Eco-Mentalism©

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t forget – you heard it here first, folks. It’s the new religion. And it’s copyright, and I registered the domain eco-mentalism.com.

The two of you who have read this blog a) more than once and b) all the way to the bottom will be familiar with my ranting and raving about all things eco and its importance for contemporary design, society, the economy, the world, the universe and life as we know it. You may also be familiar – perhaps even in your own right, as a result of your own reading and ponderings on this hugely complex subject – with what I view, anyway, as the ‘bottom line’ of the whole entire deal; that, however much eco-cred the eco-move you’re planning or doing may have, if it isn’t being used, and used in a sustainable way, then it isn’t sustainable at all. In other words, there’ll be no overall adoption of the things that make sense for our survival without a general, far-reaching, profound, deep-laid change in behaviour. And one could make oneself unpopular by suggesting that without such changes, there will be no survival. Rubbed out, us humans will be. Or reduced anyway to the last handful of us pushing a supermarket trolley full of tinned food as far south as we can get so we can at least be warmer avoiding the toxic dust and the cannibals.

And here’s the rub. How do you get people to make changes when the prime motivation, at least, is a vague and all-consuming (though not well informed) fear, much beset with complex arguments about things such as embodied energy, which tend to muddy the picture even more and bring nothing but confusion? Plus, eco choices don’t get made because the general public’s perception of the eco choice is that it’s the more expensive one. And they’re usually right.

In light of all this – and much more – I have been giving a good deal of thought recently to the inner workings of the human mind – nay, not just mind, let’s include spirit – and how it can be trained, or tricked, or browbeaten, or seduced, into adopting new forms of behaviour that, on the face of it, don’t seem to carry much palpable benefit. We have to make ourselves want the things we know we ought to have (and ‘unwant’ the things we ought not to), because the way it’s going at the moment, we aren’t going to want them enough, or quickly enough, to make the changes we need to make.

You’ll notice that this argument is unfolding without reference to the professional context in which design is practised – where, for instance, you either have to educate a client in the ways of green, and persuade him or her that he or she absolutely has to adopt them, or just grit your teeth and get on with the job without reference to the eco agenda, because that’s not what he or she wants. Or, lucky you, help the already greened-up client achieve more of his or her true and laudable eco aims. That’s not where I’m focusing the attention right now, because everyone is an individual with his or her own individual responsibility, and whether he or she sits behind a corporate desk the size of a small playing field or not, it’s at the individual level that this behaviour change has to take place. Your client might be putting a corporate green agenda into place across his or her corporate estate, but it’s only when he or she goes to a home heated with a ground source heat pump that the eco choice can be said to have been made – because if your company makes that choice for you, you don’t have power in the decision and therefore don’t have to take responsibility.

While I’ve been letting these ideas simmer, I’ve been googling (as you do) ‘ecomentalism’. There are a couple of sites out there that use the phrase, but the ones I’ve found so far use it as a term of disdain and abuse, aiming derision at the eco warriors (or worriers) who go all ‘mental’ about the eco imperative, lose what intellectual and spiritual balance they might originally have had, and proceed to act on ill conceived and mistaken motives.

Eco-mentalism (with a hyphen), as defined by AEJ Walker in the here and now, describes a state of mind, a set of mental processes and a belief system, based on the unarguable, inevitable, eternal truth that we are all part of the same organism. We know that the organism needs nurturing, that the current western socio-economic model is inimical to its nurture, and that bit by bit, small step by small step, we must dismantle that old model and build one in its place based on sharing not competition, on achieving harmony with each other and our surroundings, on a revived understanding of nature and what is natural, on an economic ideal that proposes a constant, steady state of activity rather than eternal and unsustainable growth. No one ever suggested the world and its resources were infinite; why then have we for the last two hundred years built our wealth on the blindly cockeyed assumption that we can go on growing it for ever?

Sounds a bit Gaia-ish doesn’t it? A bit hippie, a bit wishy washy touchy feely, Aidan gone all soft in the head? But depend upon it folks, we aren’t going to survive at all if we suppose that the way to do it is wipe out our competitors for food, transport, air and water. It would only be a matter of time before the hoodie with the big scythe came for us as well. It’s our minds that need to change for us to successfully save ourselves – and others.

At this stage I don’t profess to have even an inkling of any of the answers. The conclusion I have recently been coming to is that it depends upon a spiritual, even religious, element; the power of hope and inspiration, the power to believe that we can and will do it, that the forces for good are stronger than the forces of destruction and despair, that we will conquer and survive – not just survive, but live a good and great life, a better one.

I don’t think most sensible people would scoff the idea out of court, given the current state of things; there are literally thousands of inexpressibly complex and difficult issues to grapple with – eg, what right do we have, after 200 years of untold material prosperity, to turn round and deny it to the ‘developing world’ – but when all’s said and done, unless we find a charismatic and uplifting way of seducing ourselves and others into adopting what we all deep down know is ‘right behaviour’, we’re toast.

Fear, threats and negativity won’t do it; they just cause resistance. The route has to be signposted with attractions, with beauty, harmony and love, with things that we naturally desire. And correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me, from what little understanding of design that I have gained in more than 20 years of meeting the world’s best practitioners – in two decades of thinking, talking and writing about it – that the creation of such sweetmeats for the soul, the magical conjuring of desire, is just the sort of thing design is good at. Not just good at; it’s what it’s for. Over to you, dear reader. I’m right with you.

Four Good Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

Towards the end of 2010 three people whose work I respect (and, it must be said, who I personally like and enjoy working with) all published books with ‘Home’ in the title. George Clarke’s Home Bible, Naomi Cleaver’s The Joy of Home and Kevin McCloud’s 43 Principles of Home came out within a couple of months of each other, and all, we hope, are selling well and enhancing these admirable people’s already admirable reputations. Let’s hold a candle of comparison, see where they go with this idea of Home –  from house to ‘Om’, one of the most powerful and enduring in human consciousness.

I also discovered that the equally admirable Ilse Crawford’s Home is Where the Heart Is? (inexplicable question mark), first published in 2005, has a new (2009) edition, and since this is the book that, to my limited knowledge at least, first proposed the idea that domestic interior design depended on emotional, not just visual or practical, intelligence, it’s where I’ll start. Her introduction says things like: ‘… evolutionary psychology is addressing our primal drives and suggesting that our emotions are in part the expression of them…. The primal emotional needs that ensured our survival and development are still very much part of us…. How can we use this knowledge to build homes that… resonate with our inner selves?’

No question that Ilse is talking about personal, perhaps private, but certainly human factors in design. ‘… while editing an interior design magazine I saw countless homes that looked fantastic in photographs but felt miserable in reality… because the physical, the sensual, the emotional side of design was frequently forgotten in pursuit of the visual and ostensibly functional.’

Not rocket science, I’m sure even Ilse would agree. But very well put, because as she so rightly says, the ‘warm’, ‘heartfelt’, human or humane aspects of design are all too easily forgotten, if we ever realized they were there in the first place. It may even be that the slightly messy, eclectic, mismatched, unpredictable, not altogether well organised, aspects of our homes – the things that make us feel at home – are not even considered as design at all. Design, after all, is there to eliminate all that randomness. Isn’t it?

