Designer Andu Masebo took great care to avoid making anything “naff or kitsch” when transforming a scrapped car into eight furniture pieces, currently on display at the V&A for London Design Festival.
As part of the museum’s emerging designer commission, the Part Exchange project saw Masebo purchase a tired Alfa Romeo on Ebay before dissecting and scavenging it for parts.
The parts were then turned into a small family of furniture and homeware, guided by the car’s distinct visual language and the stories of its past owners.
“I had this idea of looking at a car in terms of what it meant to people and that emotional connection you make to a car,” Masebo told Dezeen. “So if I could find a car that was coming up to the end of its life and I could somehow find out what its life was like – the people it came into contact with, the places it went, the things it’s seen – then I could actually bring to life those stories.”
Two of the furniture pieces – a boxy coffee table and matching shelving unit – were designed solely as an exploration of the car and what could be done with its distinctive silhouette.
The former combines sections of the Alfa Romeo’s bright red bodywork, including one of the door handles and the lock, into a seamless-looking cube.
For the freestanding storage unit, Masebo repurposed sections of the doors and window casings plus one of the wing mirrors to form four asymmetrical shelves.
His approach was a balancing act between adapting the car parts just enough to disguise their original function – and avoid looking hackneyed – but not so much as to change them beyond recognition.
“It’s quite easy to make really naff or kitsch objects out of cars,” Madebo said. “Just think of the Top Gear coffee table.”
In collaboration with reclaimed textile studio Greater Goods, the designer reworked the vehicle’s logo-patterned upholstery into a patchwork fabric and applied it to a low day bed.
The piece was designed to represent the story of an avid Alfa Romeo collector, who helped Masebo take apart the car.
“He met his now-wife when he was at university and they were both in relationships with other people,” the designer explained. “They used to go take drives together in his car as a kind of platonic way to spend time together and get to know each other.”
“So I wanted to make an object that was somewhere you can be intimate with someone but also not necessarily break any rules,” he continued.
The remaining five pieces correspond to each of the car’s former owners, whom Masebo tracked down with the help of the car’s service history and interviewed over the course of six months.
To represent what the car meant to its first owner – Jean from Yorkshire who bought the Alfa Romeo in 1998 – he created a night light out of the engine block, sawed into thin cross-sections and combined to form a peekaboo shade.
The light was designed as a physical embodiment of third-man syndrome – a phenomenon wherein people in traumatic situations will sometimes report feeling a comforting presence despite being alone.
The owner told Masebo she experienced such a feeling after her husband died, much like explorer Ernest Shackleton did during one of his Antarctic expeditions, which Jean later retraced.
“That story of Shackleton mirrored her feeling when she’d lost her husband, so I wanted to make an object that could comfort you in times of literal darkness,” Masebo explained.
Other objects in the collection reflect more of the mundane, everyday associations people had with the car.
There is a hallway shelf, designed to hold all the essential items for popping to the shop and made from a piece of the passenger seat’s backrest, combined with the rearview mirror, cigarette holder and a small hook.
For one previous owner, who said he bought the car as a young man to drive fast and impress his friends, Masebo made a shelf with hidden compartments from the wing of the car.
“When you’re 20 and you want to hide things from your parents, that’s the kind of object that might be handy,” the designer explained.
Reflecting another owner’s observation that the car “becomes one of the family”, Masebo made an elaborate coat rack using two metal bars that once secured the seatbelts, where each member of the family can metaphorically hang their hat.
Masebo also cut up the Alfa Romeo’s distinctive circular spokes and stacked them on top of each other to form a wine rack, nodding to the fact that the car’s last owner bought it as an investment much like an ancient bottle of Bordeaux.
The project does not argue for a “nose to tail” philosophy of using every part of a car, as large parts including the chassis and framework were ultimately still scrapped.
Instead, Masebo hopes to explore how we can hold onto a sense of respect and responsibility for the things we once owned.
“Ultimately, the project isn’t advocating that everyone goes out and takes apart their car and turns it into furniture,” he said. “It’s actually quite an inefficient way to make objects.”
“It’s more about how we can change how we feel about the objects that we live with,” he added.
“It’s not always about recycling and reusing. Sometimes it’s about culture, so what’s the culture around newness and history?”
Previous projects have seen the designer form a chair from stainless steel car exhaust pipes for the Atelier100 project by IKEA and H&M, and craft a series of locally made products based around the route of London’s number 12 bus.
Elsewhere at this year’s London Design Festival, Zaha Hadid Design has launched an undulating modular display system while designers Natsai Audrey Chieza and Christina Agapakis have started what they describe as the “first biodesign lifestyle brand.
Images are courtesy of Andu Masebo and the V&A unless otherwise stated.
Part Exchange is on show at the V&A as part of London Design Festival 2023 from 16-24 September 2023. See our London Design Festival 2023 guide on Dezeen Events Guide for information about the many other exhibitions, installations and talks taking place throughout the week.