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27 Nov, 2013

Designers have an obligation to make sure their work is truly sustainable

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

From high-concept chairs to low-impact packaging, there is a greater emphasis on materials and processes that designers use

“There’s this very vulnerable planet of ours with finite resources. Architects and designers have, I think, a fair responsibility for conserving energy and materials and making things durable.” When Robin Day, the industrial designer best known for the injection-moulded polypropylene stacking chair (you can still see it in every classroom), died in 2010, his words were quoted in all the obituaries and tributes.

His position neatly sums up the obligation of designers and architects to design responsibly. In recent years, at both corporate and individual levels, there has been a greater emphasis on the social and environmental impact of the materials designers use. The transfer of knowledge between disciplines and industries is increasing, albeit slowly, with a definite shift towards holistic design and a more responsible attitude to material use.  

The poster boy for sustainable design thinking is the US-based, Swiss-born designer Yves Béhar, who is committed to improving commercially available products through sustainable means. In 2010, his company Fuse Project worked with US furniture giant Herman Miller to create the Sayl chair – a high-concept, low-impact, low-cost chair.

At the time of the launch, Béhar stated: “Attainability can only be reached if every molecule in the product is working harder. Fewer parts and less material ultimately mean less cost … and less carbon footprint.” Béhar created a product that was 93% recyclable, and cheaper than similar products in the Herman Miller range.

Also that year, working with clothing brand Puma, Fuse Project created the Clever Little Bag, a recyclable heat-woven bag and a flat-pack cardboard tray to replace the shoebox. Fuse Project says: “The bag uses 65% less cardboard than the standard shoe box, has no laminated printing, no tissue paper, takes up less space and weighs less in shipping. The tens of millions of shoes shipped in our bag will reduce water, energy and diesel consumption on the manufacturing level alone by more than 60% per year.” These savings can be quantified as an approximate reduction of 8,500 tons of paper, 20m megajoules of electricity, 1m litres fuel oil and 1m litres of water over the course of a year, simply by rethinking the packaging.

Yet with the abundance of technologies now available to smaller companies, or single-person operations, it’s not just the big names who are able to reassess the latent possibilities in production methods. In France last year, Samuel N Bernier launched his Project Re_ that combines recycling with 3D printing to turn waste such as jam jars and tin cans into dumbbells, bird boxes and myriad other products with the addition of simple printed parts. The revolution is happening at the home and even recycling, through the intervention of designers, is becoming more attractive.

Away from business, academic institutions have, over the past 20 years or so, begun to define, categorise and index the performance and possibilities of material uses to develop strategies to safeguard the future. Two examples are William McDonagh’s book Cradle to Cradle and TU Delft’s IDEMAT CCA software, which measures the lifetime impact of a product.

At Central St Martin’s School of Design in London, design graduates can undertake a two-year masters course in textile futures, which focuses on our material future with sustainability at the heart of everything it does. “I think there has been a big problem that sustainability has been pulled out of a separate course or focus [in design education],” says course director Caroline Till. “Intrinsically, good design will be sustainable.”

The course, which will change its name to material futures, works at the intersection of craft, science and technology – encouraging students to develop a multidisciplinary approach to design. Students have been investigating everything from the application of protocell technology in sportswear to the culturing of bacteria to be used as a textile dye – something that will have huge implications for the textile industry if it pays off. “Everything we do with the students is about how we use materials now,” Till says. “And how we can use them more efficiently in the future.”

As the public becomes more discerning about design and more concerned with the impact of the products they consume, sustainable design has shed its reputation of being poor-quality, or aesthetically inferior to high-end design items. As materials become scarcer and the impact of their use becomes more obvious, designers can no longer be content with making a product that has better elements or is “less bad” than its competitors in terms of its sustainable credentials. Designers now have a real obligation to not only themselves, but also future generations to introduce sustainability in every aspect of their operation.

Sustainability should be an ethos, rather than an add-on. The design world has grasped this idea, and the will of manufacturers to make a difference – by introducing responsible design thinking to all areas of industry – restates the role of the designer as a valuable agent in the world, not merely as a catalyst for consumption and profit.

Owen Pritchard is deputy editor of Icon Magazine, a British publication dedicated to architecture, design and culture

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