Naomi Cleaver’s book is less ostensibly based on the feeling, intuitive, right-brain side of our consciousness, but at bottom she is very clear that a) anyone and everyone can design a successful home for themselves, and b) that anyone and everyone has creativity in their bones, however deep laid and apparently inaccessible. ‘Designing a home is nor just about creating a handsome, usable living space. It is also a chance to completely think how we live our lives in ways that help us to live better…. To design a home is to design happiness, to create for ourselves a little piece of joy.’ She cleverly leads from the personal growth aspects (‘… in our domestic domain… we can express our true creative selves most fully and in ways that add tangible value to the quality of our life’) to the more or less didactic, prescriptive  approach (‘Throw a few crimson cushions across a lime green sofa’ – she doesn’t say this, but you know what I mean) which is much more familiar to readers of books like these.
For Naomi, home = happiness, but happiness = conflict, either because I love loud rock’n’roll and my partner hates it, or because I love loud rock’n’roll but there are times when I absolutely have to have silence. She quotes Aristotle and Plato, coming down on the side of Plato: ‘I want it all, and I’ll settle for a degree of compromise. But the common denominator is planning.’ Bingo, here we are in the world of understanding the design process, learning not only how to draw but the value of it, leading on to a room-by-room account of what makes good home design and what doesn’t. Ambitious, laudable, useful, stimulating, loads of good ideas; definitely a book to have at hand.

George Clarke’s approach, much like his ebullient and likeable TV persona, is to draw from his own personal experience, tell personal stories, use his own home to demonstrate basic principles and Big Ideas. George is not one for navel gazing, but his introduction also touches on the emotional significance of home; ‘we have lost sight of what “home” actually means.’ But now, after the property boom of the 90s, ‘we have begun to think about our families’ “needs” in a home, rather than our “wants”. What of those of us who would love to take a more affordable budget and transform the ordinary house in which we already live into something truly special?’ Like Naomi, he also puts great emphasis on drawing, devoting a whole chapter to it (I reckon even I could learn to draw having read it), which implicitly subverts the idea that there are people who can and people who can’t, and leads directly to the creativity gene that Naomi has already uncovered. After which, structuring the book around spatial typologies and a room-by-room formula, he demonstrates just what is possible. Inspiring, practical, no-nonsense, the book is almost written in a Geordie accent.

The first of many surprises about Kevin McCloud’s tome (nearly 400 very big pages) is that his 43 Principles of Home, which are sort of an update of Le Corbusier’s Manual of Dwelling, and refer to the wisdom of Vitruvius and Palladio, among other architectural philosophers, appear almost as a by-product in the book, set on single pages, and are not directly expanded upon or – at first sight – used to form the structure. They just sort of occur as you go through it. But go through it you will, because this is one of those books that you actually enjoy reading and will do so for pleasure, as opposed to the necessary, useful (but still of course enjoyable) experience that the others offer.

Kevin covers just about every damn thing you ever need or want to know. Pretty much the first thing you come to is fire. Fire? Why start there? Before you know it you’re on a discursive and at times laugh-out-loud exposition of barbecues and behaviour, the typical archaic male ‘in touch with his caveman self’. He has led us there by way of his woodburner, which brings us to Benjamin Franklin, the 18th-century inventor of – among many other things – the woodburning stove. Which in turn brings us to Principle 1: ‘Demand that your home consumes the minimum of energy yet keeps you warm and comfortable… Demand that your building does not just save energy but produces it. Demand that your home has a minimal environmental footprint and uses our precious resources wisely and sparingly.’ See? Structure becomes apparent. The ‘Principle’ appears in just the right place.

You need to spend some time with this remarkable and hugely enjoyable book to work out how it works. Aha, we get it. It’s all about making sense of an eco life. Which, surprise surprise, is overtly stated in a way that the other books touch upon or hint at, but don’t commit to wholeheartedly; ‘this book’s big theme is how we implement the culture change that is going to be necessary over the next 40 years, in order that a global population of what will be nine billion people… can still be sustained by this planet’s resources.’

It goes here, it goes there, it goes everywhere. It goes to Rome to meet a model maker, it learns how to make charcoal with Ben Law, the ‘underwoodsman’ from the first series of Grand Designs. It goes to Denmark Street, the hub of ‘Tin Pan Alley’ in central London, to buy a bass guitar and marvel at the warmth and vitality of true craftsmanship. It has chapters with titles like ‘How NOT to Shop’. It has a whole section entitled ‘Sharing’.
It’s a good investment of £30, perhaps the best you might make all year. But, like most writers in the world of design and architecture, or at least connected to it, it doesn’t quite go all the way. There is still that prescriptive stuff: ‘do this, do that, do the other’ – which, because it is delivered with the inimitable McCloud warmth and humour, is easy to swallow. But it doesn’t get to the nub of HOW we change our behaviour; and it also doesn’t confront the unthinkable and downright nasty, but ultimately inevitable, conclusion that there’s no way this world will continue to sustain nine billion people, or anything like that number. Huge swathes of humanity will cease to exist, and tiny swathes will carry on, using some of the wisdom in books like this to make their lives bearable, even joyful.

What we need – now and in the future, whether we are in the surviving few or the less fortunate many – is techniques, tricks and prescriptions for how we should think and act anew for the new world. How to rediscover a harmonious balance in our inner ecosystems, our mental (and spiritual) ecology. Habits change when minds change; and that’s where Eco-Mentalism© comes in. Didn’t think you’d get away without me banging that drum, now did you?

Ilse Crawford, 2005 and 2009. Home is where the heart is? Quadrille Publishing, £20.
Naomi Cleaver, 2010. The Joy of Home. Conran Octopus, £30.
George Clarke, 2010. George Clarke’s Home Bible. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £30.
Kevin McCloud, 2010. Kevin McCloud’s 43 Principles of Home: Enjoying Life in the 21st Century. Collins, £30.

Sustainism, Eco-mentalism & inbetweenism

Sustainism is the new Modernism
A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era
by Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers

Of course, I latched on to this book as soon as I saw Alice Rawsthorn’s piece in the (digital) New York Times about it. Datelined London, Alice begins: ‘Here’s the skinny. Modernism is dead, an design needs a new “ism” to define it.’ She sems to quietly approve of this unusual book, but puts her finger on the problem: ‘The critical issue for any designer committed to the principles identified in “Sustainism” is how to put them into practice, which always threatened to be problematic, but is proving to be even more so than expected. Those problems are particularly acute when it comes to environmental issues. Progress is hindered by the general confusion over fundamental questions such as what does — and doesn’t — constitute environmentally sensitive design, sourcing, manufacturing and disposal; and how we should judge them.’

Determined to develop ideas of my own which I have already roughly outlined in these pages – the philosophy and practice of ‘Eco-Mentalism’© (not the derangement of windmills, sandals and muesli, but a set of principles designed to empower us poor earthly weaklings to make the behavioural changes we need to make), my heart sort of sank when I saw the name of the book and concluded that someone else had got there first. But it ain’t quite like that, I’m glad to say. Schwarz and Elffers, a cultural theorist and a creative producer / designer, both Dutch and both working in the US, have created a fairly  extraordinary work in book terms, and set out a simple but heady stall in eco-thinking terms. Most of the ideas contained within are already familiar, and one thing that this book is not is a work of densely argued, scholarly discourse, so it’s as easy on the mind as the eye. But it is indicating a new path, one which many writers, commentators (including me) and thinkers must also tread, upon which we define the problem as we see it – from the point of view of design – and engage our readers, positive and critical, in debate about how we are going to cope. Or even fix said problem.

It’s a graphic designer’s tour de force. Elffers has created a whole family of signs, symbols and logos to communicate and enshrine the essential elements of ‘Sustainism’ – most notably the trefoil knot. There are logos for recycling, for localism, for globalism, for technologies (acknowledged as social designs), for sustainist high-tech (light – versatile – low-energy – minimal-resource – interactive – open – shared – recyclable); the list goes on. Almost every page is set in a different typeface; there are pages of luscious patterns; much is made of the eloquence of display type, with many a reference to the classic American fonts of the pre- and post-war eras (the ones that remind you of the Chrysler Building or a Cadillac Diner).

