By John Eischeid
High above New York's Lexington Avenue, in a dimly lit loft with plain white walls and concrete floors, new signs of life are emerging from what might seem the detritus of a forgotten garage.
A slab of Kumbuk – a tree indigenous to India and Sri Lanka – has been fashioned into a table, a glint of gold leaf along the rough edge where bark once clung. Above it hangs a fishing net transformed into a chandelier by Indonesian fishermen whose livelihood was in jeopardy. Around the table stand solid stools made by Philippino craftsmen, drawing on natural objects, such as seeds and eggs, for inspiration. Satinwood railroad ties masquerade as works of art, after nearly a century of weather has forced their grain into abstract curves. And old rosewood wagon wheels stand proud with a glossy finish of natural oil, their dents and other signs of wear left as found.
This is the work of Tucker Robbins, a designer based in New York, and its testament to a growing interest in embracing the old, while making the new. In Robbins' showroom, every piece has a narrative: not just where it was made, but how, with what and by whom.
For Lauren Yarmuth, principal and cofounder of YR&G, a sustainable design consultancy, Robbins' "industrial chic" aesthetic is part of a wider movement in design. At its heart is not the object's appearance, but the story behind it, the life ahead of it, and what might happen when its serviceable time is up. Yarmuth spots the same concern for origins and destinations in the farm-to-table movement, the popularity of homemade preserves, and even the subtle touch of restaurants serving drinks in repurposed jars. She puts it down, in part at least, to the disconnect people are experiencing today from their "essential" tools: we're not talking pocket knives and fountain pens, but phones and tablets.
Robbins readily acknowledges that he is one of many designers turning to sustainability as a design principle, and changing his aesthetic in the process. In his opinion, this shift was inevitable. "Sustainability is the natural course of design, always was and will be."
Sustainability-led design is surfacing in the mainstream, too. Take, for example, Puma's Clever Little Bag, an alternative to a shoebox that uses recycled synthetic fibres, and so requires less paper and water than the traditional box, and has a lower carbon footprint. Or Interface's carpet tiles, many of which are made from 100 percent recycled materials and have been put through a full-life cycle analysis, including the carbon footprint of transporting them, and how they can eventually be recycled or reused.
"Which is more sustainable," prompted Rodrigo Bautista, Senior Sustainability Advisor at Forum for the Future, "designing food packaging made of recyclable materials, or designing a digital platform which takes the whole supply chain from farmers to people of what we will eat into account?" Bautista is keen to make the distinction between "sustainable design," which incorporates every aspect of the product's life – and "eco-design," which rarely goes beyond using recycled or natural materials, and which he sees as a mere "entry point for designers."
David McFadden, Chief Curator at the Museum of Art and Design in New York, agrees. "Sustainable design takes you from the conception of the product all the way through to its end," he says, adding that the idea "has gone so far beyond recycling."
Such holistic thinking isn't new to the design world. It was put forth in the 1970s by Victor Papanek in his book, Design for the Real World. But Papanek was "a little bit of a voice in the desert," at the time, said McFadden.
Some 30 years later, Michael Braungart and William McDonough co-authored Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. They proposed an economic, social and industrial system that is based on nature: highly efficient and – in theory – producing no waste. Many designers are now looking to discards as a source - take Glove Love, an enterprise founded by UK charity Do The Green Thing, which seeks out lost mittens and sells them as attractively mismatched pairs.
What Glove Love's clever marketing recognises is that good design depends not only on the lifecycle of the product, but also on the relationship of people to it. Bautista calls this "emotional durability," if something is designed in a way that the user will develop an emotional attachment to it, he argues, the owner will be less likely to give it up, even when it's showing signs of wear.
"How might we design a mobile phone that will be inherited and cherished by our children?" Bautista asked, pointing out that many phones are abandoned long before they become dysfunctional. "[We need to] design things that actually age slowly, that have a timeless aesthetic," he argued.
As an example, Bautista cites the Wandular: an easy-to-carry handheld device that evolves with you over your lifetime. The concept is the creation of his own sustainable design research studio, Engage by Design, and Forum for the Future is collaborating with Sony to sound out potential business models for it. The Wandular "aims to encourage people to attach a different meaning to a device and develop a longer-term relationship with it," Bautista explained. It stays up-to-date thanks to cloud downloads and the latest hardware plug-ins, and is encased in quality materials that will age gracefully. Concept designs feature combinations such as leather and stainless steel, or titanium and wood.
Which brings us to the fundamental question: how does use relate to beauty? And which should come first?
"For me, if something is not as beautiful as it could be, but does the job, that's ok. I'd certainly put the right job before beauty," said Wayne Hemingway of Hemingway Design. As an example, he cites his own Toyota Prius, which was one of the first hybrid electric vehicles to roll off the line. Then it was a "reasonably ugly car, not designed with sleekness or with classic lines in mind," he admitted, but he asserts that, after nearly a decade and about 114,000 low-carbon miles, he has forgotten about how it looks.
Of course, not all consumers are willing to put environmental credentials on such a high pedestal. Today, many designers are working hard to make sustainable rhyme with "belle," not "dull."
"We really try to combine aesthetics and sustainability so that there's no contradiction," said Majken Bulow, Brand and Communications Director at Interface. Its Biosfera range is made from 100 percent recycled materials, and requires about half of the typical amount of yarn. Small adhesive strips at the corner of each tile mean it can be fitted without glue, an idea inspired by the feet of a gecko. The pattern on it has little quirks – a nod to nature's subtle variations – but also a feature that means the tiles don't have be laid in the same direction, and can be easily replaced.
Admittedly, this lack of uniformity in the tiles took a bit of "selling in" to the retailers. Yarmuth watched keenly. "Interface had to convince the whole market place to accept irregularity in the product." The root of the problem, she argued, was the need for everyone to understand why the aesthetic had changed. Once they understood the rationale, they began to see the tiles differently.
As the adage goes, there's no accounting for taste. But the notion that a greater understanding of an object's provenance and purpose could transform its aesthetic appeal is a promising one for sustainability. Keats may have been on to something when he wrote: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
John Eischeid is a freelance writer based in New York.
Green Futures is the leading magazine on environmental solutions and sustainable futures.
Photo: John Eischeid; Engage by Design