PARIS – With so much attention paid to the expos and shows in the French capital, designers in Bordeaux have quietly been reshaping the way we think about art and decorative objects. A unique shop, run by a family of environmentally-conscious design lovers, is making the everyday practice of recycling chic.
Bordeaux is no stranger to innovation. While its much-beloved wine remains a century-old tradition, winemakers have rarely hesitated to push their trade into the 21st century. Likewise, the city ranked 23rd among European cities by an Australian research agency 2thinknow. Yet trailing far behind first placed Paris, when it comes to ecological innovation, the city is still developing.
In the past 15 years the city has tried to revamp its recycling program, especially with its 2007 designation as a UNESCO World Heritage city. In 2008, the mayor even installed a municipal phone number, Allo mairie ("Hi mayor") to call and leave complaints about trash, pollution, lighting issues, and other matters affecting the local environment, urging the public to take responsibility for keeping clean. The city also adopted a bike sharing system similar to the Parisian Vélib, called VCub, in 2010. But some, like local store owner Charles Burke, think that Bordeaux can do more when it comes to environmental issues, especially recycling.
Burke, half-American and half-French, launched his design shop, W.A.N. in 2010, reinventing the way that locals in Bordeaux think about recycling. The store is the first in France, according to Burke, that features entirely European and recycled objects and designs. The name, We Are Nothing (W.A.N.) reflects Burke's philosophy that without the earth, humans wouldn't exist. "We like design and we like the planet," he said, summing up his motivations to start the store with the help of his children Steven and Jennie.
The concept is simple. Take recycled goods – old fabric, torn fire hose, scrap metal, old wine barrels, discarded vinyl records – and turn them into useful objects or works of art. His store, a hodgepodge of different artists’ creations, is full of everything from gorgeous lamps and jewelry to purses and pencil cases. At first glance, it might not even seem that his signature messenger bags and purses are made from used bicycle inner tubes and not stylish leather.
The store is deeply rooted in the Slow Movement with strong attention paid not just to the raw materials but also their origins. All recycled elements are locally sourced, as much as possible, with nearly 50% coming from Bordeaux. Burke said that about 45% of the rest comes from the rest of France with the remainder sourced from other European countries. He doesn't want to import items from far away to avoid creating an unnecessary carbon footprint.
While ethical fashion projects featured recently in Paris are largely overshadowed by the mainstream walks of Fashion Week, Burke's artists are also still not quite in the limelight, lacking commercial appeal. Still, W.A.N. participated in the Parisian interior design industry show "Maison et Objets" for the third time this September, taking a leap towards reaching a broader audience. Burke and his families hope that the store is challenging the notion of quality on the French market. "We know what good quality is, but our wallets are open to the cheap stuff," Burke said of the French.
The store has been successful for Burke, who recently purchased a brand from a designer that worked exclusively with bicycle inner tubes. Burke sources the discarded tubes from several places including the local Decathlon sporting goods store. He now oversees the production of products ranging from handbags to book covers and wallets, under the brand name KREJCI.
The boutique's popularity has also grown, attracting a large community that attends the art gallery shows in the old vaulted cellars under the shop. "First I found everybody," he said of his artists, "but now people are finding me."
With no identical shop in France, Burke hopes one day to transpose the concept on the Parisian market, though the high cost of space in the capital means he won't be going anywhere anytime soon. "We are talking about slow business here, and this means having patience, passion and respect," he said.
Photo: Charles Burke