As a manifesto, it probably works. Let’s at least say that it is better that such a book exists rather than it doesn’t, because it will set people talking and thinking, and – we hope – co-operating and collaborating. Because that is Schwarz and Elffers’ basic message, without being academic about any of it; ‘Sustainism is a cultural force… a movement without historical precedent: worldwide but rooted in localism, and with a cultural power that needs no formal authority…. Sustainism, unlike Modernism, builds on a mass of engaged people organized in millions of citizen-led organisations, “the largest movement in the world”. (They’re talking about non profit organizations.)  It’s networked, it’s digital, it’s localist (why not local?); it’s ‘how we make our world, how we relate to nature, what we see as possible, desirable and acceptable.’

As a critic, I started to find a few holes, a weakness here and there. Sustainism, for instance, is proposed as the next logical step on from Modernism, which Schwarz and Elffers apparently believe held the world in its machinistic, mechanistic, rationalist, linear grip for a large part of the 20th century. This is arguable, and possibly a weakness which to some extent, thought critical me, undermines their proposition; because surely the two great cultural forces of the 20th century have been capitalism and communism, the latter now discredited and the former wondering what the hell is going to happen next. Modernism, in all its numerous forms (of which architecture and design are but two), was – and still is – a way of making sense of a new world, but I think it’s fair to say that as a life principle it passed the majority of the human race by.

I was also a bit uneasy about the whole language thing. This might stem from the fact that Schwarz and Elffers are Netherlanders and don’t have English as a first language, but then the Dutch are the most polyglot nation on earth and I can find you many a Dutchman who can speak English better than many an Englishman (or woman). ‘Sustainism’ as a word seems a bit awkward somehow, which awkwardness may well spill over into the expression of the ideas. And on the page where they do their definitions, it seems to veer towards ‘sustainity’, another neologism whose distinction from ‘sustainism’ is not immediately apparent.

Enough of this carping. As I compared my own thinking about ‘Eco-Mentalism’© with the proposals that Schwarz and Elffers are making, I realized that in this very critical response is, somehow, lodged part if not all of the problem. Initially I was fearful – have they stolen my thunder, I should have been quicker with my thing, etc etc – until I realized that if I was going to live by my own principles – which are very much based on the sharing, collaborative, open-minded, open-sourced ideals of ‘Sustainism’ – then I should be glad about what they’re doing, and get in touch with them to share ideas and begin colloquy (which is why I sent this text to them at the same time as I sent it to our esteemed Ed.) It has to be a matter of people working and thinking together, hammering things out, swapping ideas, building a common good out of a common cause.

The difference between Sustainism and Eco-Mentalism© is that with Eco-Mentalism I am aiming to propose a template for personal practice. As Alice Rawsthorn says at the top, and as anyone who has tussled with the behavioural aspects of the ‘eco-problem’ (let’s call it that for now) knows full well, it’s all very well saying what we’ve got to do. We all kind of know the best wisdom. How the hell are we going to make ourselves do it? Eco-Mentalism, currently in preparation to break on an unsuspecting and ever-to-be-grateful world at Ecobuild on 2 March (you might already have missed it) is based on a set of human powers that we already have, we just don’t know it. To make the human changes necessary for the ideal world of Schwarz and Elffers to become a reality, we need a practical roadmap of self-transformation.

It isn’t a preaching, nagging, punishing, do-this-or-you-will-be-for-ever-doomed sort of thing. It has to be presented in a way that will make people want to do it. Compare the enormous self-improvement industry, for such it is, and the countless books about how to love better, live better, be thinner, richer, a better golfer, designer, writer, salesman, miner. Not all of us subscribe to that sort of thing, but many millions feel innately that they are capable of so much more. I humbly recommend that you follow Eco-Mentalism (I’ve got the domain but there isn’t anything on it yet) to make your own mind up about whether this too is a useful blueprint for a survivable tomorrow. And you’ll be a better designer for it as well. Better humans make better designers. No guarantees.

Sustainism is the new Modernism
A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era
by Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers
Distributed Art Publishers, New York
Distributed in the UK by Thames & Hudson, £16.95
ISBN-10: 1935202227
ISBN-13: 978-1935202226

Humanity equals sustainability

Those of you (few, very few) who turn to these particular pages regularly will have twigged by now that there are few, very few bees in my design bonnet (ones that I can let out in print or online, anyway). And that most – both – of said bees are labelled either ‘sustainable design ’ or ‘humane design’ or both. By which I mean, in the case of ‘sustainability’, design that engages convincingly with the great cultural shift enveloping western ‘civilisation’, as it gradually wakes up to the fact that it is threatening its very existence with its own blind materialism; and in the case of ‘humane’, design that convincingly engages with a) aforesaid sustainability, b) aesthetics, c) functionality, d) inspiration/innovation, and e) a felicitous combination of all those things, that we may call ‘delight’. (Hence bitter tirade against the iPhone elsewhere on the site, which promises delight but delivers – if you want to use it for work not play – nothing but rage, pain and grief.)

Also elsewhere, in the course of a discussion of Haworth’s new/refurbished headquarters and its re-invented business vision, I introduced John Robinson, from the University of British Columbia, whose take on redesigning design and on its connection to matters of human activity and behaviours made more sense than any other single contribution to this inexpressibly complex debate I have so far heard. Essentially, he maintains that you can’t have sustainable policies, sustainable design, sustainable buildings or sustainable anything else without sustainable human behaviour. The estimable Ben Humphries, Associate at long-established ‘green architect’ Architype, agrees, having just completed 56 Southwark Bridge Road in south London, a new Creative Media Training Centre in an old Victorian library, on a site none more urban. It includes just about every eco-architectural move you can make in this day and age, but the architects politely hint at some, shall we say, frustration in the process of ‘user education’. You can build a super sustainable building, in other words, but it ain’t sustainable at all unless the users use it sustainably.

What’s my point? Three actually, upon all of which the foregoing has bearing. I respectfully draw your attention to 1) the work of Professor Jeremy Myerson and his team at the RCA’s Helen Hamlyn Centre (with research partners in Japan and Australia) on the Welcoming Workplace, generously assisted by Kinnarps; to 2) the publication by Unwired Ventures, one of the arms of Philip Ross’s Cordless Group, of The Unwired ‘Byte-Sized’ Guide to Sustainability in the Workplace; and to 3) a comparison of Herman Miller’s new all-singing, all-dancing Embody chair, claimed to give health to parts of the body you never knew existed, and Niels Diffrient’s prototype Diffrient Work chair for Humanscale, both of which were on view at Orgatec 08.

First, the Welcoming Workplace. The Helen Hamlyn Centre was set up to explore and promote the idea of ‘inclusive’ design at the time when it was first becoming abundantly obvious that design by and large ignored the increasingly dominant over-50 age group. Everyone knows by now – or should if they don’t – that by 2020 nearly half of the adults in the EU will be over 50. This trend is visible in nearly every country in the world except for some African nations. The Helen Hamlyn approach is not to design for older people, but to design environments and products that can be used by everyone, including older people. And they are currently promoting and exhibiting the results of their year-long Welcoming Workplace project (the Kinnarps showroom had an exhibition on Designers’ Saturday). You can find out all about it on their website, but suffice it to say here that, thank God, someone has at last come out with a piece of wisdom on office design that I think we all knew in our hearts but never got round to admitting, we were so eager to keep up with the newest and latest thinking on collaborative, flexible, knowledge-driven new ways of working.

The research, amongst older office workers (not decrepit, just not young), on three continents has led to the conclusion that everyone – including the young – needs at least three types of interior; spaces to concentrate, spaces to collaborate, and spaces to contemplate. Office design should therefore include all three; the office should be a place of variety, not one in which a single open plan (or cellular) model dominates; and thus the older generation of office workers – whose value, in a knowledge economy, is self evidently greater because if their experience – are not only accommodated but made to feel accommodated, which psychological benefit is more than half the battle.

