Disposable vs. Impermanent: A State of Mind

by Annette Lin

Every year, on the first of July, around 70,000 people in Montreal pack their things into boxes and suitcases, hire a moving van—or ask a friend if they forgot to book in advance—and move to a new apartment.

Known as Moving Day, or Le jour du déménagement, dating from the time when the Quebec province used to mandate fixed terms for leases of rental properties, the date usually signals the end of one lease and the start of another in a city where 45% of people rent.

The atmosphere usually channels the chaos and conviviality of a haphazardly organized music festival where thousands of people mill about, each with different ideas of where they’re going next. Here, though, instead of leaving streams of cans, bottles and cigarette butts behind, the residual debris is discarded curbside furniture

A 1930s scene from Le jour du déménagement, or Moving Day in Montreal (an annual event that coincides with the start of the majority of new city apartment leases)


Of course, the notion of leaving furniture on the street isn’t unique to Montreal. Walk through cities like New York and San Francisco, and the sidewalks are lined with scratched tables, lonely chairs and lamps that may or may not work. Some of these pieces can be rescued. Some are beyond repair, and will be carted off hundreds of miles away in order to be disposed of. But others are perfectly functional; perhaps they were discarded because they no longer fit with what the owner wanted. After all, to paraphrase Marie Kondo, why keep something if it no longer brings you joy? 

But in a climate where Earth Overshoot Day—the calculated date when what we’ve consumed is more than what the Earth’s natural resources will produce that year—gets earlier and earlier, perhaps it pays to consider alternatives, such as multifunctional, multi-use pieces (think: a sofa bed); modular units that can be assembled or reassembled according to current needs; or renting furniture.

Dr. Robert Kronenburg of the University of Liverpool’s School of Architecture has written extensively about Flexible Architecture that “adapts rather than stagnates; responds to change rather than rejects it.” 

Design that accommodates its users and their natural inclination for change, he says, is “economically and ecologically more viable.” The same aspirations could be applied to furniture, but would require radically changing our approach to how furniture can and should be used. More importantly, these ideas shouldn’t be treated as niche movements, as they historically have been. Box Furniture, a book of modular furniture designs derived from packing crates, and published by the designer and social reformist Louise Brigham in 1909, is regarded as a historical relic of its time, despite Brigham’s surprisingly modern push for recycling and reuse.

Architect Yona Friedman proposed, in the 1950s, for Mobile Architecture, that offered “the possibility to periodically remodel the individual habitat and urban layout, without imposing demolition.”

He believed that the built environment exists to support humanity in its pursuit for change, not to restrict it. Though highly regarded as a thinker, he has always operated outside the stream of mainstream architecture, and, unfortunately, leaves very few built works as a legacy. 

Maharam | Story | Louise BrighamImagery from Louise Bergham's book “Box Furniture: How to Make Useful Articles For The Home” published in 1909. Louise offered ways to repurpose packing crates and soap boxes in the home.



History shows that flexibility is considered a novelty, but it needs to become the new norm. Taking this approach to design would not only benefit the environment, but help us psychologically as well.

Scientists have proven that our brain cells are spatially sensitiveOr to put it more poetically, “the person defines the space, the space defines the person; the person gives meaning to the space, the space gives meaning to the person,” as Nur Ayalp, a professor in interior architecture and environmental design at TOBB University in Turkey, writes.

I’ve moved to three apartments in two different countries in the last five years, with several months of sleeping on couches or staring at the ceiling of unknown rooms in between. Each time I move into a new place, it feels like I can finally make a place my own, as temporary as it might be. Practically speaking, given such a lifestyle, there’s little point in investing in any furniture other than the utilitarian. If I move again, the items that filled my current space with beauty might not fit or suit the next place. And one day, when I decide to go home to Australia, it will cost far more to move these items than it would to purchase these items twice. Buying anything other than cheap, disposable furniture seems like a folly—until the environmental costs, coupled with the disappointment of using poorly made furniture are factored in. 

Humans are naturally changing; it only makes sense that our surroundings, and the objects we use to decorate them, do so too.

On a bigger scale, we, as a species, are used to adapting to different situations and environments—in fact, it’s what has allowed us to arrive to where we are today. Accepting and embracing impermanence in design could be the next thing we can change. 

Whether we choose to “Marie Kondo” our spaces or are simply looking to rearrange things, it doesn’t have to be hard to adapt to this way of living. By choosing to rent our furniture, reuse it in new ways, or invest in modular pieces, we can create interiors that adapt with us instead of staying stagnant, and disrupt the increasingly short cycle of buying, consuming, using and disposing of furniture.

Diptych by Lex Pott & New Window | ARTNAU | Disenos de unas, Interior de  tienda, Separadores de ambiente

'The Diptych Collection' by Lex Pott and New Window, derived from one single Douglas Fir sapling planted in 1960 and harvested in 2013. The collection was created by sandblasting pieces of the tree's lumber to reveal the annual rings of its growth in an effort to unveil its hidden history and depict time in a visual and utilitarian manner. Images via DesignBoom