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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’.

Posted in FX Column - assorted design writings.