Recommendations for spaces to concentrate include  a noise masking system, motorised height adjustable desks, task lights and available windows
Recommendations for spaces to concentrate include a noise masking system, motorised height adjustable desks, task lights and available windows
 Recommendations for spaces to contemplate include an ‘office garden; a variety of furniture; a curtain of falling water to soothe the mind and purify the air; semi-transparent dividers which separate but do not isolate
Recommendations for spaces to contemplate include an ‘office garden; a variety of furniture; a curtain of falling water to soothe the mind and purify the air; semi-transparent dividers which separate but do not isolate
Recommendations for spaces to collaborate – the team ‘owns’ the space: an abundance of display space, digital and traditional; moveable and bench-style furniture; dynamic lighting
Recommendations for spaces to collaborate – the team ‘owns’ the space: an abundance of display space, digital and traditional; moveable and bench-style furniture; dynamic lighting

The WW project does not focus on sustainability in the environmental sense. But, crucially, it is entirely focused on behaviour and the environments that support those whose needs have not been so far met, and in no way does it alienate the younger workers. Its recommendations thus lead us to humane and therefore sustainable design.

The Unwired ‘Byte-Sized’ Guide to Sustainability in the Workplace, which also benefits from Kinnarps’ support, is something entirely different. It is a well written and well researched comprehensive guide to the overall environmental issues, to the ones that deal specifically with office buildings, to the legislative landscape in more than one country, to standards and regulations, and to the routes that occupying companies can take to reduce energy consumption, reduce costs, fulfil a corporate social responsibility agenda and otherwise compile a meaningful carbon reduction strategy. Crucially, it concentrates on existing buildings rather than new build, accounting for the issues in 98 – 99 per cent of buildings rather than dealing with construction techniques and materials for the one per cent in the design and build process.sustainability-in-the-workplace-cover A useful reference for facility managers, architects and interior designers and indeed members of the board, not least because it also deals with the building management technologies that support and enable carbon reduction and energy efficiency measures. Further still – and this is the point – it comes round to individual environmental control and accountability, where it begins to overlap with the ideas behind Welcoming Workplace, and the ‘sustainable behaviour’ mentioned above. ‘With developments in information technology enabling greater integration between… building systems and more energy efficient use of the workplace,’ it says, ‘there is also the potential to provide individual staff members with the ability to control their own environment. As a result, staff are likely to benefit from greater comfort and higher productivity, and become more aware of their individual responsibility to reduce energy use.’ Sustainable and humane go together again.

Last but not least, a quick note about the two major chair launches at Orgatec; Herman Miller’s Embody, the result of six years’ research and work, which is intended to reflect and support body movement to a far, far more detailed and responsive level than ever before. Miller apparently thinks that the impact on the market will be similar or greater than that of Aeron. Naturally, being from Herman Miller, the design includes a huge percentage of recycled and recyclable components, and as far as it goes all the possible environmental credentials are there.

Herman Miller's Embody – very nice, but is it sustainable design?
Herman Miller's Embody – very nice, but is it sustainable design?

But when you compare it with Diffrient’s ‘Diffrient’ work chair for Humanscale, only visible in prototype form at Orgatec, it rapidly becomes painfully clear which way office seating design should go. Little or no engineered adjustments – they are pretty much all automatic, which to be fair is true of Embody as well – eight major components (of course the components are made up of components, but nonetheless the simplicity of design and manufacture is astonishing) – and a list price point not far off a third of the Miller product. Both are humane design, but ask yourself which one is more truly sustainable. Great try Mr Miller, but I believe you’re looking in the wrong direction. Sorry!

www.welcomingworkplace.com

www.unwired.eu.com

www.architype.co.uk/southwark.html

www.hermanmiller.com/CDA/SSA/Product/0,,a10-c440-p271,00.html

www.humanscale.com (no info on the Diffrient chair as of Dec 08)

•  concentrate include a noise masking system, motorised height adjustable desks, task lights and available windows

Recommendations for spaces to collaborate – the team ‘owns’ the space: an abundance of display space, digital and traditional; moveable and bench-style furniture; dynamic lighting

• Recommendations for spaces to concentrate include an ‘office garden; a variety of furniture; a curtain of falling water to soothe the mind and purify the air; semi-transparent dividers which separate but do not isolate

The death of the cheap bench

The demise of more than a handful of office furniture manufacturers over the last couple of months causes one, as it always does, to ponder. Beyon, JF Nott, FCC, and rumoured others who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons, but about whom the rumours may have consolidated by the time this is printed. Commiserations to those whose projects lie in tatters, job losses and desperation; many of us know what that’s like, and all sympathies to you. But from here, the pondering takes in not only the gloomy prospect of a recession to equal or outdo the very lean years of 90 – 92, but also the wider picture of the way workplaces are changing, and the way the people in them need – or don’t need – furniture.

All these companies do – or did – bench systems. Nothing so notable in that, you say – most companies do bench systems now. But with the arguable exception of Beyon, they were also operating at the, how shall we put it, more budget conscious end of the market. Sorry if this seems inexcusably vague, but the truth is no manufacturer, dealer, specifier or client will give someone with connections to an industry publication more than a very general budget guide to the price paid per workstation in a given job. All someone like me has to go by is price lists and the knowledge that heavy, not to say apparently suicidal, discounting is a not unknown practice in the office furniture industry.

So companies with small margins, who aren’t able to charge large amounts for their product, for whatever reason, come under pressure when times are hard. But times aren’t that hard – yet. So what’s happening? John Sacks, of JSA Consultants, who has run a few office furniture companies in his time, explains that in many cases such companies are under capitalised, and although bench systems are by and large cheaper to make than the equivalent single workstations, the related costs such as delivery and installation are the same. ‘But the most serious problem for office furniture companies,’ says Sacks – manufacturers and dealers alike – ‘is that lower product specifications and simpler products have led to lower selling prices and that although the percentage margins for manufacturers and dealers might well still look satisfactory, the cash margins are hopeless. For example, assume a margin of 25 per cent; when a 250 workstation order was worth £1/4m, the cash that generated was £62,500. Today, say five years’ later, the order may be worth as little as £125,000 and the margin is perhaps only £31,250. That amount of cash – worth even less after inflation compared to the £62,500 – has to cover the same costs as before in winning the order as well as delivering and installing it. It just doesn’t work.’

So it’s not only margins that are under pressure; the whole business model needs an overhaul. Further than that, the all-singing, all–dancing bench – hailed a few short years ago as the new and glorious solution to the demands of flexible and mobile working – is in fact much harder to reconfigure for ever-changing project teams, in both accommodation and IT terms, than the standard workstation. Kind of stands to reason. Creative companies, you know, the advertising, web and design organisations that always seem to be featured in magazines not a million miles removed from this one, love all that bench thing – possibly because, as their workers are knowledge workers, they are anyway mobile and work with laptops, and also (less demonstrably) their mentality is less wedded to territory and ownership than those in more traditional organisations. Also because the bench demonstrates a democratic organisational culture that you are more likely to find in a creative company.

So. If not the death of office furniture as such, or even the death of the bench as such, then at least the incipient death of the cheap bench. Which suggests, as implied above, that bigger margin companies, and that almost always means companies with greater brand value, will survive and prosper. And this is because such companies are selling not just a product but an idea that goes with it, a feeling, an emotional proposition to which people can attach their own individual aspirations, a whole array of non-tangible elements. A brand, in other words. Vitra is the perfect example of this phenomenon, and so too is Herman Miller. The products, by and large, are of course excellent, the result of profound and intelligent design thinking, a commitment to such process by the management of the company, and the result of a corporate culture that enshrines such values, and many other enduring intangibles, in the company’s activity. It also helps if the products are higher priced. (I thought Beyon was a very interesting phenomenon when it entered the UK office furniture market a few years ago, because from the word go, the word was ‘brand’. But as it turns out, maybe the company’s financial structures weren’t strong enough. You can’t live by ‘brand’ alone.)

