Content type: Interview and Critical/Repair Design
Credits: Guy Keulemans (University of New South Wales and guest lecturer at KABK, 2019). Interview by Lara Chapman
Year: 2020

Introduction
Guy Keulemans is an Australian designer, artist and researcher working with critical objects to examine historical processes, philosophical concepts and sustainability theories. His research is particularly focused around themes of repair and reuse. In the following interview, Keulemans discusses the need for more nuanced understandings of repair, the financial challenges roadblocking the repair economy and how we can begin to change our cultural attitudes and innovate around repair.

There is potential for better and more types of repair in our culture.
Guy Keulemans

Lara Chapman: Having worked and studied in both Europe (for your MA and early career) and Australia, do you find any cultural differences in attitudes to repair across these continents?

Guy Keulemans: I think the interest in repair and the way that it expresses culturally is reasonably consistent among what you would call the Global North. All these places have a traditional aspect to repair that can be considered ‘make do’, i.e. stuff breaks and you have to fix it. Historically there has always been a frugality behind that. This is still the case in the Global South where repair is definitely seen as a necessity of life and there are some really fantastic expressions of frugality of repair, for example in the Indian tradition of Jugaad.

That being said, there are still different cultures of repair in the Global North with distinct expressions or themes—you have the ‘make do’ approach which is not necessarily about aesthetics but about restoring things to function; you’ve got DIY types of repair which include the ‘make do’ but also have an interest in innovating or improving the aesthetics or function of the object in the process; then you have professional repair services which are increasingly becoming corporatised. Some of the more interesting developments in Europe are initiatives to do with product stewardship and remanufacturing where companies have licence or subscription models and take back broken or obsolete products for their internal remanufacturing for repair.

Ultimately, all of these expressions are essential and we need to innovate around repair. There is potential for better and more types of repair in our culture.

Trent Jansen’s 'Jugaad With Pottery High Tray' repaired by Guy Keulemans and Kyoko Hashimoto using silver staples cut from a Georgian spoon.
Trent Jansen’s 'Jugaad With Pottery High Tray' repaired by Guy Keulemans and Kyoko Hashimoto using silver staples cut from a Georgian spoon. Photo by Lee Grant.

LC: In your own practice, you distinguish between various approaches to repair and favour ‘transformative repair’ and ‘design-led repair’. What do these terms mean and what do they offer?

GK: Design-led repair is simply what it suggests — you bring designerly skills, training and expertise to the practice of repair rather than a simple functionalist or engineering approach. Transformative repair is similar but perhaps a little bit more focused on the specific improvement, change or transformation in the aesthetics or function of the object through the process of repair. These approaches are examples of the ways that repair can be innovated and become more '21st century' (for lack of a better word).

Until our externalities for resource extraction are really taken into account, the prognosis for repair is somewhat dark
Guy Keulemans

LC: Do you see students of yours taking a more 21st-century attitude to repair that is different from when you were studying design?

GK: I think the younger generations are acutely aware of the dangers of climate crises that are coming and are already happening. This drives their motivation towards repair or their interest in repair, reuse and sustainability in general. It’s a tricky situation though because while that might drive their cultural interest in repair, the financial imperative still doesn’t exist because repair services are expensive.

In the Global North, It is often cheaper and considered more acceptable to buy again and buy new than to repair. We are so wealthy but also so wasteful. This is due to the fossil fuel economy where materials are really cheap relative to their extended cost and their impact on the environment. That has also led to the decline in professional repair services which is a great tragedy from the perspective of the planet.

LC: Do you think the economics of repair will shift in the future?

GK: Until our externalities for resource extraction are really taken into account, the prognosis for repair is somewhat dark. We need to work particularly on a top-down approach where government policy can start to motivate people financially towards repair, better maintenance as well as adaptive re-use.

Hopefully, we also start to see an improvement in corporate responsibility and interest in repair at an institutional level where designers, engineers and marketing people start to see that there is value in promoting better repair of their products. Obviously, profit is the bottom line driving what companies do but with the right regulatory framework, there should be opportunities for making money out of these sustainability practices.

Process photo of: Trent Jansen’s 'Jugaad With Pottery High Tray' repaired by Guy Keulemans and Kyoko Hashimoto using silver staples cut from a Georgian spoon.
the student-led investigation into repair isn’t just for the purpose of repairing one object but rather because repair can function as a method to better understand the design of products in a broader sense...
Guy Keulemans

LC: As an educator, how do you design a curriculum that allows students to engage with repair as something that they can do professionally that would sustain them in our current economic systems?

GK: For me, teaching repair isn’t just about pragmatic things or functional design skills but rather a broader conceptual investigation into how the world of products exists and how it should change.

