Good-Looking and Responsible Design
Published: August 5, 2011
LONDON — Should design be environmentally responsible? The only sensible answer to that question is “yes.” But if you asked a group of designers to define what that term means, each would be likely to give a different answer. Though there is one thing on which they might agree: that the most successful examples of environmentally responsible design are often also the most desirable.
A couple of years ago the Harvard Design Magazine asked me to explore this issue by choosing one group of design projects that were environmentally responsible but not desirable, others that were the other way around, and a final group that combined both qualities. It was such an interesting way of looking at the subject that I decided to do it again.
1. Responsible but not desirable.
The phone Few products epitomize the irresponsible, throwaway side of design culture more than phones. They are often given away for free in the hope of persuading us to signing lucrative service contracts. New styles of phones are then rushed into production to entice us to sign yet more contracts. Broken phones are invariably replaced rather than repaired, which is why landfill sites are clogged with the plastic corpses of unwanted ones.
Well done to Samsung, the South Korean electronics company, for designing the Replenish, a smartphone made from materials that are 82 percent recyclable, including a case composed of 35 percent recycled plastic. The packaging is fully recyclable, and printed in soy ink. You can also buy a battery cover that doubles as a solar charger. The hitch? Beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, but to my eyes the Replenish looks dire: clumsily shaped in garish colors with tacky typography. There’s another hitch too. Using a Replenish is irritatingly tricky thanks to the cramped keyboard and fiddly operating system.
The chair Chairs, chairs, chairs. Design magazines, books and museums are stuffed with them, mostly chosen because of how they look, and sometimes for the way they were made, but seldom for ecological sensitivity. The furniture industry has been disappointingly slow to embrace its environmental responsibilities. Magis, the Italian furniture maker, has made a start by working with the French designer Philippe Starck and his Catalan collaborator Eugeni Quitlet on Zartan, a chair whose seats and frame are to be made from a specially formulated organic material, which will be both recyclable and biodegradable.
The material is still being developed, but Magis unveiled a prototype of Zartan at the Milan Furniture Fair in April. Like Samsung’s Replenish phone, it scores lots of eco-points, but dispiritingly few when it comes to looks. Let’s hope that Mr. Starck and Mr. Quitlet have spruced up the styling by the time it goes into production. There are, after all, lots of less responsible chairs for consumers to choose from, many of them designed by Mr. Starck.
2. Desirable but not responsible
Sadly, there is a very long list of things that are temptingly desirable, but not environmentally responsible. Cars for starters. Why do the designers of fuel-efficient vehicles seem to insist on inflicting the stylistic shortcomings of the dullest gas guzzlers on them? And when will we be able to drive an electric or hydrogen fuel-cell car, which is as luscious to look at as a vintage automotive beauty like the Citroën DS19?
The same can be said for lots of other products, including the humble light bulb. Environmentally the traditional incandescent bulb is hopeless: only 15 percent of the energy it generates is used to produce light. The other 85 percent burns off as heat. Yet despite the huge sums invested in the development of energy efficient light sources, so far none of them has matched the incandescent’s warm, soulful light.
3. Responsible and desirable
The idea Up until very recently, designers devoted much of their time to producing things: objects, images, spaces, vehicles and so on. Now that many of us already own more stuff than we need, and the environmental crisis is deepening, designers are increasingly using their skills to come up with ingenious ways of helping us to use it more responsibly. An example is WhipCar, an online car club through which you can rent your car to other people at times when you do not need it, or hire someone else’s car.
To hire a WhipCar, you type your postal code into the Web site to find out which vehicles are available in your neighborhood on the chosen dates. WhipCar went live with a pilot program in London in April last year, and has since expanded to represent 2,500 car owners throughout Britain. The original concept is continually redesigned as the WhipCar team learns more about its market: by enabling car owners to offer discounts to regular customers, for example, and offering advice to people who are planning to buy cars with the intention of renting them out.
The design trophy The found object has a proud tradition in design history from the scraps of metal with which Richard Buckminster Fuller built the first of his geodesic dome emergency shelters in the 1940s, to the tractor seat that Achille Castiglioni transformed into the elegant Mezzadro stool in the 1950s. Making new objects from old ones is now so fashionable that it has become a contemporary design cliché, except when executed with the skill of the Italian designer Martino Gamper.
For the past few months, Mr. Gamper has been scouring the streets, skips and flea markets of Turin in a search for suitable pieces of old furniture to complete his most ambitious project so far: “Condominium,” an exhibition that is to open next month at Galleria Franco Noero. It will be the first-ever design show at the gallery, one of Italy’s most influential contemporary art spaces. All nine floors of its tall, skinny 19th-century building — known to locals as the Fetta di Polenta, or the slice of polenta — will be filled with new pieces of Mr. Gamper’s very desirable recycled furniture.