In the office furniture market, ‘brand’ must now carry a whole lot more meaning. It is no longer enough for a company’s brand just to mean quality, longevity and design excellence. It must also represent not only sustainability (I don’t want to be boring about it, but you can’t ignore it) and service. And in the context of the new, IT-driven, knowledge-worker inhabited, flexible, mobile and (hopefully) very sustainable world of work, that service must somehow be represented to clients as helping them figure out how to operate. An office furniture manufacturer becomes a workplace design consultant. Haworth (see FX July, p?????) has worked this out, and because it is coming from behind its major competitor Herman Miller in the design value stakes, it has been able to more or less reinvent itself as such, with the help of a brand spanking new eco-HQ, some sleek new products, and a carefully developed and very effectively written set of new marketing messages. It remains to be seen how successful such a brave change in direction will be – but it was as obvious to Dick Haworth and his board as it is to you and me that the old way won’t work any more.

There’s a little sting in this tale, a reassuring one perhaps, especially to designers, manufacturers, salespeople and all the other members of the office furniture community who wake up screaming at the ghastly prospect of the imminent death of their industry. Expensive desks become cheap tables, highly engineered chairs become simple to use and to look at – so where is the money going? The insight is from Adrian Campbell, senior associate at BDG Workfutures and the man in charge of specifying furniture, and it has a resonance that I promise we will return to in these pages, because it touches on where design itself has to go. ‘I don’t know’, he said, wrapping up a conversation about the death of the cheap bench and the possible disappearance of office furniture as we know it: ‘I like furniture. I just like it, I like a piece of furniture in a room. It’s an emotional connection – people have an emotional link with furniture.’ I knew exactly what he meant, and so do you. It’s emotional. And that’s why a) the clever companies who see the necessity of developing their brands to mean more than just ‘stuff’ will not only survive but thrive, and b) we’ll be using desks, chairs and storage designed for working at, on or in, for generations to come. Phew.

I hate the iPhone, says Aidan Walker, eating his own words heavily spiced with chagrin

Gird your mental loins, dear reader, prick up your eyes and ears, sit up straight and pay attention. You are about to enjoy a spectacle which few readers of design magazines are ever vouchsafed – that of a ‘distinguished design critic’ (humble self in this case) eating a) his own words and b) an extremely large helping of humble pie. Perhaps those same words were key ingredients in that notable recipe, just lying in wait, ready to come back, haunt me, and demand to be munched upon. For munching I am, and the taste is bitter indeed.

Here is what I said about the iPhone in April, for your June issue of FX: ‘Here is an object of desire that looks beautiful and works not just well but beautifully, inside and out. It’s so… right. It’s also got icons. And as for whether that does or doesn’t make it a piece of iconic design, frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn.’ How deeply, bitterly embarrassing. Shoot me, do away with me painfully, I deserve it.

I wrote those words without having owned and used an iPhone. I had given several of them a bit of a run round the block, enough (I supposed) to come to some conclusions, but not the same at all as living and working with one. I have now had one for about six weeks, and I can tell you without fear or favour – it sucks. It just doesn’t work.

The humiliation of having been caught out by my own lack of rigour in delivering critical opinion is made worse, far worse, by the fact that I had heralded the iPhone as the ‘smart phone’ to end smart phones, the one I had been waiting for, long before it was even announced. After endless frustrations with Treos and Blackberries, the back of my hand to them, full of Macintosh-unfriendly functionality as they are, I saw the iPhone as the answer to my prayers, a further proof of one of my basic tenets of design philosophy, which is that Apple computing is best in every way and never shall I tread the vale of tears named ‘PC’, inhabited by illogical and ‘inhuman’ product and systems design. Apple’s computers say: ‘I am a computer but I will look nice and try and talk your language, O human’, while PCs say: ‘I am a PC. Get used to it. Learn my language, human, or suffer. Or both.’ But this time Apple’s fabled arrogance – we put up with it because their products are so good – is intricately commingled with straightforward bad design.

Time and time again, it just doesn’t come up to scratch. It doesn’t deliver. Which strikes directly at the heart of my basically enthusiastic and occasionally forgiving attitude to Apple’s products. It has damaged our relationship.

I won’t bore you with the endless detail of what and how doesn’t work on the iPhone, but I will give you a ‘sample’ list. First and foremost (apart from the woeful battery life), its ability to pick up the network signal is worse, far worse, than the crap phones of years ago. On the M1, the M25, in central London, Gatwick airport, you name it. ‘No service’, when you know and I know that there is plenty of service. Look at all those people around me using their phones, while I stare in frustration and anger at ‘no service’. Pretty much the only way out of this is switch it off and back on again – you might get it to cotton on to what every other phone in the vicinity already knows – but ‘shutting down’ takes about 15 seconds, and ‘booting’ more than 30. I timed it yesterday and it took 36 seconds to come back to life. Not likely to improve one’s mood in a hurry. And if and when you do finally get it to admit to the existence of a cellular network, it sometimes looks and feels as if it is ringing but doesn’t connect. Why? No idea. The answer? Switch it off and on again.

Much of the other crap stems from this basic inability to connect to the network. But not all. You’d imagine a smart phone that does emails and all sorts of other functions based on text input would have a copy, cut and paste function wouldn’t you? A pretty basic requirement, one would say. Apple seems to disagree. Can you copy, cut and paste? No, you cannot.

Let’s have a quick look at some of the other ‘functions’. Email. Why does the little ‘connecting’ wheel go round and round with no result? Don’t know. Switch it off and on again and see if it works. Ah yes, at last. And cool, here is that pdf Fred was sending me. Aha, can read it, yep good. Here comes the train, will look at it in a minute. Get a seat. Now, the pdf. Er… where is it? Crap. Gone. Suppose I’ll have to download the email again then save it. Er, no, can’t download the email. ‘This message has not been downloaded from the server.’ Yes, I know that. Why? Because your server is told to delete messages immediately after downloading. So re-set it (you’ll need to be at your computer to do that), then you can read the damn pdf, as if you wanted to by this time. Best to save it, eh. Er… where? How? Nowhere. No way of saving files for future use that I can find. Maybe I can just Bluetooth that pdf across from my own computer? Nope. iPhone is not configured to receive files via Bluetooth. Really? Confidence in your mobile communications device beginning to wane?

And here’s another totally maddening email thing, related to that inability (or downright bloody-minded refusal) to make a place where ordinary files can sit to be read whenever is convenient. You’re in the middle of writing an email. The train comes or the phone rings or whatever. You put it in your pocket or go to a different ‘function’, expecting to go back to the email when you’re done. Not likely. Gone for ever. Where? Search me. I had to re-write the same email three times yesterday. Same with texts. They just disappear. (By the way, you can’t forward texts. No, really, you can’t.) There is an ‘outbox’ for emails, but they only sit there when you’ve pressed ‘send’ and they haven’t gone yet. If they go and end up in the ‘sent’ folder, you can see them but not edit them to re-send. My God!

Oh yes, Notes. Nice little Notepad app that, just do a few words while I’m waiting, start the article maybe, and carry on when I sync it to the computer. Er… no. Can’t sync ‘Notes’ to the computer. Why not? Why the hell not? (Voice rises in a strangled shriek…).

