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RUTH REED RIBA’S NEXT PRESIDENT WANTS TO SEE CHANGE

THE BUSINESS OF DESIGN

JOINT EFFORT DESIGNERS’ SURVIVAL TACTICS ON SHOW

NEW WAVES REFLECTIONS ON THE LATEST IN LIGHTING AND SURFACES

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INTROSPECTION HOW CAN YOU TELL IF YOU’RE AS GREEN AS YOU THINK?

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THINK PIECE

t’s quite a while since I looked seriously at design degree shows, the frantic climax of three years’ sustained effort from the thousands of design graduates across the country. This year, for an assortment of reasons – mostly because I realised I’d be a fool not to – I was able to take in some of the untold amount of work on display at the graduate show, New Designers (the great innovation of the much lamented Peta Levi, who died, sadly, earlier this year). It allowed me to get a fix on what the new generation of graduating design students is thinking about. And what, crucially, they are being encouraged to think about by their teachers, mentors and indeed sponsors. Naturally, one would assume that the ‘S’ word is top of the agenda, and everything else follows on the list of priorities. Design isn’t design any more, after all, unless it is sustainable, unless it deals with sustainability, or unless it is making some sort of comment about sustainability (although there is plenty of blood on the carpet when it comes to a debate about whether it’s design’s rightful place to comment on anything at all). Forgive me, that’s the impression I have gained from every recent conversation I’ve had with practising designers, architects and others connected to the industry – exhibition organisers, retailers and a host of others. If it ain’t sustainable, or engaged in the sustainability arena, it ain’t design. Yes, there are huge obstacles to the practice of sustainable design, not least the inconvenient truth that definitions change daily as new facts, new methods and new ways of looking at the problem come to the surface. There’s no single, reliable, definitive source, so we flap around from idea to idea and argument to counter argument. Notwithstanding all this, you can’t be a designer these days without grappling with the key issue. I say ‘forgive me’, because with one or two notable exceptions, this imperative seems to have escaped the design education community. At New Designers, I found out that I’ve obviously got it badly wrong. Sustainable design – and thinking about sustainable design – was so lacking in evidence at the show that I began to suffer from ‘vision panic’: was there something out there really important that I was missing? If so, what was it? And where was it? A similar chill ran down my spine at Central St Martins, when I was looking at the results of a materials and textiles project proposing new ideas for luggage, sponsored by Samsonite. The quote taken as a guiding principle for the scheme, displayed prominently on the stand in the entrance hall where the work was on show, talked about the attractions of global travel, its ease and cheapness, and how all this means we need to rethink luggage. I had to blink and read it again. What about neutralising your carbon footprint? What about tonnes and tonnes of

I

Green shoots WHY ALL THE FUSS ABOUT SUSTAINABILITY? THE NEW DESIGNERS GRADUATES’ EVENT RAISED QUESTIONS AB0UT THE TERM’S REAL MEANING

f WORDS: AIDAN WALKER

IN.FOLD Clever flat-pack furniture from Rupert McKelvie (Falmouth). All based on a ‘smart’ two-way hinge of rubber and laminated ply, allowing you a) to assemble it in one minute, it says here, and b) turn your table inside out should you fancy it

FXmagazine.co.uk September 2008 95


THINK PIECE

TEAFIX Falmouth’s Chris Bowsher and Iain Jones’ take on the essential British cup of tea. Nothing hugely sustainable abou this but at least it’s fun

TABLA James Tattersall of London Metropolitan played the drums, and still taps on everything. This dining table‘s top has loosely sprung strips of maple for different tones, when plonked with the hammers.

