If necessity is the mother of invention, prison cells must be veritable hotbeds of creativity—and not just for making wine in toilets or tattoo guns from Bic pens and guitar strings. According to three Italian designers who've been holding design workshops with prisoners since 2003, the incarcerated are brilliant lifehacks. And we can learn from them.

In Milan last week, Aldo Cibic, Tommaso Corà Marco, and Tortoioli Ricci (aka Cibic Workshop) presented Freedom Room, a prototype for a micro-housing module designed by the inmates at a high security prison in Spoleto.

At twelve by eight feet, the prototype is the exact dimensions of the cells where the prisoner/designers live, and it incorporates their collective experiences living in 96-square-foot rooms. Mostly, their ideas are surprisingly simple—after all, living in a pillbox, you glean a few subtleties about detailed space planning. For example, the prisoners explained that they had taken to building shelving out of cigarette cartons—so they created a long line of shelves that snake along the wall. There's storage packed into every square inch of the place, from around the bathroom mirror to under the beds, and every flat surface has a specific purpose, including a sliding counter that attaches to the sink.

If the hours of prison movies and TV shows I've watched have taught me anything, it's that most of the extras—the planters, the espresso makers, ESPECIALLY the painting—could be used as a weapon. But that stuff is just window dressing, far less important than the construction details and furniture, which was developed in the prison's wood shop, where most of the cell furniture is made. It's a crucial proof-of-concept, if the design team wants prisons to adopt their prototype.


The director of the Spoleto prison, for one, is all in. "The heavy, mortifying restrictions placed on furnishings and accessories... tend to sharpen the wits of the detainees, who will try to make every possible use of the objects they are allowed to keep," former director Lucia Castellano said in Milan. "I sincerely hope that Prison Administrations will consider and adopt this project to promote a ‘culture' of prison life which, for the first time, may be determined to a certain extent by the inmates themselves." Whether or not the prototype is implemented in prisons, the designers at Cibic also hope that Freedom Room could serve as a model for low-income social housing and youth hostels—hence their introduction to the project, which reads, "4 x 2.7 meters are the dimensions of a prison cell, but this is not a cell."

How you interpret Freedom Room as a proposal for penitentiaries likely depends on how you feel about punishment in general. But as a proposal for low-cost housing, the prototype is an interesting change of pace from the other micro-apartments we've seen recently, most of which are super-expensive and filled with high-end details. This thing, on the other hand, is cheap and easily made—it could help the people who live in tiny spaces by necessity, rather than choice. [Design Boom]