This is only a sample. Almost wherever you turn with the damn thing it frustrates and disappoints, refusing to deliver the basic functionality I have every right to expect. Search contacts? Fine, as long as you can remember both the name and the company – because if the company you’re after is in the wrong box on the contact field, ‘search’ won’t pick it up. You know it’s there, but the phone doesn’t. What extra effort is need to make software do this simple thing?

Delight it has, in its yummy little touch-screen way – which, incidentally, can be infuriating in itself, being slower than a keyboard and when you need to input text you have to wait for the keyboard to ‘arrive’ – but functionality it does not. Obiwan 69, one of those nameless individuals on one of those numerous forum type things with which the web overflows, puts it in a nutshell at http://joeygadget.com/2008/06/10/contact-search-finally-added-to-iphone-in-iphone-20-update:

‘The iPhone 3G is a toy. It’s not for work.
 It’s not possible to search into contacts, notes or calendar
- It takes ages to add a task into calendar
- There is no “week” view for the calendar
- cut, copy, paste are not available
- it does not synchronise ‘To Do’ lists and Notes with Outlook. If you want a PDA for work, find an old Palm Pilot from the previous century, it’s much more useful. But for listening to music, playing games or drink a beer with iPint, it’s great.’ (It’s not even that great for listening to music, Obiwan. It was playing what it wanted to play last night, not what I set it to play and not in that order.)

There you have it. Of course, there are many and many developers out there writing little programme-ettes for it, which I suppose Apple can feel smug about, given that so many people are so disposed in the iPhone’s favour they are prepared to write their own software to remedy its shortcomings. I’m not one of those people. By what definition of good design does the user constituency muck in and add its own modifications and enhancements? I demand that good design not only looks good and makes you feel good, but that it works. And the iPhone damn well doesn’t. Don’t buy one. Or if you must, wait another year or two for all the things that it should have had in the first place. By which time ‘early adopters’ will be on their third or fourth, Apple’s stock will still be rising, and most of us will forget just how underdeveloped and under-delivering a device it was. But not me. Me and Apple used to be like that. Now we’re estranged. It is nothing short of cynical, an outrage on the poor smart phone user. Apple, the back of my hand to you.

(Final word to Apple – if I’ve failed to find these functions through my own stupidity, please tell me and I’ll eat another slice of humble pie. Publicly.)

 

CAPTIONS

3437: Notes – all very well if you don’t want or need to transfer them to your computer. Third party ‘apps’ will allow. Why not Apple?

 

3438: Contacts – lucky I knew Caroline was in there as editor of Grafik. Because searching for ‘Grafik’ brought no result. Yes, that’s right. Nothing.

 

3439: Forward this text to your missus to remind her to remind you to do your insurance? Nope. Copy and paste it into an email? Nope. Throw the phone out the window? Yep.

 

3440: Aha, an attachment. Good, I’ll be able to read that….

 

3441: … even if it is way too small, because I can ‘swipe’ and magnify the tiny text. But what else can I do with it? Save it? Nope. Edit it? Nope. Maybe third parties can help here…or it’s the window solution again.

Redesigning Design

I was sitting on a large cabin cruiser (the property of Dick Haworth of office furniture fame) in the middle of Lake Michigan not long ago, listening to a man called John Robinson, who despite his humdrum name is a very distinguished gentleman indeed. He is Professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He is also Professor of Geography. He had a great many things to say about sustainability, almost all of which I’d never heard before, and his attitude and approach to the subject were refreshing in equal measure. I mentioned this sense of novelty, when I could get a word in edgeways. ‘That’, he said, ‘is because I’m not a designer.’

John and his team are building a building – they’ve got $20m of public and private money to do it – which they claim will be the world’s most advanced exemplar of sustainable building. It is called the , it will be built they reckon some time in 2010, and part of its ‘key goals’ is ‘to live within the building footprint as much as possible: most of the building’s electricity and lighting, and all of the water supply, liquid waste treatment, ventilation, and heating and cooling will come from the sun, wind and ground that shines on, blows through, or lies underneath the site.’

So far so not very amazing, you say. It’s true, it doesn’t sound all that unusual, given the current amount, worldwide, of research, discussion and general cerebral activity on sustainability. But a few of the things he said really made me sit up and take notice. One is that he and his colleagues are creating ‘future modelling’ software – essentially computer games – to explore the ordinary person’s attitude towards changes in behaviour – the ‘behavioural advances necessary in any transition to sustainable patterns of living.’ This is related to the aim of treating the building process as a living laboratory over its whole life, studying system integration and the interaction of the building with its inhabitants.

The second is that the whole project is based on a collaboration between disciplines – psychology, sociology, geography, information technology – as well as the building and design specialisms, ‘to create new forms of private, public, NGO and research sector partnership to commercialize sustainability… as a springboard to the trillion-dollar global market in urban infrastructure.’ Mark that word, commercialize.

The third – and this is the bit where I sat back and said ‘Enough already!’ – is that he is setting out to measure happiness, along with health and productivity, of the building’s inhabitants over time. The fourth – and this is the bit where I sat forward and went ‘ Yesss!’ – is that be believes the time of An Inconvenient Truth is over. He doesn’t even like the film. Why? ‘Because we’ve had enough analysis of the problem. No one seriously doubts that any more [although you can still find climate change deniers almost anywhere you look]. It’s our job now to present solutions.’

So it’s getting practical. For whatever reason – perhaps just because the expression of the problem has reached a critical level of acceptance and now we’re moving on – our engagement with the idea of sustainability now seems to be turning this very corner. We’re beginning to realize just what has to be done, and frankly it’s scary.

Two of the documents I’ve recently been digging deep into, though they come at the issues from quite different standpoints, are pointing in a similar direction. One is celebrated workplace theorist Frank Duffy of DEGW’s new book ‘Work and the City’, published by Black Dog Publishing as part of a series called ‘The Edge Futures’. The Edge is a ‘ginger group and think tank’ of influential people in the building and related industries that gathers regularly to discuss issues of the day. This series – five smallish books, including Jonathon Porritt on Globalism and Regionalism – has sustainability as its central theme.

The other document, not yet published, is from the principals of something that pleases to call itself the SEED Foundation, Clare Brass and Flora Bowden. Clare was head of sustainability at the Design Council until last autumn, and as a designer has been working in this area since the late 1980s. It is called ‘Design for Social and Environmental Purpose’ and essentially is proposing a redesign of design itself. The document ‘investigates how the still emerging discipline of service design, in dealing more with relationships and experiences than material objects, offers inherent social and environmental benefits and is naturally transferable to sectors broader than private business – where designers traditionally work’.

Frank Duffy, meanwhile, concerning himself with that part of the industry which he himself helped define and develop, is essentially saying that the ‘knowledge economy’ of which we are all more or less a part (not quite but almost the ‘service economy’) demands buildings of a completely different type than those that have been built in the last century and a half of commercial office development – and more importantly, that the delivery mechanism for those buildings must be radically redesigned. The ‘supply chain’ – finance, development, design, construction, real estate, facilities management, IT, end users – must be turned on its head and become a ‘demand chain’ where end users decide what space they want, where they want it and for how long, and what they are going to pay for it. The payoff is sustainability at both a micro and a macro (urban) level. (What he doesn’t say is what he thinks developers are going to do for a crust in this bright and sustainable future.)

