Before Sustainable Design

I'm working on a product that is designed to me manufactured from an injection moulded Biopolymer. This is a research project that aims to end up in a manufactured range of soft contract chairs but it is proving to be an uphill struggle.

This project has set me to thinking about terminology. Sustainability, ecology, green and so on. As a designer I am committed (and have been for  most of my professional life) to creating products that are 'better with less' provide 'more with less' get the 'most with less'. In the 80's when I graduated from the Royal College of Art environmentalism, sustainable design, ecology did not exist on the curriculum nor in the press however my first products were designed to last, to be affordable and to use the best manufacturing process I could find. Interestingly, many of the suppliers I worked with were doing a good job of managing their factories, the materials they used and the workforce they employed – sadly some were not. I used some materials and processes that had I known then what I know now, would not have even considered them: chrome plate polyurethane foam are high on the list of 'wish I had nots'.

I remain convinced that the production of long lasting, simple, high quality and honest design is a good route to ensuring that products are not discarded before they really need to be (think repair rather than discard). When a product is discarded the impact of this disposal must not have a detrimental effect on the world. So how do we ensure that this is possible?

I am finding it hard to meet an NZ manufacturer who will want to invest in the production of my BioFurn(iture) why? because the market is not asking for it, or so I am told. The manufacturers at large are not feeling like pushing bio products to the end user, the facility manager or the architect. In fact some don't seem to know much about what is going on in the world of sustainable design at all – one person I spoke to recently thought "the green thing would soon pass, it's just another phase". I have recently heard manufacturers talk about materials "we have to use" because the client demands it…my feeling about this is nobody has to do anything they don't want to.

So where is this leading me?

  1. to remain true to the principles of simple, honest and high quaility
  2. to want to educate the user or specifier on bioplastics
  3. to want to design 'super normal' products (thanks Takashi Okutani, Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa)
  4. to design less but better

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10 thoughts on “Before Sustainable Design

  1. This is an admirable endeavour Roger. I think like David Trubridge indicated a month ago, it is often difficult to reconcile your ambitions with the harsh realities of the market. It is quite a quandry and I have no idea how you're actually going to break thru, however you will certainly fail only if you give up. However I can recommend turning to inspirational stories to feed off of. E.g. I recently watched the documentary Garbage Warrior about Mike Reynolds struggle against similar problems. I have been dining out on his break-thru successes ever since. Like many of these stories, Mike created a new language to describe what he was doing. This seems to be a highly effective tool in getting people to accept bold ideas but should only be used under considered caution. For instance he refered to his thermodynamic eco buildings/houses as "earthships". They are no longer viewed as a competitor to conventional housing ideas, but as a parallel alternative. Good luck and I hope to sneak a peek at what you're up to. Nick.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to post a message Nick – funny you mention that film, I am part of the Mt Albert Transition Towns group and we have a monthly movie night, this month its 'Garbage Warrior' – I'm looking forward to it.I totally agree with your comment on new language creation – and I'm onto it!Will let you peek when I can.Roger

  3. Could I come to the next Transition Town intervention?Also, I wanted to talk to you today about getting Peter Beck of reasons: He gives an amazingly exciting presentation, and I want to get in with him for my 3rd year project.Can we discuss how Unitec get these guys to come along, or whatever the general shake down is.Nick.

  4. Hi Nick, yes on both accounts – I'm in with the 1st years tomorrow morning and 3rd Thursday. Next Transition Town meeting is up on the blog The film you've seen but the chat will be good (I hope)

  5. I agree with Nick… I think your project has great merit…. I wounder whether if Trubridge had conformed to big business idiology would he have produced the Raft or the Nananu??? You may have a few more grey hairs by the time the chair goes into production, but if it is something you feel so strongly about just do it. Worked for David

  6. Hi Shane, that's right and thanks for your comment – I have tried in the past to reconcile my design philosophy and mainstream business and they don't like each other. I certainly don't want recreate that misfit. I am sure that large enterprises will turn and take notice of their environmental responsibilities but many will only do this to escape hefty fines rather than to do better. In the mean time there exists an market for everything its just a matter of identifying the markets, finding them and satisfying them – that's my main goal just now.

  7. hey roger ino of a plastic injection company that do chairs that may be keen. i can get ahold of some details if you like. i use to do maintenance for them back when i was a fitter turner. but just comment on your post where you say "(think repair rather than discard)". in my experience as a fitter turner we never got to many jobs to repair something……but to modify or improve. if it had broken, then that design was no good in the customers eyes. so one thing i have come to believe is that people in our days dont like to repair if something breaks, but they would rather improve………..but its just thought. i think what your doing is vey honourable. i think you just have to keep pushing the idea forward.

  8. Re : "I am sure that large enterprises will turn and take notice of their
    environmental responsibilities but many will only do this to escape
    hefty fines rather than to do better."Was talking to Boulty about SimaPro Life Cycle Analysis software yesterday. It's really exciting and Im "dining out" on the enhanced perspective it provides. My hope is that no longer will manufacturers be able to hide behide a surface "green wash". The Prius car will surely be an early casualty as an example. But you can be sure of a shit-fight. If you've got a movement dedicated to denying global warming, they'll be trying to snuff out life cycle analysis. We've seen biology attacked, now can the statisticians weather the storm? Will it become the first challenge to mathematics?

  9. Hi MikeWould be keen to get the details of that injection moulding company please, can you let me have them when you have a moment.

    Repair – i see where you are coming from but for example, if a chair
    back comes loose, why throw it away when it can be mended – the problem
    is we have move so far past need to want it's not funny.

  10. Nick,SimaPro seems like a great piece of work, I'm looking forward to getting to grips with it myself. I've had a go and its big, very big.Agree with you on the penalising aspect being the one that will polarise companies into action.

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