Formr is furniture made by formerly incarcerated people
If you’ve walked past a construction site, you’ve likely seen the huge trash cans filled with broken bricks, unfinished concrete slabs, and rusted metal pipes. This rubble adds up, creating 600 million tons of waste every year. For industrial designer Sasha Plotitsa, however, this is an opportunity. He sees a pile of valuable materials that can be reborn as beautiful new objects.
[Photo: courtesy Formr]A year ago, Plotitsa launched Formr, a startup that makes colorful furniture such as side tables, laptop desks and shelves. Plotitsa designs every piece that is handcrafted in a workshop in San Francisco by former prisoners whom he trains to clean the recovered materials and turn them into new things. Each piece is designed to draw attention to the materials that make up our everyday products and the people who make them.
Sasha Plotitsa [Photo: courtesy Formr]The designs are minimal yet highly functional. There is a wooden table with a glass planter in the middle. There’s a small table that you can work on your laptop while sitting on the couch, with a small stand for your phone. There is a bedside table with a built-in light and a dimmer controlled by a touch sensor.
Formr brings many topics together in Plotitsa’s varied career. His father was a building contractor, and Plotitsa grew up spending a lot of time on construction sites seeing firsthand how much waste was being generated. In college, he decided to study industrial design in the state of San Jose. In 2009, he was hired to design the San Francisco cannabis dispensary, MediThrive, which was later closed by the federal government because the substance, while legal in California, was not legal nationally. Through this work he learned how many people were detained for drug offenses and how difficult it was to make a life outside of prison. “I saw for myself what the failed war on drugs looked like,” he says. “When someone gets out of jail, they have to check the box on an application that says they have a file. That makes it very difficult for them to get their lives back on track. “
[Photo: courtesy Formr]After years as a successful commercial designer, Plotitsa decided to take a break in what he described as a midlife crisis. he wanted to do something more meaningful with his life. He wanted to build an industrial design company with a socially responsible mission that would address two of the issues that mattered most to him: waste and relapse. But getting such a deal off the ground proved a challenge.
[Photo: courtesy Formr]While three quarters of construction waste, including materials like metal and glass, is recycled, the rest – all 145 million tons – is sent to landfill. Plotitsa wanted access to these materials, but there is no established infrastructure for it. To this day, he keeps calling contractors one by one to see if they’ll let him come to look at their trash. And while he has an extensive Rolodex group of contractors that he has come to know over the years, most of them don’t want anyone to come to their job site, also because it puts some obligations on them.
“A lot of contractors are set up in their own way and don’t want anyone to mess with their system,” he says. “They have never diverted or recycled materials before and they see no reason to do so now. They call someone to get it away and they never have to think about it again. “
[Photo: courtesy Formr]Plotitsa has found several contractors who understand his mission and invite him to come over. He collects promising materials like huge blocks of wood. He has an industrial-size metal detector in his workshop that he can use to scan the materials and remove stray nails. Then he cleans and disinfects the materials so that they can be used safely.
[Photo: courtesy Formr]Winning people to work at Formr is a challenge in itself. Plotitsa finds workers through a number of organizations that help recently incarcerated people. Many prisons have a wood shop, so there are workers in the population who know how to make furniture. He has hired six workers since the business began, but he feels that keeping them can be difficult because life can be unstable after incarceration. In one case, an employee had to quit because of a health problem that had not been properly addressed while in custody. In other cases, workers had difficulty renting a place to live or coping with drug addiction. “I’ve found that the key is asking them what kind of support they need,” says Plotitsa.
[Photo: courtesy Formr]But there were also success stories. Gary Harrell, Formr’s fourth employee, served 45 years in prison. He loved creating pieces for Formr and at the same time began to work on his own art. Within a few months his work was picked up by several galleries including the Smithsonian, Library of Congress and MoMA PS1 in New York.
Formr has only been up and running for nine months, but Plotitsa has found an audience of design enthusiasts who are not only interested in how beautiful or functional the furniture is, but also want to bring objects into their home that tell a story and reflect their values . “I think people are looking for meaning in their lives,” he says. “This applies to her furniture as well as her career.”
The pieces cost between $ 89 and $ 569 and can be purchased from the Formr website.