No surprise, then, it’s what we knew all along but were reluctant to admit. The change in our business culture must be as deep and penetrating as at the start of the Industrial Revolution, when capitalism and manufacturing got together and severed ordinary people’s connection with the natural world. Both these sets of distinguished thinkers, in their own way – Brass and Bowden more for design, Duffy more for architecture – are saying that design cannot and must not serve the capitalist project any longer. Unless an ‘enlightened capitalism’ can be fashioned that ‘commercializes sustainability’. See above, CIRS. The language used is almost shocking – ‘the harmful practice of material production’ means ‘making things is bad’. One of Brass and Bowden’s sources, Mike Betts of green communication group Better Thinking, describes how in consumption terms, competitive advantage has historically been with the manufacturer of better goods, then with the owners of better brands. ‘The next step,’ says Betts, ‘is that businesses will be valued on their behaviour and will have to provide transparency in order to maintain customer loyalty.’ In other words, business must rewrite its whole sense of itself. It must look elsewhere for profit than just making and selling things to people who don’t need them. It must look to sustainability and it must look to service – and design, the erstwhile, servile flunky of the ‘make and sell’ regime – must use its research and analytical skills to grapple with human problems defined not by material enrichment, but by the way we live our lives. Of course the corporates are already making eco-moves (eg GE’s ‘Eco-magination’), and increasing profits thereby. The sad way of looking at it is to say design has to concern itself with survival. The happy way is to say it must concern itself with… happiness. Either way, design must redesign itself just as business must, and in some major cases is already doing.

Next month: And where does government come in all this? And brands? And is design really the tool with which to re-write western civilisation as we know it? And don’t even get me started on China. Don’t miss this exciting sequel!

 

100% Thoughtful

November Fx Column

The seminar programme at 100% Design was full of chewy bits and threw a few curve balls. Aidan Walker mulls over a biased selection of points to ponder

Not for you, of course, because London Design Week or Design Festival is well over and done with. You’re reading this in November or thereabouts and already on to new stuff – Orgatec has been and gone, for instance. For me, however, sitting here writing in late September, slowly recovering from an intense week at the 100% Design Seminar Theatre, it’s time to recoup and reconsider, and pick out some of the highlights and defining moments of one small, argumentative corner of all that intense and overlapping activity. (Someone said: ‘Why does nothing happen for months and then everything happen in one week?’ Good question.)

This is just a personal selection, you understand. An exhibition seminar programme has to perform many functions, and often from the point of view of the exhibition itself the main one is little more than to make sure folks come flocking in through the door. In the world of ideas, however, we were trying to move the sustainability debate on and explore a few other challenges facing design in this day and age. We even had Clare Brass of the SEED Foundation, with Nick Gant and Jonathan Chapman of the IF: Lab in Brighton, discussing how to redesign design. More to come on that, it needs its own few pages.

We also had the ‘design as art’ or ‘Design edition’ phenomenon, a session ably chaired by Suzanne Trocmé of Wallpaper*, and equally ably panelled (?) by Ian Stallard and Patrik Fredrikson of Fredrikson Stallard, artist / designer / videographer Arik Levy, Craig Allen, now MD of Linley, and Francis Sultana, director of David Gill Galleries which handles Fredrikson Stallard’s work. It was an enjoyable session because there was plenty of thought provoking contribution from the thought provoking panel, but ultimately we ended up deciding that design is what it is, art is what it is, and if designers can sell their work through the lucrative gallery route, so much the better for them.

The vexed question about whether design should or should not ‘say something’ has been aired in these pages before, and the conclusion really depends on your own understanding of the term. It would be a shame if design restricted itself to problem solving and functional issues alone, but of course this will rarely be the case because aesthetic considerations come into play. I still remain unconvinced about design delivering meaning in any other way than the messages directly related to its immediate context; a table knife should say ‘efficient and elegant at the same time’, a funky bar interior should say ‘cool, sexy, elite, discreet’ (or whatever), a corporate HQ should say ‘stylish but sensible’, etc etc. If a designer asks his or her work to comment on, for instance, the ramifications of the relationship between romantic and physical love, then hand it over to the artist. Or become one.

Obviously we were not going to get away without talking about sustainability – and talk about it we did. First up was Arthur Potts Dawson, chef and entrepreneur, and green restaurateur par excellence, with his amiable and profoundly thoughtful architect Andrew Waugh of Waugh Thistleton, who have been collaborating on the recently opened Water House, billed as ‘London’s greenest restaurant.’ This team also did Acorn House, which opened to a great media fanfare a couple of years ago. Amongst all the kerfuffle and mullarkey about sustainability –  cradle to grave becomes cradle to cradle (what next? Grave to grave?) – and what we might call the ‘Ultimate Sustainable Solution’, which is essentially ‘don’t do anything, not a damn thing’ – Arthur and Andrew have dug deep. The fridges are hydrocarbon, the kitchen is hydro-electric, energy is via solar panels and photovoltaics, there is hot composting and a wormery… no menus, and no toilet paper. This last because the toilets are expensive imported Japanese auto-flush models, with built-in, how shall we put it, posterior-cleansing technology. The panellists were both fully aware of the fact that it would take one hell of a lot of toilet paper to create the same carbon footprint as flying a toilet in from Japan. Which is the kind of dilemma sustainability is always struggling with: at times it’s best just to lose a bit of eco-cred for the sake of making a point.

The interesting thing about the background to the Water House is that it was Arthur’s initiative because he is young enough to have grown up in a home where green behaviour, green politics and an acute awareness of the issues was the norm. For him, it’s natural.

Pausing only to pay homage to the painstaking, carefully thought out and highly articulate arguments of Christoph Behling and Luke Pearson (luxury goods are indeed sustainable), the provocative journey through the valley of the meanings of modern craft with Gareth Williams of the V&A, Rod Wales of Wales and Wales and Tom Lloyd, partner with Luke Pearson in Pearson Lloyd – and not forgetting the dynamism, richness, imaginative impact and artistic vitality of architect / technologist Jason Bruges and textile artist / colour consultant Ptolemy Mann – we arrive at the door of an unassuming, quietly spoken and altogether surprising ceramicist / pewterist (?) by the name of Ian McIntyre.

Ian was one of our ‘Eco Young Guns’, a session we put together with Nicola Giuggioli from Eco Age, the ‘eco with style’ shop and consulting business that recently opened on Chiswick High Road. Nicola stocks a great many products from a great many practitioners, but the idea here was to see how recently graduated designers were taking sustainability on in their practice. How mature was the thinking among the yoof? Along with Jason Heap and Max McMurdo of Reestore (he of the supermarket trolleys turned into armchairs), Ian delivered a short presentation on his work in pewter, which he manufactures with the support and resources of traditional Sheffield-based company Wentworths.

I really really liked this one because Ian is thinking about recycling, waste, energy efficiency and beauty all at the same time. His processes are devised to use waste material (recycled offcuts) and to make a virtue of the age-old pewter casting techniques that are still being used, and are still as wasteful as ever. In one instance of redesigning such process, he takes a mould, swirls the molten pewter around in it and pours the remainder out. This is a new version of the old ‘slush casting’, which makes complex shapes like traditional tankard handles by pouring the metal into a mould then pouring it back out again so there is only a thin skin left to create a hollow, and therefore light and economical, handle. Ian’s version of the process produces bowls of astonishing, ethereal beauty, with a silky smooth shiny exterior and a stippled, irregularly surfaced interior. Plus every one is different. His vases too use a similar process, but incorporate the waste that is dumped from the mould as part of the form of the object – again surprising, beautiful – and sustainable. When the designer researches process closely enough and discovers a new and compelling aesthetic, driven by that process, in a bid to make both product and process waste-free and energy-efficient, then the result gives a clear and coherent picture of what sustainable design should be. Another way of saying that in less than a generation, design won’t be design at all if it ain’t sustainable. And it won’t be called ‘sustainable design’.

Aidan Walker musters a few reflections on the upcoming FX Award shortlist

October is FX Awards month, and an unusual slot for me – instead of judging or having to manage the incredibly time consuming and politically fraught process of collating the entries and handling the judging (and the judges!), this month, with the kind permission and indeed encouragement of our esteemed Mrs Ed, I get to ponder the shortlists, consider the entries, speak as I find… and discover how wrong I can be when the winners are announced.

