The Eco-conscious Designer

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Everything we use has a purpose and process – both of which go largely unseen by society. What we do see are the products we need to carry out daily activities, usually bought from a store conveniently nearby. Since the development of mechanization during the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing these items has become facilitated by the maximization of production capacity. This means that less people are involved in the production process, while more people add to the consumer population. However, it is not until recently that the consequences of this progression have become more of a public concern. The problem is that our current way of producing for society serves a single purpose that neglects effects it may have on the surrounding environment. In addition, because most people have relatively no knowledge of how things are made, they are oblivious to the causes that have led to dwindling resources, failing ecosystems, poor industrial practices, economic inefficiencies, etc.

In attempt to further add to the current green movement, designers of different areas have already begun to approach design in more efficient ways. In Inhabitat’s HauteGreen exhibition that took place during the New York Design Week 2007, the sustainable design blog hosted a panel discussion on reclaimed materials in design. The invited panelists included Dutch designer Tejo Remy, Brooklyn-based and eco-conscious designer Matt Gagnon, Carlos Salgado of Scrapile, and Editor-In-Chief of Dwell Magazine Sam Grawe – each adding a different take on the use of recycled materials in design.

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Image: Droog

As a designer whose career was launched with the help of Droog, Tejo Remy creates philosophical pieces that relate to how the human functions within society. For instance, in 1991 Remy designed “Chest of drawers” as a criticism on overproduction and consumerism. The dresser consists of nostalgic, used drawers and maple wood tied together with a jute strap.

On the other hand, Carlos Slagado and Matt Gagnon address the issues of industrial waste and inefficiency with more literal solutions. In observation of the obscene amount of waste coming from woodshops around Brooklyn, Carlos Slagado worked with partner Bart Bettencourt to collect scrap wood from local factories and reprocess it into a formatted material they could build with. As a result, they used this new material as a starting point for designing contemporary pieces of furniture. In a similar fashion, Matt Gagnon’s projects range from a coffee table made out of recycled paper to a large-scale renovation of an office, where he utilized scraps of sheet rock from the initial configuration of the space to build new walls.

While each designer on the panel has found a way to utilize the existing conditions of industrial production on a scale ranging from product to interior design, there is another group of individuals that seek to influence society on a larger scale. Pierre André Senizergues, the first professional skateboarder to own and operate a footwear brand, decided to make his enterprise greener in 1991 in order to help “spark the next wave of global greening (LA Times).” According to the article “Sole Technology skates toward green future” by LA Times writer Adam Tschorn, Senizergues states “If I can have a company that can work on the green model, it might inspire other companies and we’ll have a green revolution – like the Industrial Revolution, but only with everyone trying to reduce their carbon footprint.” As owner, president, and chief executive of Sole Tecnology (parent company of etnies, éS, Emerica, Altamont Apparel and ThirtyTwo), Senizergues has also expanded to areas outside his footwear and apparel labels. He was executive producer of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The 11th Hour,” an eco-documentary on global warming, and his most recent project, C-PAS (Collection Pierre André Senizergues), is a high-end line of men’s tuxedos, suits, dress shirts and outerwear made from recycled materials. By expanding his line to other areas of design, Senizergues acknowledges his potential influence on the consumer and translates the use of reclaimed materials to help bring awareness to his green intentions.

While Senizergues is aware of his abilities to introduce sustainable design into different industries, he is not the only one who realizes that a larger initiative is necessary. William McDonough is an architect and founding principal of William McDonough + Partners, whose career is focused on designing sustainable buildings and transforming industrial manufacturing processes. In his article, “The NEXT Industrial Revolution,” McDonough describes our current situation as an infrastructure resembling a steamship created by the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. He states, “It is powered by fossil fuels, nuclear reactors, and chemical. It is pouring waste into the water and smoke into the sky. It is attempting to work by its own rules, contrary to those of the natural world. And although it may seem invincible, its fundamental design flaws presage disaster…” His proposed solution is based on a “cradle-to-cradle” (C2C) philosophy that came about with the help of German chemist Michael Braungart. Instead of designing products that go from cradle to grave (landfills), the concept encourages designing products whose materials can be circulated in closed loops.

With a leading reputation for green design and a theory that is widely accepted as the future for production practices, McDonough appears to be the leader for what he has labeled as “the next industrial revolution.” However, in addition to the four C2C affiliated businesses he owns or is a partner in, McDonough could be only a man with a story to sell. Since his first interaction with Nike in 1999, he has been given many opportunities to “remake the way we make things,” as his motto goes, but his actions have translated a different message. In observation of the 2008 Fast Company publication “Green Guru Gone Wrong” by Danielle Sacks, McDonough has one main problem with his approach – a lack of transparency. According to Sacks, the Environmental Building News labeled McDonough’s cradle-to-cradle certification a “black box”: “You can see what’s going in and what’s going out, but you’re not privy to exactly what’s going on inside the process,” says Nadav Malin, the journal’s editor. Sacks also continues to list the projects that claim to follow the cradle-to-cradle methodology, and it is apparent that McDonough is more preoccupied in creating capital from his intellectual property then addressing the larger issue of poor industrial practices.

In retrospect, it is easy to see how our nation’s production practices have proved harmful to nature and the living community, but more should be expected from modern designers today. While there are a number of people working to improve sustainability in practice (like those listed above), each effort is individualized. What is needed is collaboration among the population that will help consolidate, rather than duplicate, what has been achieved thus far. In cases similar to McDonough, lack of communication and understanding has kept his opportunities from being successful and helpful to anyone else. However, McDonough has also proven to be a flourishing marketer of the green future of design. Thus, if we combine the abilities of everyone working towards the same initiative, the movement towards sustainable design will hopefully be facilitated into a single, solid, efficient effort.

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