Low-energy light bulbs, formaldehyde-free tables, locally sourced upholstery – in a world where chemical-soaked products make us sick, exotically sourced materials drive up carbon output and inefficient appliances cost us thousands, innovations like these were heralded. But what were once considered luxuries for the eco-conscious community (even fads for yuppies) are now the baseline of product design.
Today’s industrial designers are coming of age in a time when the effects of climate change are impossible to ignore. They haven’t had to shift their thinking to incorporate waste reduction, renewable materials and hard-wearing forms. It’s been part of their vernacular from the beginning. And while this generation is arriving with a common principle at the root of their design sensibilities – that sustainability is a necessity, not an indulgence – they are moving in wildly different directions as they define the future of sustainable design.
Some look to the past for a simpler approach – think age-old materials that have stood the test of time for a reason. Others look to the future for manufacturing techniques, materials and even product types that are currently undeveloped or even non-existent. Together, in studios from Toronto to Lisbon and beyond, industrial designers are challenging the way we consume and waste, create and live, with innovations for long-term maintenance of the world as a whole.
Budgeting for a carbon footprint
Sebastian Cox, Britain
“There are a lot of grey areas around sustainability, and lots of unanswered questions,” said designer Sebastian Cox in a blog post this year on his Underwood collection. “It’s easy to presume that a product might be sustainable, but what does that actually even mean?” For his recently launched collection of furniture pieces made from hazelwood sourced from his own land in the south of England, Cox sought to simplify the process by zeroing in on one key component of sustainable design: carbon footprint. “It seems an impossible and intangible thing to tackle – the amount of invisible gas we’re emitting in our daily activities that’s gradually altering the climate on our planet. But there are simple steps we can take to help us address it, thanks to some basic science.” Using the life cycle assessment process, Cox calculated the amount of carbon dioxide that each piece in the Underwood collection uses – and put it on the price tag. Case in point: Production of the collection’s Hewn Bench, an ash seat with coppiced hazel legs (the young trees are cut down as part of a forest maintenance program), emits 7.56 kilograms of CO2 – that’s less than a leg of lamb.
Digging deep in a material world
Jake Whillans, Canada
“I define sustainability simply as the management of resources required to ensure that the demands of one do not negatively affect those of another,” says Toronto furniture-maker Jake Whillans, who does detailed research on the back story of every material he sources. “While it seems impossible – in a globalized market – to control every aspect from resource extraction to finished product, it is not impossible to control which producers, suppliers and processes I will work with.” For his recently launched Leather Bench, Whillans spent hours looking into the history – and environmental implications – of leather, tanning and dyeing before concluding that its durability and availability as a byproduct of the food industry was the right fit. He then searched for a vegetable-tanned leather source (he settled on a tannery in Pennsylvania) and hopes in the future to be able to get info on each specific hide – like how the cow lived. “Environmental sustainability requires a deep understanding of physical material,” he says. “Through my own work, I hope to foster that understanding and celebrate the inherent beauty of the natural world.”
Reuse, reuse, reuse
Sovrappensiero Design Studio, Italy
“When we design something, especially if it will be produced on a large scale, we try to respect the main criteria for sustainability: waste reduction, renewable materials and we want our objects to be the most durable as possible,” says Italian designer Lorenzo de Rosa, who founded Sovrappensiero in 2007 with Ernesto Iadevaia. “But I think this is a must for every designer and we can’t work if we ignore these simple principles. As a design studio we have to think further and we have to explore new ways and new process for a more sustainable world.” For two years, they have been working with Manerba, an office furniture brand in Gazzuolo, Italy, to take its sustainable practices to the next level (they already use recycled materials and reduce waste) by making new collections from outdated stock. But the studio didn’t stop there: They actually taught the manufacturer how to use this process in the future, and make it a regular part of the production cycle.
The slow design movement
Martinho Meneses Pita, Portugal
“Before, everything was sustainable not because we bought only ecologic materials, but because we bought less,” Lisbon designer Martinho Meneses Pita says. “Strong and better-quality materials were used in order for things to last for generations. We didn’t think to buy for us for the [time] being or for the next six months, instead we were buying for us, our children and grandchildren.” Given that the world can’t afford the amount of waste we’re producing (“It’s simply not possible,” he says), Meneses Pita sees the future in timeless pieces – a kind of “slow food” movement for the design world. His Bichos collection of hand-made lamps, for example, uses branches discarded during pruning, sourced from the azinheira holly oak tree in Portugal, a wood used for centuries due to its durability. Because the tree is nearing extinction, each azinheira is pruned once every 20 years, and requires careful attention to detail to ensure the right branches are cut at the right angle for the tree to continue to thrive. “Everything in life takes its own time to thrive. We can either use all kinds of shortcuts to make it faster and therefore weaker, or we can be more patient and respect timing,” Meneses Pita says.
The power of 3-D printing
Liz Daily, United States
Chicago designer Liz Daily sees great potential in 3-D printers – on both ends of the product cycle. “The ability to test products by creating inexpensive parts or moulds with 3-D printers helps eliminate product flaws earlier in the process to help create higher-quality products, resulting in less overall product waste,” she says. But the really interesting potential lies in its ability to replace parts in products that are broken – even if the collection is obsolete. She points to open-source 3-D model sites such as Thingiverse, being used by more and more companies, which in turn allows consumers to access the materials they need to print product components.
“I think reclaiming the idea of ‘product repair’ could make a serious impact on the idea of sustainability by reintroducing the idea of fixing products when they break, rather than replacing the whole product,” Daily says. “This trend could then also lead companies to develop higher-quality products at the outset, and allow consumers to purchase components to upgrade or repair their items.”
Daily brought this mentality of reuse-not-replace into a recent project, a conceptual redesign of the iconic Coca-Cola bottle for Surface magazine (it coincided with Coca-Cola’s 100th anniversary): Her origami-inspired bottle in rigid plastic and silicone has a shape-shifting centre that allows the user to squish and shape it as they drink (without shattering it, of course), encouraging them to reuse it again and again.