With the advent of sustainability, product design is in transition from planned obsolescence and intensive energy use to efficiency, longevity and ecologically safer manufacturing methods.
Yet to be truly sustainable, product design must go beyond this, says Brazilian design group Fibra Design Sustentável. ‘It’s not enough to have a good product. There has to be a social aspect to it that helps improve the community,’ says Thiago Maia, one of the Rio-based group’s four partners.
Fibra – comprising Maia and his former university peers Bruno Temer, Pedro Themoteo and Bernardo Ferracioli – believes that design is an ongoing process, which should facilitate the implementation of a sustainable economy integrating local communities and cultural traditions.
The group, born out of Rio de Janeiro State University’s Higher School of Industrial Design business incubation unit in 2005, is now on its way to becoming a fully fledged design consultancy.
In the last year, the group has clocked up a string of accolades, including a Brazilian International Design Excellence Award for its Chico children’s bicycle, as well as an upcoming contract with a Brazilian aircraft manufacturer and a sizeable federal grant to build a lab in the university that would support the development of the group’s concept materials based around composites with natural fibres. The final result of this project, says Maia, is to use such materials in the interior design of executive aircraft.
These natural fibres and materials, from the by-products of Brazil’s increasingly diverse biomaterials and agricultural sector, are developed into non-toxic and biodegradable composites such as Bananaplac (laminated panels made from banana fibres), Bioplac (a composite that uses non-wood resources such as palm, bamboo and natural fibres), Pupunha (a palm alternative to hardwood) and Organic Bamboo Laminate (created from organically grown Mosso bamboo), using natural adhesives and resins, and drawing on existing engineering methods and traditional techniques.
The subsequent technology can then be transferred to local producers in economically deprived regions. Biomaterials have an additional use, and their producers a supplementary market. As a result, languishing rural areas can be brought back into the economic cycle.
São Paulo artisan Genilda Morais, whom Fibra met while doing research in the Ribeira Valley region, is one such case in point. With Fibra’s Bananaplac technology, Morais has formalised her craft technique and formed a small production unit. It creates panels that, because of their translucent quality, can be used as front covers for notebooks, or in interiors products such as lamps and partitions. ‘We always try to make a link between the producer and the market. Sometimes we think of ourselves more as an NGO than a design group,’ says Maia.
With such versatile materials, the group has ambitions of being Brazil’s first sustainable materials resource – and it is this resource that has been the starting point for concepts taking the studio into interiors, exhibition, product and innovation work.
Top of the group’s growing product portfolio is the bicycle Chico. Made from sturdy Organic Bamboo Laminate, Chico – Temer’s graduation project – is designed to grow with the child, from toddler years to late childhood. The adjustable mechanical system for the saddle and handlebars, along with detachable pedals, make this possible.
‘[With Chico] there is an emotional relationship established as the child grows up with the product, and as a result of this [children learn that] toys are not trash,’ explains Maia.
Despite still being a prototype, showing the development of product is important, he stresses. ‘It’s part of a re-education. When you show the process, others begin to think about what is possible,’ he says. Indeed, this ‘dissemination of concepts of sustainability’ is a fundamental Fibra ethos. For the time being, however, materials development is being kept under wraps. ‘We need to sustain ourselves and our research,’ he quips.
Another of Fibra’s materials-turned-product is Mesa Bruno, or Bruno table. Made from Pupunha – a laminate and plywood developed from sustainable palm – it has a distinct robustness akin to classic wood. ‘There is still huge demand for madeira de lei (noble wood). The veins of the Amazon are opened up to get this oldest, most expensive wood, [but this leaves the forest vulnerable] and this is how we get deforestation.
t’s a strategic view, but I would like to see Pupunha used to sell to this kind of market, as a replacement for madeira de lei,’ says Maia.
Using such pressing environmental and social issues as a springboard, Fibra seems to be spot on in tapping into Brazil’s potential for a post-industrial symbiosis with nature.
As Maia puts it, ‘We have a lot of opportunity. We have to take a systemic view of nature. We have a huge biodiversity to learn from and transform into knowledge.’