Made by us: Appreciating the human side of things

Designing unique objects with, and for, the homeless.


 

Terry can fill a room with his laugh. A furniture restorer and french polisher by trade, he’s never without his multi-coloured crocheted hat sitting slightly askew on his head. He’s a colourful character who’s had a colourful life. An East Londoner by way of the Scottish Highlands, as a youngster he was shy and didn’t really fit in. For 20 years, he lived on a houseboat he’d restored himself. His pride and joy. A quiet retreat in the middle of the hustle and bustle of London.

To create the bravado he felt he needed in certain situations, Terry used alcohol and drugs. And following some difficult times in his personal life, he started turning to drink more and more. As his alcoholism intensified, he let his boat fall into a state of disrepair. Until eventually it sank, leaving him homeless.

I met Terry through the charity St Mungo’s, where I’d been volunteering and running workshops with a drop-in art class. I’d moved to London from Largs, a small seaside town in Scotland, to study toward my masters at the Royal College of Art. I spent the first few weeks of my studies living in a room in a hostel with 15 other people, then moved to a room with no radiator and a revolving door of people who, like me, were new to London and easy to exploit. I ran out of money and had to move again, this time to a room where a friend and I took turns on the sofa each night. For the first time, I started to understand the importance of having somewhere safe to call home.

Then, one winter evening, a rough sleeper asked me for money. He told me he was “so fucking cold” and no one would help him. “I’m going to do it. I am going to kill myself,” he continued, then stormed off into the crowd. I went into a nearby shop, bought some food, and followed in the direction he’d walked. A few minutes later I caught up with him and offered him the bag. “What’s in the bag,” he asked. I explained. “Why is it always food? People try to help with food or a cup of tea or some spare change, but I am so fucking cold and I have nowhere to go.” I said I was sorry. He snatched the bag off me and disappeared again.

I sat next to him, and with this one simple move realised there was nothing dividing us.
I thought about the encounter over and over for weeks, perplexed by the man’s response and realising how ignorant I was about the experience of homelessness. I started talking to more rough sleepers; James, in Glasgow, was the first. I sat next to him, and with this one simple move realised there was nothing dividing us. We were just two people, with our own unique stories.

I began noticing the contrast between a lot of street architecture—aggressive, threatening, solid and unchanging—and the fragility of homeless people’s belongings which are so temporary, soft and unfixed; a metaphor of their experience in society. Our sense of identity is often expressed and reinforced through our material belongings. When you lose your home and the things in it, you can feel you’ve lost who you are too.

I decided to offer my services as a designer directly to people who’d experienced homelessness; to create unique objects with, and for, them. When I met Terry and told him what I wanted to do, he was well up for it, immediately suggesting we work on a piece of furniture. We took out a pair of chairs he had in storage at the mooring where he used to keep his houseboat, and got to work.

Terry creates his own artworks and writes poetry, so we used that as our starting point. I’d been looking at symbols used by homeless people in the United States to communicate to one another through chalking on the street. These are also used to write visual poems. So we each created our own set of symbols, swapped and designed meanings for each. We listened to music, drank tea, ate together and exchanged stories. I’d work quietly on the paintwork of the chairs as Terry shared his skills with me—painting techniques, which brushes to use—and regaled me with stories of his time in the Highlands or his travels in Nepal.

When you don’t have much, the stories and relationships reflected in what little you have give these things huge value.
When I showed Terry the final result he jumped up and down with excitement. We hauled the chairs back to the mooring where he’d had his houseboat, and took photographs. It was emotional. For me, the chairs reflect Terry’s and my friendship at this particular point in our lives. When I moved into a new flat, he offered me one of the chairs to put in my new home. I treasure it.

For Terry, his chair is less a functional object and more an art piece—something with deeper personal and emotional value than just furniture. So many of us have so many belongings that we take for granted or don’t appreciate. When you don’t have much, the stories and relationships reflected in what little you have give these things huge value. The piece of jewellery made by an ex-partner, the coat that keeps him warm, his crocheted hat, and now his chair—for Terry, they’re all things to be treasured.