FIREFLY CO2 in the atmosphere? Did the project encourage such a line of enquiry? It didn’t. Smart materials there were, and some nice ideas too, but none of them made a connection to what is surely now the abiding concern for all forms of design. No surprises if the sponsor hasn’t yet got around to asking the question: ‘What happens when people decide not to travel (at least by air) and therefore don’t need luggage any more?’. That would require a complete reinvention of its business model. However, if design colleges are where the blue sky thinking is being done, why wasn’t that question or a similar one being asked as the project progressed? Self-folding suitcases and Bluetooth locking handles are not the point. So, with a sinking heart, let’s move on to New Designers. It’s not that there was no sustainable thinking. Of course, there was. But it was by no means dominant, and in most colleges’ cases, it seemed that when individuals were working on sustainable principles, they were following a self-charted route. Without being able to interrogate every course leader, it’s easy to conclude that

96 September 2008 FXmagazine.co.uk

The wood burner for eco homes from Dave Capewell (Falmouth): Why not add energy efficency and the right materials to a tried and tested product type that will surely grow in popularity?

sustainability is not yet at the top of most course agendas. I do hope that I’m wrong. With a rising heart, to the BA (Hons) in 3D Design for Sustainability at University College Falmouth. Here, I found Dave Capewell’s wood-burning stove, which is no ordinary wood-burning stove. ‘FireFly is a stove designed specifically for thermally efficient eco homes,’ he says. ‘Pre-heated air from the outside is mixed with flue gases for more efficient use of the fuel, and a system for creating carbon neutral castings is realised by using waste vegetable oil to melt the metal.’ There were kitchen accessories, clothing, furniture, sportswear, proposals for public space, for children with learning disabilities and for busy X-ray departments. And there seemed to be an ‘inbuilt’ ethic of sustainability and communality, an underlying sense of social and environmental context that drives the thinking that drives the work. Not all of it was impeccably worthy and super-sustainable, of course; I liked Chris Bowsher and Iain Jones’ TeaFix, the instant cup of British tea complete with doily, saucer, teabag and teaspoon. Even at Falmouth you can

get away with design as comment, it seems. Overall, what I found very impressive was the quality of the thinking, the acceptance and assimilation of the idea that sustainable design demands that we think about community, behaviour, the nature of the manufacture-market-consume-waste cycle and the issue of user-centred design. All the ‘soft’ bits, in other words, which don’t look or feel like design as we have known it, but might lead to the designer, in the words of course leader Su Vernon, asking the dread question: ‘Why do we need another blah? We’ve got too much stuff already.’ These people are working at design where ‘the outcome might not be another object’, says Vernon. ‘It might be a system, even a way of thinking.’ Refreshing indeed. And the sting in the tail? (You know there has to be one). Jeremy Whitaker, the college’s head of marketing and recruitment, has argued successfully for ‘Sustainable’ to be dropped from the course name, so it becomes just plain old ‘3D Design’. A backward step? All is not as it seems. The ethics and philosophy of the course will remain, says Vernon, while Whitaker’s own rationale makes perfect sense with a little explanation. ‘It’s partly whether we see sustainability in the context of the college as a whole, or just one course. Because of what, and particularly where we are – four hours from anywhere – environmental sustainability is very important to Falmouth,’ he says. ‘We don’t want to put a ‘tag’ on it that could be accused of greenwash. It’s a more fundamental, and a longer, communications task to make people understand that everything at Falmouth is sustainable. So we develop the course in that overall context. If we didn’t do something that is intrinsically sustainable, we would be selling the students short.’ This point is tellingly close to the idea that ‘sustainable design’ is a misnomer, or soon will be, as the idea becomes increasingly stitched into the culture, because all design should be intrinsically sustainable without having to say so in its title. Has he jumped the gun a bit, got Falmouth a little too far ahead of the game? Has sustainability yet been so far absorbed into design culture that it doesn’t need to speak its name? No, it hasn’t, if you go by the offerings of the other colleges. Whitaker, whose job is to attract students to Falmouth – to make them, in his words, drive past Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth to get there – has to play to the college’s strengths and aim for the position of market leader. ‘We are small and specialist. We can’t be small and mediocre and stuck right on the end of England. We’re already out on a limb.’ To which we say, risky but brave. All power to them. Aidan Walker is a consultant editor, writer and seminar programme producer in the design industry, and former editorial director of FX.


FX Feature  

Teafix featured in FX Magazine September 2008.

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