The way that I have taught repair-focused courses in the past is through the framework of critical design so that the student-led investigation into repair isn’t just for the purpose of repairing one object but rather because repair can function as a method to better understand the design of products in a broader sense. When you start to repair something you get a very intimate inside knowledge into how that object was designed in the first place. On a practical level, you start to see technical connections of how things are put together and how things can be taken apart. At a more conceptual and critical design level, you can start to explore concepts, like design for disassembly, and start to think about how the broader systems and infrastructures that support any one particular product such as repair services, waste management systems, international freight shipping and marketing and so on.

Screenshot of the 'Object Therapy' project website
Screenshot of the 'Object Therapy' project website

LC: What would a brief for that kind of course look like?

GK: We have done briefs in the past that somewhat mirror my own research projects. For example, one that I did a few years ago was called Object Therapy where we collected broken objects from the general public and then assigned them to designers and artists who hadn’t necessarily done any repair work previously but had skills that could be applied to repair. Part of that process was to understand the context which the object came from. Was it used by the person that owned it? What was its significance? Did it have sentimental value or was it purely functional? How could it be improved and delivered back to that person in a transformed way? This is a kind of ethnographic human research project where you understand not just the product but its context.

Every student would bring in a broken object and we’d assign them around the class and they would talk to each other and discover that context for themselves.

LC: One of your other projects that deals with repair viscerally and iteratively is Archaeological Vases. Could you explain how this project came about

The vases started from my fascination with the Japanese repair craft called kintsugi which is the repair of ceramics using a tree sap called urushi which is native to Asia which is then decorated with gold or silver. It is a great craft and a key precedent for transformative repair. However, I didn’t just want to recreate what is already being done so well by the Japanese; I wanted to progress that form so I started using different kinds of glues and photo-luminescent pigments and things like that to push that approach.

This gradually led me to explore ceramic repair more broadly and, in fact, the pre-existing form of repair before kintsugi was stapling with metal and before that, if you look back into the archaeological record, it was often done with plant materials and organic glues.

Archaeologic vases, series 3, Guy Keulemans. Stoneware (Wheel thrown and fired to bisque by Kiyotaka Hashimoto) and repaired with photoluminescent pigmented glue
Archaeologic Vases, series 3, Guy Keulemans. Stoneware (Wheel thrown and fired to bisque by Kiyotaka Hashimoto) and repaired with photoluminescent pigmented glue

What I find really interesting about ceramics is that nowadays we view ceramics as break-and- replace objects. They are thought of as being difficult and not worthwhile to repair. This is a result of the fossil fuel economy. Right now, energy is cheap so firing ceramics is cheap and ceramics, therefore, are cheap. But this wasn’t always the case. Before, and even during, the Industrial Revolution ceramics were really expensive; they were prized objects in a home and if they broke, a lot of effort was put into repairing them.

LC: Can you explain the process of stapling ceramics?

GK: The amazing thing about stapling is that it is very labour intensive. It is not necessarily attractive in the modern perception of what a beautiful ceramic looks like. At an aesthetic level, a lot of people think they are super ugly... I think they are super fascinating [laughs]. They have some functional benefits too — stapled ceramics are much stronger and more usable than glue repaired ceramics, they are watertight and can be put into a dishwasher.

Archaeologic Vase, series 5, Guy Keulemans, 2019. Stoneware (Wheel thrown and fired to bisque by Kiyotaka Hashimoto), paint, sterling silver staples.
Archaeologic Vases, series 5, Guy Keulemans, 2019. Stoneware (Wheel thrown and fired to bisque by Kiyotaka Hashimoto), paint, sterling silver staples.
I am very interested in visible repair versus invisible repair...
Guy Keulemans

LC: The visibility of the staples seems to be intentionally provocative…

GK: That’s right. I am very interested in visible repair versus invisible repair. Within stapling, there are different levels of visibility. 100 years ago, the very best stapled ceramics would be painted to camouflage the staples into the decoration or glaze, concealing the repair as much as possible. But for cheaper, more functional ceramics the staples were left exposed.

Conceptually speaking, there is something nice about seeing a visible repair which we don’t really see as normal. A classic example is car repair, you smash your car and take it to the shop and the mechanic repairs it so that it doesn’t ever look like it was smashed. There are probably some particular contextual reasons for that in car repair, as you don’t want to be driving around a car that looks like you’re a terrible driver having lots of accidents. But for other products, what’s the big deal? Why do we have a stigma about repair? Sure, the product was broken but if it is repaired to be as good or better than the product it was before there shouldn’t be a stigma. I think this is something that we can start to adjust our thinking around. I am fascinated by aesthetic transmission and perception and how we can start to change that cultural attitude towards repair.

