There was a moment, a few decades ago, when design stopped talking about ecology and began to focus on sustainability. It was probably the moment in which it became clear that being ecological would no longer suffice. We passed from an ideological position of generic love for nature and animals to more systemic, structural approaches to the solving of urgent problems that could no longer be postponed. The difference between before and after lies in the attitude, the pathos.
An emotional response that Greta Thunberg may have brought to the surface in the very young, but which is often subordinated to a reflexive, pragmatic perspective. The millennials have been born in a digital world, on the brink of economic disaster and climate disaster. They are well aware of this, even before having read Cradle to Cradle, the bible of coexistence between nature and growth. The good thing is that there now exist at least two generations, maybe even three, of designers totally devoted to sustainability. The older ones have the force of the pioneers and the drive towards exploration. The second generation takes stock of the damages and looks for quantifiable, functioning models. Together, they create a heritage of knowledge and tools that can make us optimistic about the future. Because, incredibly enough, design is truly necessary for the transition.
Ursula Tischner, who founded the Econcept agency for sustainable design in Cologne in 1996, explains. “I began to focus on eco-design a long time ago. After many years, it is clear to me that those who design are the bridge between industry and people, which is a fundamental role. Beyond ideologies or any kind of theorizing, today we know that educating, training about sustainability and designing circular economies are the most valid actions to create an economy that is as suitable as possible for the survival of the planet.”
Maybe this is why Ursula Tischner spends much of her time devising programs and courses for universities and companies. “Teaching is important, at least as much as designing evolved communication to explain sustainability to a wider audience. Basically, it is one of the simplest ways to prevent greenwashing and to protect people and products against useless or even damanging practices.”
In spite of the fact that even a furniture giant like Ikea has set the goal of becoming climate positive by 2030, it is hard to imagine that industry will be able to create a general, effective revolution over the short term. Or at least this is the overall impression. “I don’t know if I will have a chance to witness the change we need,” Tischner continues. “Actually, I don’t even know if we will have the time to construct this change – I’m not sure. But I can witness the fact that the interest in a sustainable economy is widespread, and the commitment is sincere. There are not only bad guys out there. There are people who truly want to do something good, to have a clean conscience and the awareness that they are doing the right thing.”
So the fuel of the necessary revolution, once again, is a matter of individual consciousness. “This is why communication is so important. We are talking about projects that involve many kinds of expertise, and very complex interdisciplinary action. We have to find the right words for each target, so that everyone can take part. In effect, we often work on social design, training, continuing education, the redesign of processes. The basic difference between a traditional designer and an eco-designer is that eco-designers do not create new products when they can avoid doing so. They design solutions.”
To avoid climate catastrophe, if it is possible, means in any case radically changing the way billions of people live. “I believe that the ideas in this regard are confused, that there is a radicalization of views that creates confusion and fear. Just as it is very easy to get lost in the huge quantity of naïve projects or untruthful communication. Actually, things are already changing, and the commitment of all is to create widespread sustainability, which is good for people, the environment and the economy.” Ursula Tischner makes this process sound enthusing and almost amusing.
But “transition” is truly a word that scares people. It describes what we are experiencing, but in a merciless way. It is one of those words preferred by those who work on the future, on the planning of new economic models and, indeed, models of design. The good news is that the change happens through very determined and expert teams of young designers, who could perhaps be defined as ‘hybrid,’ since their areas of interest are very wide in range. “As soon as we finished our studies (at Design Academy Eindhoven, ed) we realized that we were interested in the relationship products have with people and the environment,” says Archibald Godts, the founder of Studio Plastique together with Theresa Bastek. “We have rooted our design practice in crucial issues.”
This approach has piqued the curiosity of brands and institutions that work with the Belgian duo. But it is clear that the first obstacle to overcome, when we decide to change, is to understand how the life cycle of a product truly works, and normally this is a very complex pathway, with aspects that are unforeseeable and complex. “This is the responsibility of the designer,” Godts emphasizes. “To turn the attention to products inside a system. And the material, its reuse and recovery represent one of the most interesting parts, because we can transform unwanted abundance into a resource.” This is demonstrated in the radical research that has given rise to Common Sands, the project that has brought Studio Plastique to greater renown. Using materials of siliceous origin salvaged from ordinary appliances, Studio Plastique has recovered the glass for a tableware collection. It is clear that the new designers see the world from a critical and constructive standpoint, that of those who want to invent a new relationship with objects, to get beyond the scarcely encouraging reality of compulsive consumption.
The work of Studio Plastique has continued with the Linen Lab Project, a research initiative that explores alternative uses for linen products and byproducts. Flax is a typically European plant, whose production went into major crisis with respect to the relocation and importation to and from extra-European countries. The approach of the Belgian studio is radical and total: from the seed to the different types of plants, from the raw material to alternative uses. The complexity Studio Plastique decides to address is disarming, above all if we compare it to the work of a traditional designer. But the expertise in aesthetics and in the capacity to combine form and function remain the same, although their functions have changed very rapidly in response to the emergencies of the environmental crisis. “The reflection on form plays a fundamental role in the relationship between people and objects. Emerging needs have to be addressed by a rational response that also includes beauty, a quality that makes change acceptable and desirable. The change we are going through creates new aesthetics which will soon seem obvious and natural.”