Green Team

Two Brighton academics are on a mission to put designers at the forefront of the drive for sustainability, the better to influence the behaviour of clients and consumers alike, says Pamela Buxton

‘Sustainable design has to pollute and infect its way into the mainstream,’ says Jonathan Chapman, one half of design research group Inheritable Futures Laboratory. ‘For it to take on a viral quality, it needs to open up and be unpacked.’

As the duo behind the 100% Sustainable Laboratory at this year’s 100% Design, IF:Laboratory is on a mission to do just that.

They are not, they say, here to judge or shame. Instead, they want to inform, inspire and stimulate designers to find their own ways to bring sustainability into their practices. As well as calling on big names such as eco-architect Bill Dunster to tell their stories, they are somewhat bizarrely installing a clairvoyant on their stand. For, as IF:Laboratory suggests, there is no one true vision of the future.

Both Chapman and IF:Laboratory co-founder Nick Gant teach 3D design at the University of Brighton, and also run their own design businesses. Chapman’s background is ‘deep Green’ and politically-driven while Gant has designed products for mass production. They are united by a dissatisfaction with the way that sustainable design is usually polarised away from the mainstream, the very place where even small sustainability gains can make a significant difference. 100% Sustainable will, they hope, be a chance to reach out beyond the converted.

‘We’re trying to connect with industry where we believe the real action takes place,’ says Chapman, who adds that the sustainability debate has finally given design a worthwhile agenda. ‘The design industry is faced with a brilliant opportunity to redefine itself.’

IF:Laboratory want to prompt a critical debate that goes beyond the received wisdom of ‘reduce, recycle, reuse’ to tackle deeper issues about product obsolescence and the instability of consumerism, which in markets such as hand-held technology is working against sustainability principles.

‘There is the danger of one definition [of sustainability],’ says Gant. ‘For some people, sustainability is religious. For others like Gillette, it might be shaving 15 per cent off the cost of materials.’

‘Sustainability is subjective,’ adds Chapman. ‘Design and consumption is subjective. Until sustainability is dealt with in that way, as well as objectively, we’ll be missing out.’

From their research at last year’s 100% Design, the duo feel that many designers are keen to develop a more sustainable approach but, given the lack of emphasis on the issue in design education, just don’t have the know-how. At this year’s event, the theme will be ‘101 Approaches to Sustainable Design’, with a forum for speakers from fashion, interiors, industrial, furniture, lighting and architecture, as well as follow-up collaborative sessions and discussion of different takes on sustainability.

To stimulate debate, they will have six projects on show, for consumer products such as mobile phones, toasters and MP3 players, developed during a series of workshops with designers. The whole thing takes place on a stand styled like a village green, with picnic tables and a caravan as well as the exhibits. Participants include speakers from Habitat, Dyson, Levi’s and Vauxhall Motors.

By hearing how others have combined sustainability with successful designs, IF:Laboratory hopes to give designers a sense of ownership of the sustainability debate that has previously been lacking.

‘The massive failure of sustainable design is that ownership becomes academic and the industry either becomes an adherent, or it doesn’t. It’s a question of “Are you in or out?”’ says Chapman.

Graphic design, he adds, is an area particularly lacking debate, beyond the use of sustainable printing materials and processes, which some designers may regard as ‘cramping their style’.

IFLaboratory is under no illusions about the enormity of changing attitudes towards sustainable design.

‘Sustainability is a dirty word. People think it’s a passing fad – it’ll cost more and it’ll look shit,’ says Chapman.

He suggests that designers need to adopt the right tactics and talk to clients about good design – of which sustainability is a part – rather than position what they do purely as sustainable design. Nor should they lose sight of the need to make money.

‘If people can’t generate the profits, sustainability won’t work.’ They’re not saying it’ll be easy. ‘We don’t want to be naïve. It may make life more complicated to integrate these issues into their work. But being a crap designer is easy,’ says Chapman.

100% Sustainability is only one part of IF:Laboratory’s activities. Keen to disseminate information and make sustainability more of a mainstream issue, IF:Laboratory is launching a book at the show – a collection of sustainable design essays – called Designers, Visionaries and Other Stories.

More significant is the duo’s establishment of an MA in Sustainable Design, starting at the University of Brighton in 2009– which should, in time, produce more designers capable of ‘polluting’ the industry with sustainability principles.

‘The design industry will be forced to take these issues on board. Design has to be at the forefront,’ says Gant.

Sustainable design can manifest itself in many ways including longevity of use, provenance and type of materials, manufacturing process and ease of disassembly or recyclability. Here are a few examples from this year’s exhibitors:

Leaf by Herman Miller
Herman Miller’s new Leaf aluminium task light, designed by Yves Behar, will reduce energy consumption by 40 per cent compared to compact fluorescent task lights. This highly sustainable performance comes from a combination of LED light source and a patent-pending heat-distribution system that eliminates the need for a motorised fan to dissipate the heat –a common problem with LEDs. Using less than 12 watts of power, the Leaf has a lifespan of 60 000 hours at full power.

Glove chair by Swedese Möbler
Inform Furniture is displaying the Barber Osgerby-designed Glove chair, manufactured by Swedese Möbler using a ‘Green’ felt material within a wooden frame. This material, called Europost and made by Danish company Gabriel, is already endorsed by the European Union’s official eco-label, The Flower, for its minimal environmental impact. Swedese Möbler are also in the process of getting the chair accredited by one of Sweden’s eco-labels, The Swan. The chair will be on sale in the UK from next month (September).

Twig by Pinch
Willow is the latest sustainable raw material used in Pinch’s Twig seating range. Harvested from green coppiced willow within a 25m2 locality in Gloucestershire, the seating creates a new use for the fast-growing wood, previously used primarily for fencing. Pinch order the willow in time for the autumn-to-spring coppicing season, and make the furniture to order using hidden nails to bundle the willow together around an inner frame. The Twig range was previously available in hazel.

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