The shortlists are no secret (anyone can see them at http://www.fxdesignawards.co.uk/pages/shortlist.html), so I’m not breaking any confidentiality agreements discussing them. This new transparency is quite a luxury in itself, and makes the Awards a matter for more general consumption over a longer period than previously, which can only be a good thing. This particular scheme has to be one of, if not the most, reliable and accurate means of taking the temperature of the professional design industry in this country and worldwide, figuring out what is important to clients and their designers, getting an idea about which way the big ideas are going and how they are changing.

Let’s have a look at British designers working abroad, or in this particular case Project Orange working in India. It is by no means stretching a point to identify the I-Bar in Bangalore and the Park Hotel in Mumbai, both of them rich in imagination and cultural reference, as the leisure destinations of a newly sophisticated and westernised professional middle class in that restless and turbulent country. Its long imperial history renders India more English than England in some old-fashioned ways (the railway system is still genuinely Victorian, not heritage-retro fake Victorian) but it is now flexing its fast-growing economic muscle so confidently as to be downright threatening. Westernisation, or at least Britishness of some sort, has been part of India’s social, administrative and political fabric for nearly three centuries, and although the received idea of the place is usually one of abject poverty, there has always been wealth a-plenty. So what new factors are driving the demand for the sort of intelligent, multi-faceted leisure design which the Orange people do so well? Information technology must be part of the answer, but one can hardly believe the BT Broadband ‘cyber-coolies’ in the call centres of Bangalore slope off down to the I-Bar for their after-work sherbets. Call centre wages are higher than the Indian average, but there is a cultural, not just a financial, phenomenon at work here.

Retail, leisure and hospitality – traditionally the market sectors where the ideas flow almost as thick and fast as the money – don’t seem to be wowing me nearly as much this year as the public sector, public space work. Perhaps it’s just a good year for one and not for the other, or perhaps it signifies a genuine shift in the public sector client body’s appreciation of good design. Not to say that there isn’t any good work in retail and leisure – of course there is, but I am tempted to mark it down either as rather less than original, or so absurdly, ridiculously extravagant that it boggles the mind. ‘Indulgent’, even ‘decadent’, are words that pop up in the entries’ accompanying text to a worrying degree. Do we really want to flock to ‘decadent’ places of entertainment? Perhaps we do. Check out Australian consultancy Woods Bagot’s work for the Silk Road club in Melbourne if you want a real eye popper; Rome burning springs to mind. As a contrast, pop across to Sacramento California for a lesson in restrained Modernism at the hands of Uxus, whose Ella Dining Room and Bar has the clarity and calm one used to associate with the very best of British.

I’d far rather have the intellectual rigour and clear headed engagement with such pressing issues as health or education, represented here by Rogers Stirk Harbour’s Maggie’s Centre for cancer sufferers, and Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’s Westminster Academy, a school to live for if ever there was one. Such work surely indicates not only a measurable rise in the public sector client body’s commitment to good design, but also the payoff of a great deal of serious thinking about how well designed environments are inextricably entwined with better health and better schooling. More of that please.

For me, FX 2008 is an unusual year mostly because of the products. Reading, digesting and pondering the work, then letting it simmer as I go about my business, the mind keeps coming back to lighting and furniture. It also seems to be coming across Pearson Lloyd more than somewhat – my, how those two gentlemen are at the top of their game. Their characteristic blend of technical virtuosity, elegant aesthetic and deep rooted craftsmanship is coming to fruition in a powerful and persuasive body of work. Their Lox barstool for Walter Knoll and Edge table for Danish company Danerka positively gleam with the results of ‘total design’ – sophisticated technology, seductive simplicity, logical and ultra-clear thinking, a pinsharp-accurate eye for sheer beauty, and what we might call, at the risk of being thought hippies, soul. Pearson Lloyd’s products have untrammelled delight, a quality most products strive for and almost all miss by a mile.

Then have a look at the lighting. Whatever is this? An OMG moment at the hands of Lee Prince of Light and Design Associates, who with German developer and manufacturer Kalmar Gmbh has designed a monumental piece of extravagant illuminated engineering for the Qatar Education City Convention Centre, a room measuring a mere 10,000sq m (the biggest football field you can have in the UK is 8,250). Oh, and the ceiling? Only 16m high. So if your name is Lee Prince you design a light fitting that changes a 4500-seat convention centre into an ‘intimate’ dining space for a much more modest 2000 people – at least, it does when there are 28 of them hanging from that 16m ceiling. Each one weighs 380kg and is 3.8m high when closed, but it is made up of ‘leaves’ which open to a span of more than 5m, rising and falling to effectively bring the ceiling way, way down. They change colour, they operate individually or in sequence, they practically dance with you. Together, the 28 fixtures use 383,600 pieces of Swarovski Strass crystals… enough, you say. This is ‘Islamic style’ gone bonkers. What about energy efficiency? Aha, says Mr Prince. His 28 fittings use 23,688 RGB LED sources, and each fixture uses 280 watts fully lit, making a total of 7840 watts for the room, or only about 3 times more than the biggest dining room I ever had – it was a really large one… about 50 sq m. Say what you like about the aesthetic, this is wildly ambitious but nonetheless very clever design. And that is what the FX Awards, when all is said and done, are about. See you there.

Design an outcome, not an object

It’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 realized I’d be a fool not to – I was able to take in at least some of the untold amount of work to be seen at New Designers (the great innovation of the much lamented Peta Levi, who died, sadly, earlier this year) and try 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 down 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 was the impression I had gained from every recent conversation I have had with practising designers, architects and others connected to the industry – exhibition organisers, retailers, 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, defining source, so we flap around from idea to idea and argument to counter argument. Notwithstanding all this, overall 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. I had obviously got it badly wrong. Sustainable design – and thinking about sustainable design – was so lacking in evidence at New Designers 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 Martin’s, 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? What about tonnes and tonnes of 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 making a connection to what is surely now the abiding concern for all forms of design.

No surprises if the sponsor hasn’t yet quite 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?’ – because that would require a complete reinvention of its business model. But 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? Any amount of self-folding suitcases and Bluetooth locking handles are not the point.

And so, with a sinking heart, to New Designers. 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 is easy to conclude that sustainability is not yet at the top of the majority of the course agendas. I hope to God I’m wrong.

And so, with a rising heart, to the BA Hons in 3D Design for Sustainability at University College Falmouth. Here we have Dave Capewell’s wood burning stove that is no ordinary wood burning stove: ‘”FireFly” is a wood-burning 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 realized by using waste vegetable oil to melt the metal.’ Here we have kitchen accessories, clothing, furniture, sportswear, proposals for public space, for children with learning disabilities and for busy X-ray departments. Here we have 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 is 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.

What overall I found very impressive was the quality of the thinking, the acceptance and absorption of the idea that sustainable design demands that we think about community, behaviour, the nature of the manufacture – market – consume – waste cycle, the consequences of design, the nature of user-centred design. All the ‘soft’ bits, in other words, that don’t really look or feel like design as we have known it, but that 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 had 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 stay, says Vernon, while Whitaker’s own rationale, once he explains it, makes perfect sense. ‘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 because of where we are – four hours from anywhere – environmental sustainability is very important to Falmouth. 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’d 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 in to design culture, because all design should be intrinsically sustainable without having to say so in its title. Has he, I say, 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 its strengths and aim for the position of market leader. ‘We are small and specialist. We can’t be small and mediocre and stuck right out on the end of England. We’re already out on a limb.’ To which we say, risky but brave. All power to them.