Back in the days before Instagram, you might have been considered something of a narcissist if you trained your camera on everything that crossed your path and then proceeded to post it to your favorite social network. But for the Dutch-born, New York–based graphic designer and photographer Stefan Hengst, it was something of a challenge he put to himself to better his practice: Two years ago he decided to work on his documentary skills by photographing and posting three images before noon each day, like some sort of publically vetted sketchbook. His ultimate goal, besides self-betterment, was to show people that you don’t have to travel to India or get lost in some souk to be inspired. At the end of his exercise, he had amassed close to 1200 photos: “I shot a lot of things on the street and by looking at the photos, it occurred to me that I really liked trash,” laughs the designer. “To me, trash tells the best story of how I look at my environment every day.”
“Finding beauty in the everyday” might be a cliché, but in Hengst’s hands it became something refreshingly weird: He scrambled the best images, plus some new ones, into a graphic collage that he then used to create modular wallpaper panels that covered one wall of the BOFFO show house on view in New York during Design Week this spring. The images, which had started out as stark close-ups of street trash — a fork, a disposable razor, foam packing bubbles, foil, matches, screws, and the like — were cleaned up, color-reduced, and arranged into compositions that don’t necessarily read immediately as trash piles; you have to look closely to understand exactly what composes the images (though the plastic fork speaks for itself). “They were iPhone pictures to start with, so if you blow them up large, you kind of have to treat them in Photoshop,” Hengst says. “I played with different filters, posterized the images… I didn’t want it to be too literal.”
Of course, when we first spotted the design, hiding on a smaller sized panel in the back of Hengst’s booth at ICFF, it was that literal source material we begged him to scrounge up. Hengst obliged, and what follows is a sampling of the images — some of which survived the trash heap and some of which got kicked to the curb. Can you tell which ones?
Stefan Hengst’s NY Trash wallpaper installed in the BOFFO show house this spring.