filing cabinet in half and placing it near the legs of the table to provide supply drawers (Mercer did that—“There’s a limit to how much you can expect a 13-year-old to do,” he says).

Another group wanted to create a standing work station. As they work to assemble it in class one day, Mercer watches them with a careful eye. “I do as little on the projects as possible for them,” he explains.

When it comes time to attach the table’s top, the students begin peppering Mercer with questions. “It’s entirely up to you,” is his response to most, although he does give a few general pieces of advice. Try balancing the top on the table, then moving around to see if you’re bumping into the base or legs, he suggests. Sometimes it’s good to leave a project for a day and approach it with fresh eyes before making a final decision.

Mercer is excited to see the final results, and to have something that will serve his students this year and in years to come. “Without BRING’s support we maybe could have built one new table,” he says. “Now we’ll have three.”

You can check out the results of all the projects created for BRING’s inaugural Product Design Challenge during the Metamorphose fashion show on Saturday, April 22 at 6 p.m. The event takes place at the Wheeler Pavilion at the Lane County Fairgrounds.

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