Some people think of old tires as rubbish. Not Israeli designer Elanit Neutra. She is giving them a new lease of life by transforming them into wallets, purses, notebooks and bags. Now her work is turning heads across the US.Some women send their husbands out of the house to get rid of the trash. Israeli Elanit Neutra, 37, sends her husband to fetch it in: in this case used rubber inner tubes from old tires at a local garage.
After a scrub and clean, Neutra cuts the rubber to a desired shape, patches the pieces together and creates one-of-a-kind designs – wallets, purses, notebooks, and laptop bags – all making treads in the fashion world, both in Israel and in the US.
This month, US distributor Lihi Yami had Neutra’s goods on display at a New York gift show, Neutra’s third US-based show this year. Her goods can now be bought at a number of locations including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and from Agas and Tamar, a design shop on Mott Street in New York City.
Wallets are her most popular item, she guesses, but people also like the messenger bags and purses – the trendy accessories that look like leather, but which have distinctive patterns and qualities of their own.
Most importantly, perhaps, is the environmental aspect of Neutra’s work. She gives years of extra mileage to rubber inner tubes that might otherwise end up in landfill, taking hundreds of years to break down.
Neutra, who works from home in Tel Aviv, is tuned in to environmental issues and the problem with tires, and imagines that’s why eco-hip Americans are starting to catch on to her handmade creations. “They really like what I do, maybe because the eco-trend is really exciting for them,” she says.
“For me it’s the attitude of the material,” she confesses. And about the lingering rubber smell that might seep into one’s personal effects, she agrees that it’s there, but notes: “I like it and besides, it fades away after a while.”
Neutra’s first taste for rubber came one day about five years ago when she was walking down the street in Tel Aviv. She noticed an old tire and realized that it had an interesting texture. Since then her husband has been collecting a steady supply of inner tube “raw material” from a local garage.
According to a 2003 study by the US Environmental Protection Agency, about 290 million scrap tires are generated each year in the US. The stockpiling of tires in landfill poses many environmental and health risks: tire fires, if they happen, pollute the air in an extreme way, and discarded tires create ideal habitats for disease carrying insects such as mosquitos.
To tackle the problem of used tires, new markets in the US are opening to find ways of recycling the rubber, such as in basketball courts and in shoes. Perhaps more designers will take Neutra’s lead and create fashionable items from rubber.
But do-it-yourselfers, be warned. It’s not so easy lugging around big inner tubes, washing them and cutting them to size, reports Neutra. “Every tire has its own thickness and personality,” she concludes.