LC: You also seem to frame the vases, at times, through the lens of speculative design. Could you discuss why?

GK: I frame some of my repair works through speculation because I think material and aesthetic communication of dystopian and utopian futures can be quite persuasive. For example, if there was some kind of material scarcity in the future, for whatever reason — post- climate change, post-WWIII, post-nuclear war, who knows — then how would we use materials and repair things in the absence of certain products?

We used to repair ceramics with staples and it is very functional so why shouldn't we go back to that? A lot of the time it all comes down to economic and material necessity, the need for frugality. There is no reason that these things will not happen it just becomes a case of when and how?

Process photo of: Trent Jansen’s 'Jugaad With Pottery High Tray' repaired by Guy Keulemans and Kyoko Hashimoto using silver staples cut from a Georgian spoon.
Process photo of: Trent Jansen’s 'Jugaad With Pottery High Tray' repaired by Guy Keulemans and Kyoko Hashimoto using silver staples cut from a Georgian spoon.
if we are interested in something like environmental sustainability we should try to leverage or exploit any kind of timely event to that agenda...
Guy Keulemans

LC: How do you find the vases you repair?

GK: Because I am a designer, I like to control the whole process and, for me, it is not so much about the functional aspect of keeping one vase in use or repairing one that was broken naturally. I am interested in the technique and the communication of the object. My father-in-law, Kiyotaka Hashimoto is a Japanese-trained ceramicist. We design the vases together then he makes them and then I break them. He is very accommodating. He puts so much effort and care into the production of these vases and then I go and drop them off ledges and crush them with tools!

LC: Are they designed to crack in a certain way, with weak points?

GK: Not so much with the vases but what you are talking about is the concept of break lines which I have worked on in past products such as Smash Repair which I produced in collaboration with Martijn Dijkhuizen for Project 21’s Repair Manifesto back in 2009.

The concept of break lines or intentional failure points is not new, it is embedded in some industrial products because designers and engineers know that ultimately something will break and if something is going to break you want it to be easily repairable or replaceable. For example, sometimes slotted wooden sprocket teeth were used in historical turbine engines because if there was a problem with the engine (such as it overpowering or coming into contact with resistant force) the wood part would break, absorbing the shock and was replaceable. This avoided irreparable damage to the whole cog.

'Smash Repair' by Guy Keulemans and Martijn Dijkhuizen, 2009
'Smash Repair' by Guy Keulemans and Martijn Dijkhuizen, 2009.

LC: I’ve never thought about intentionally making something break to facilitate repair. Most of the time when you hear about intentional breaking it is to do with Apple and other big companies using built-in obsolescence to increase sales...

GK: That’s a tricky one. Planned obsolescence is widely believed but not well supported by evidence. When you get down to it, the engineering context that does create repair problems and obsolescence isn’t often intentional, it is a by-product of trying to fix other engineering problems. Although there are some cases where they should have known better. Apple is an interesting one because they make really great products on one hand and on the other hand their products are really crap in terms of repairability because they keep integrating components together to solve other problems such as lightness.

Ultimately, nuance is always needed when we thinking about how and when a product should be repaired...
Guy Keulemans

LC: But it does feel like larger companies lobby against repairability...

GK: This is a complex issue that needs nuance to understand it. I agree with you that that is a problem but, to be fair to them, their motivation is that they want to repair the product the right way. Corporations want to control their products and are not so interested in fostering DIY or alternative forms of repair.

One of the ways we can assess products is on a case-by-case basis or on a product typology basis. We need to look at product typeform stability by which I mean some product types have fairly stable rates of innovation — a good example is the bicycle. Since the innovation of the safety bicycle in the late 19th century/ early 20th century, the basic bicycle typology hasn’t changed that much, there have been certain innovations in gearing, frame types and material but the basic typology is more or less the same, it is a very stable product type, that actually means that it is very repairable and we should definitely resist any kinds of corporate or industrial initiatives to make bicycles less repairable.

With other types of products, for example mobile phones, that are still in the process of rapidly innovating its much harder to argue for repairability. Although I am really focused on advocating for repair, I can also see the argument that for a product that is innovating very very quickly, it may be better for a company to manage that repair, simply because a year, or three or five years after they produce one particular brand or model the technology may have progressed substantially. It may then be better for that material to go back to the company where they can remanufacture it into a more technologically advanced new product rather than trying to maintain older products that are starting to become obsolete from a functional point of view.

Ultimately, nuance is always needed when we thinking about how and when a product should be repaired.