How 3 Budapest friends are making a mark in eco-design

November 17, 2017
Urban Adventures

The Medence Group Art and Service Ltd was founded in 2000 as an independent physical and spiritual creative workshop by three friends (Tóbiás Terebessy, designer; Gergely (Gergő) Magyar, visual communication designer; András Gross, architect). Today, 17 years later, they are one of the most well-known names in Hungary for sustainable design. Their recycled bags can be seen on the arms of a lot of people, but this collective really doesn’t care about fitting into any retail boxes. In their own words, they are “unifying environmental design and arts in the fields of architecture, furniture and industrial design, fine arts, sculpture, installations, media, visual arts and performing art. Their philosophy is based on the environmentally conscious, socially useful and cost-effectiveness approach, their design philosophy and working methods are dominated by the organic design cycle and eco-design.”

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We visited them in their small workshop-office-shop-gallery fusion space (and a stop on our Made In Budapest shopping tour!), which they have been renting at a friendly price from the municipality of the IXth District, situated right next to the Central Market Hall in Budapest. We had the chance to chat with András and Gergő about the group’s approach and products.

How did the three of you meet?

András: Gergő and Tóbiás went to the same high school, and I went to university with Tóbiás.

How did you get the idea of working with recycled material?

András: In 1996-7, there was an exhibition of Scandinavian universities in the Museum of Applied Arts. Sustainability was the main focus of that exhibition, which was quite a big thing 20 years ago, at least here, so it was eye-opening for us. The other important influence was the yearly workshop in the village of Zsellye, which was a recurring workshop and symposium for Hungarian designers, where eco-design was the main topic at that time. Plus there was that inner feeling in us that this is how things should be done.

This approach was not widespread in Hungary at the beginning of the 2000s?

András: Well, I don’t know, we were brought up with this idea.

Gergő (who continues working through the whole interview): There were a few old guys on the scene like Cserny [Cserny József] and Zalaváry [Zalaváry József], who already had thoughts about this idea back then, but that’s pretty much it.

Was it surprising for others when you started working on the base of these ideas?

András: Our first exhibition was about our own designed furnitures in 2001, when our main material was bamboo and the other group having their furnitures there worked with hemp linen. So we had a collection together and right after that there was an article about us in a prominent Hungarian magazine, which stated that this approach could be equivalent of the Makovecz style in organic architecture. So it was seen as a possible continuation of that style. I don’t think we have got such nice and complex thoughts ever since [he laughs]. We realised very soon that the unique furniture design is not remunerative, so we shifted towards other things.

Made In Budapest

Your tour begins at Budapest’s Central Market Hall (we will not enter the Market Hall but if you have time, we recommend that you arrive early and allow yourself at least 30 minutes to walk around amongst the stalls).

And what is your main profile now? The bags?

András: Well, we are a community of creators, so lots of different approaches and ideas can work together here, such as architecture, design, interior decoration, theatre, scenic design, furniture, etc. Everyone does whatever he or she feels like — this was the basic idea. Then we got to a point of shifting our view to a profitable product, hence came the bags, which are also connected to a problematic point in the design process. We had been doing tents and installations for which we needed covering, and we found these big canvases for advertisements that turned out to be bags as well. We have been doing it for 10 years and it comes with a systematic income. A relatively big amount of material is needed for it, but it stabilises the inconsistancy that comes with the other projects. Besides all these we have B2B clients with bigger orders, sometimes in the few thousands.

Is there any trend nowadays with recycled design?

András: There are some companies that are creating similar products and started after us, yes. And of course, we were not the ones who came up with this idea.

Gergő: With the workshops, the furniture and other design ideas, we create something unique in the field of recycling, which is not about trends but about finding solutions for current problems.

How do you decide which materials to work with?

András: Based on emotions [laughter].

Gergő: Bamboo is a great material because it grows much faster and is easier to deal with than other harder woods.

András: We had that idea at the beginning that to be environmental friendly, we have to work with natural, organic materials. This was the starting point. Then came the idea to recycle stuff that otherwise would be impossible to use again. You just need to give it a little push.

In your case, how can you work with local materials?

Gergő: Well, the less you have to work with a material, the smaller the ecological burden, so fewer energy consumption is needed for the product. We tried to grow bamboo here in the country, because it actually can be grown outside Asia as well, closer to Hungary, but we eventually got stuck with that. But a huge portion of these projects are important mainly for their communication value. The number of people who you reach with the product and if you can plant this idea in their mind, is just as important as the product itself. If you raise their attention by working with a special material, you reach many more people and can make it matter.

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It seems you can see more and more recycled bags in recent years. Do you feel this, too?

Gergő: Our customer base went on a big change, too. When we started, first at the Sziget festival, the bags were mostly sold to young, alternative kids, but as it became trendier and more visible, it was more acceptable for everyone. So people are open-minded about this in Hungary, that’s for sure. The only problem is the money, of course. People still find it hard to buy uniquely designed products. Whereas in Austria, for example, it is more common to buy this kind of stuff without any hesitation.

How do you reach people? Do they come into the shop, or do you go to fairs and markets?

András: We work with retailers and there are fairs in Austria and Germany, which we attend regularly.

And the ones in Hungary?

András: We don’t really go to those, just rarely.

Gergő: Here at home we have the shop. This is a small country. People mostly know us, they know that we are here.

What are your plans for the future? Any new installations, projects?

Gergő: We are planning a few years-long holiday [laughs].

András: The installations like the one we did in MÜPA [Palais of Arts] two years ago, which was the world’s largest Music Box, are continuously going on. Some are currently in the making, so there is work all the time. Plus we have this place here, which is not only a shop but a workshop, office, showroom and gallery in one. There are exhibitors here all the time. We call for an application from time to time or we select artists who we like, to show their work here. But it is not a profit-oriented gallery, it is a space for art to be seen. And I believe there is a communication between the art on the walls and the work that is done here.

So anyone who passes by on the street can come in and ask you about your work and the products?

András: Yes, exactly. It happens quite a lot. It is a space full of creative energy. When we are having discussions with a client it is better just to invite them here so they can see what it is all about first-hand.

You can visit András, Gergő, Tóbiás and their shop, as well as other local Budapest artisans, on our Made In Budapest tour.