One man's broken iPhone is another man's art

Twice Used, a project launched by a smartphone repair specialist, wants to make modern household products out of our stories of "clumsiness and everlasting remorse."

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
4 min read
Twice Used

We've all been there: One haphazard shuffle or slip of the fingers and time slows down as your smartphone sails toward the sidewalk, slamming down with the not-so-satisfying slap of glass on concrete. But rejoice, for the infamous feeling of shame upon shattering one's device may have a bright side. It turns out dismantled iPhones that are injured beyond repair make for interesting pieces of functioning furniture, jewelry, and kitchen accessories.

That's the idea behind Twice Used, the project of Chris Koerner, a phone and iOS screen repair specialist and owner of Alabama-based LCDcycle. On Friday, Koerner launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds in an effort to make the initiative a core part of his business, and to get out in the wild his iPhone ornaments -- from picture frames and coasters to pieces of jewelry and artistic renditions of clocks and coffee table countertops.

The idea started when Koerner discovered an interesting statistic from the early days of running his first phone repair shop while still in college. Out of every four iPhones that made their way to what would become his three-chain business, Phone Restore, one unit was typically unfit for rebirth.

"I noticed that only about 75 percent can be recycled -- the other 25 percent were just being stacked up in our warehouse," he said in an interview with CNET. That's because those unlucky devices with broken LCD portions of the screen weren't suitable for Phone Restore's process, which involves heating up the screen to remove and ultimately replace both the adhesive between the layers and the broken layers themselves.

"There are three parts to an iPhone screen: the LCD; the digitizer, which is the touch recognizer; and then there is the glass," Koerner explained. "As long as the LCD is working, it can be recycled. But you can't fix a broken LCD."

Twice Used gives broken iPhones a second life (pictures)

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With a huge stack of unrecyclable iPhones, Koerner and his team searched for a way to utilize them that didn't involve the landfill or the cumbersome form-filling and shipping processes involved with Apple's recycling program.

"We had an artist that I knew make a 3x3-foot canvas for the University of Alabama. He painted a script 'A' on it and covered it in shattered iPhone glass," Koerner said. "All the customers loved it," he added. Eventually, Phone Restore had at least one piece of similar artwork in each of its three stores, and Koerner began thinking of ways to expand that to items that can be sold both for their functional purpose and as an ironic twist on the utility of broken phone screens.

When Koerner sold his business to a competing device repair store last winter and it took over his chain operation, he founded his new company, LCDcycle, with the intention of making the Twice Used project an integral part of the business. "We upgraded our warehouse for LCDcycle about six months ago and had this [Twice Used] on our mind," he said. So Koerner currently has 2,000 square feet of space to dedicate to the project.

Twice Used

LCDcycle currently has nine employees, and Koerner hopes to spin off some of that workforce -- and potentially expand it soon -- to tackle the Twice Used initiative. The Kickstarter campaign is less a one-off project than it is a funding initiative necessary to kick off more high-scale production.

"We don't need to buy the glass, obviously. We do need other material like cork," he said, "and a milling machine to make stainless steel." The Kickstarter's $10,000 goal is for those materials plus the man hours that will go into making the pledge items and the first round of sellable products. The team has around 20,000 pieces of whole or partial devices to work with at the moment, but hopes to partner with fellow repair shops to source more in the future.

Even if you're not interested in decorating your home with broken technology, many can relate to the situation that inspires Twice Used. As anyone who's suffered a broken screen debacle knows, smartphones are surprisingly resilient. Oftentimes an iPhone will function long after its screen has spiderwebbed, even while pieces of its face slowly fall out. It's the ones that don't function that make their way into Twice Used. "Each screen tells a story -- a story of clumsiness and everlasting remorse," Korener writes on the Kickstarter page.

A testament to our smartphone's strength in the face of brute force -- and a telling example of what it takes to have one's device find its way to Twice Used -- is best illustrated in Koerner's most memorable phone repair job.

When the massive outbreak of tornadoes swept through Alabama in late April of 2011, one of Koerner's stores in a strip mall lot was the only one left standing, yet it still had to close for three weeks to get back on its feet. When it reopened, a man brought in an iPhone that had been through a harrowing affair.

"He was literally blown out of his building and into the parking lot," Koerner said of the man's tornado survival story. His phone was across the lot, under a pile of rubble. When he found it, Koerner added, it was miraculously receiving a call from his mother checking in to see if her son was OK.

That man got his phone fixed, with the screen back in order because its LCD miraculously remained intact. For those devices that aren't so lucky, Koerner's now got a plan to keep them from stacking up in his warehouse.

See some of Koerner's artwork in these photos.