Can choosing ethics make a difference in terms of sustainability? Yes, the individual commitment of the designer matters a lot

If there is a father of sustainable design in Italy it is Paolo Ulian. Protagonist of the birth of ecodesign in the nineties, student of Enzo Mari, the only Italian to be part of the famous Dutch collective Droog Design.

Ulian seems to disappear from time to time, but then he comes back with yet another beautiful, poetic and intelligent product. His absences are always dictated by the need (he defines it as inability) to work on sensible projects, rational solutions in the use of materials and a process-driven form, intrinsically beautiful because clean. Therefore according to Ulian the designer is the result of moral and ethical choices.

A useful attitude to help industries take small steps towards the transition.

Paolo Ulian: “Since the nineties I have always done the same thing, starting from the same design basis which, in my case, is decidedly innate. I started in a world where the theme of ecology was one of the last concerns of the productive world. And it was probably my upbringing that sparked a natural interest in the topic.

My mother was a herbalist, a woman with a spontaneously anti-waste mentality: she always found a way to reuse everything.

I still have images of her slippers repaired over and over again, until they became completely different but completely functional objects.

What has changed, in addition to the mentality of producers and more generally of people, is my authoritativeness, the strength that I can exert thanks to a coherent commitment in a single direction.

In my collaborations with Bufalini and antoniolupi I mainly do research, in great freedom, on product niches in which we experiment with new production techniques aimed at saving resources. These are almost never pieces that enter the mainstream market because they are not economically competitive. But they serve to spread the idea that there are viable alternatives to traditional production systems".

How important is the industrial mindset?

Paolo Ulian: “For years my conversations within companies have revolved around the invitation and the possibility of opening up to different economic models. It's the only real solution. But it seems like an impossible option, as if the system we are used to and have been living in for years was immutable and eternal.

In reality, we have not been practicing capitalism for a long time and the usual practices of the past were centered on a natural creativity aimed at the maintenance of objects, their good manufacturing and essentially the possession of a few useful and well made, which were repaired endlessly.

But I remain of the idea that every niche of industrial experimentation is an act of courage, a seed for the future. I feel that my work is important for companies, who are willing to invest, try."

Use the project to be led towards sustainability

Paolo Ulian: “I follow the logic of saving material, starting from marble in slabs and not in blocks. The goal is to obtain three-dimensional objects from two-dimensional plates to multiply the material.

The aesthetics changes completely, it is dictated by very tight constraints and it is the logic of the workmanship that leads you to find the exact shape. I like to think that the ethical value is upstream of the aesthetic value, which is a consequence of it.

A beauty given by an out of the ordinary path originates in the path itself, it speaks clearly of the ethics that guided the work and of its inevitably interesting formal result. The products for antoniolupi are the result of a totally anti-commercial logic and all start from the same matrix. Putting creativity at the service of saving resources has this natural consequence and from a slab of marble you can obtain three sinks".

A critical and open mindset in the use of the material

Paolo Ulian: "Despite the emptying of the quarries and the brutal imprint that the excavation leaves on the natural landscape, marble is a living, natural material, which leaves no trace and has a long life. Eternal.

In my way of thinking, one marble sink is better than a thousand resin sinks, because synthetic materials, as we well know, are a huge problem for human beings and nature.

Yet companies like them, they nurture a form of consumer-driven commerce that seems insatiable and, therefore, is compelling from a business perspective. But I'm not interested in this productive framework, reality goes completely against my nature to the point of making me unhappy. It is impossible to work while embracing such a servile attitude towards companies, it does not lead to anything good."

The signs of change

Paolo Ulian: “The good news is that it is clear that the industry is changing. Ten years ago there was a disinterest, if not a clear and impenetrable opposition, to the possibility of changing direction. The only accepted principle was that of growth.

Now, however, it is possible to open up to dialogue and propose different industrial practices.

There are those who do it with conviction, investing in the systematization of new production paths. And there are those who do it with research and experimentation, seeking a different meaning to industrial choices or, at least, proposing alternatives.

I believe that in this context the ethical choices of designers have an enormous weight: if you stay firmly with your feet on the ground and pursue your idea, you manage to maintain a direction constructive. An attitude that essentially translates into a path of greater serenity."