Neatly lined up on wood shelves in Ryan Orr’s workshop are 44 Macintosh computer towers. Empty and clean, the towers are waiting to become the legs of 22 sleek, high-end coffee tables.
The tables are called Crunching Numbers G3 and G4, depending upon the model, and they are the flagship products of Orr’s company called re:form designs.
By day, Orr, 35, of Davenport, is a video/film producer for dphilms, Rock Island, doing editing, visual effects and graphics.
But his mind hums along 24/7, and among the things he thinks about are how commonly discarded products might be repurposed as something else, such as a piece of furniture or a work of art.
Thus he came up with the idea of using Mac towers — already sleek in that Steve Jobs kind of way — to make coffee tables.
To hold the towers/legs together, he clamps them with heavy-duty coil suspension springs salvaged from small trucks or SUVs. He has the coils sandblasted and professionally painted using the same powder coating process as on farm machinery. (The metal is electronically charged and then colored with powder.)
For the tabletop, he buys one-half-inch-thick sheets of glass that he attaches to the towers/legs with metal pieces called stand-offs.
“It takes about a month to make one,” Orr said. “It’s a little more than playing with junk. But that’s what makes it fun.”
His asking price is $600 and he has sold four so far. One went to a customer in St. Louis and three went to Quad-Citians, including Tom Terronez, the president of Terrostar, a Web design and Internet marketing company based in Bettendorf.
Orr has three of the tables in the foyer of dphilms, and that’s where Terronez spotted them when he arrived for a business meeting.
“I saw them sitting there and thought they were really cool-looking in addition to being sturdy and well-built,” he said. “I didn’t know they were for sale.”
When he realized they were made of mostly reused materials, he was doubly impressed.
Terronez put his table in the entry of his business, where it draws a lot of comments from customers, especially “tech-y, nerdy people. They get a big kick out of it,” he said.
He thought the price was a bargain. “I would have paid more for it,” he said. “You can pay almost that for a plain wood table at a furniture store.”
How Orr got started
Orr’s business came about with the convergence of his interest in design and his concern for the environment, plus the fact that so many things get thrown away.
“How do you take things — anything — and somehow transform them into things people want back, that they cherish and want to show off?” he says.
He always has a pen and a sketch pad, or at least some Post-It notes, at the ready for jotting down ideas.
Orr then discusses them with his wife Amy, whom he describes as his “voice of logic.” They decide what ideas are feasible, both in the sense that they will make attractive objects people will want and that the creation of them won’t be so labor-intensive or expensive as to be prohibitive.
He then draws his ideas to scale and consults people in the fabrication trades to see what’s structurally possible. A coffee table, for example, needs to support the weight of books and people’s feet.
Materials for the coffee table, de-manufacturing
Orr got his first used Macs from dphilms, but the bulk came from a Des Moines-area company on a tip from a friend. The company was preparing to pay a recycler to pick them up; instead, the Orrs took them off the company’s hands for free.
Other sources are small school districts and computer repair places. “I keep my feelers out,” Orr said. “When you get a tip, you have to pounce because, once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
Cleaning the computers is labor-intensive; the process is similar to what goes on at the Electronic De-Manufacturing Facility operated by the Waste Commission of Scott County in Davenport.
The Orrs sort everything — parts they will incorporate into another piece, parts that can be recycled as e-waste and parts, such as copper wire, that they can sell to help fund their business.
“A lot of people never open their computer to see the sheer volume (of parts) inside,” Orr said. “It would blow people’s minds.”
The Orrs found that they could reuse, recycle or sell 99 percent of the computers, with less than 1 percent having to be landfilled.
The tables can be customized; the towers can be left as-is, painted or vinyl-wrapped, and the coils can be painted in any color.
Orr has other “raw materials” in his shop, including boxes of heat sinks (the metal pieces that sit on chips in computers to pull heat away), cooling fans and speakers.
He even has a box of 3,600 keyboard keys.
“I’m not attempting to pack-rat,” he says. “Everything is calculated. They (the parts) all relate to sketches and drawings in my book. Everything has an intended purpose.”
And it isn’t just computers he’s interested in. He also prowls garage sales and “looks at what the neighbors are putting out at the curb” to get ideas.
“I’m not limiting myself to technology-related things. It just happened that my first thing is that,” he said.