“Beauty is also important for the soul; useful and useless can coexist. We just have to work on better ways of producing and keeping production in check” - Lidewij Edelkoort
As a result of COVID-19 and the forced lockdown, we have started to think more consciously about the world, the immediate environment and our products. In line with the sustainable economy, designers have come up with alternatives such as adopting products. If they design them in such a way that we never want to get rid of them because, just like with a person or animal, we build a bond with them, create memories with them. This so-called "emo design" concerns unique, personalized products that touch us intuitively, function naturally, and make us feel good about ourselves," according to Don Norman, author of Emotional Design - Why we love (or hate) everyday things.
Something similar also happens by upgrading materials labelled as inferior and not just because they are bad for the environment. Take the plastic shopping bag that was a fantastic invention in 1959 because it is a water-resistant, reusable, lightweight thing that can hold more than a thousand times its own weight. Moreover, it was considered an environmentally friendly alternative to the then-popular but tree-devouring paper bag. However, the industry marketed the plastic bag as made to be wasted, a worthless thing that we also disposed of carelessly. With all its consequences...
However, living entirely plastic-free is completely impossible. We live in the Plastic Age or Plasticine era. That you can also look at it another way is proven by the conceptual material designer Shahar Livne: she sees plastic as a valuable raw material that we will mine in the future, just as we still drill for oil and gas today. Metamorphism is the name of her ongoing research and design project in which she speculates on this future where plastic waste penetrates further into the Earth's surface and mixes with natural materials making it an entirely new extractable resource. This scenario is already happening to some extent. In 2014, researchers discovered rock formations on Hawaiian beaches formed by a mix of sand and plastic debris and named them plastic glomerates. Livne's material is called Lithoplast, a new speculative material that she kneads like clay into products including a clock, which was on display at Yksi Expo's Embassy of Rethinking Plastic during Dutch Design Week.
The How&Wow Linen project by Crafts Council Nederland is not only about local production, but about the relevance of the revaluation of crops, such as a versatile but almost forgotten material such as flax for the production of linen. The video series HOW is about the delicate blue flowers that grow in our bleak polder to how it is processed in which terms such as rippling, dew-turning and scutching are given meaning. WOW shows an experimental quest by a dozen designers and their applications that are inspired by ancient techniques and the beauty of flax.
This is how designer Anna Wetzel started growing flax on her own balcony with her grandmother during the lockdown. “My balcony is tiny, so I had to improvise. I asked myself the question: if you don't have professional agricultural equipment, can you still grow flax?” The answer is: yes. Wetzel made her own linen knitted prototype garments and accessories. This is how we bring the nature we need so much into our urban homes, but more importantly, by growing a crop yourself, such as Wetzel but also Christien Meindertsma did, for example, you experience how labour-intensive it is, for how long it takes before you can harvest. By building such a strong and direct relationship with the material, the end product gains much more value and meaning. The IKEA Virtual Greenhouse provides this, consisting of masterclasses, live lectures and interactive experiences designed by experts (including designers) in nutrition, health, sustainability and botany. They talk about storing seeds, making a Japanese kokedama or moss ball, dyeing textiles with food waste and about a micro garden, fungarium or mini terrarium in the house. The goal is to make as many people as possible feel self-reliant at home and closer to nature and to increase the sustainable relationship with our things.
The New Standard 2030
Jeffrey Heiligers (participant in Driving Dutch Design) looks a little further into the future, to the year 2030, when, according to him, buying new products is no longer possible, but you can adopt them. He wrote The New Standard 2030, a manifesto about his vision of the role of product designers, working with retailers, manufacturers and consumers to bring the impact of lifestyle products - on the environment - to zero. The story and identity in the passport of each product reflect its life cycle, as with the BIY (Build-It-Yourself) 100% circular Sneaker where the consumer is in control of the manufacturing process and Zinc Cabinet, a wardrobe made from one durable material, without chemical additives, glue or screws, that can be disassembled and returned to the manufacturer. Recycling is the fashion; throwing away is out.
Recycling, that's what Anisha Sharma does in her Radio re-made project (part of United Matters, master's programme from Central Saint Martins in London ). She collected discarded e-waste components and other materials during the lockdown and turned them into a working radio. Lightning-fast innovations and low production costs have increased the accessibility of electronic products and digital technology and with it the enormous mountain of e-waste, she knows. “Most of these electronic devices are fine to repair or recycle, but the complicated legislation discourages researchers, tinkerers and inventors for whom electronic waste is a valuable resource for new products,” she says. With her radio, the designer wants to increase awareness about the e-waste mountain and investigate how we can develop new tools, systems and processes for more circular production systems.
Other designers find unconventional ways to create new relationships with our existing products. This year's graduate Meghan Clarke won the Gijs Bakker Award for This Work of Body/ This Body of Work in which she deconstructed something as mundane as her old worn curtains thread by thread. She tied thousands of those threads together. We became witnesses to her repetitive, non-productive productivity. Minutes became hours, hours became days. She makes the time she spends on her hard work visible in a society where all energy is put into growth. At the same time, she shows the beauty of taking it apart and the patience and love with which she created a new special work.
Anti Chair Movement, a movement that protests against the traditional way of designing and using chairs, proposes changing the rules by freeing the chair from its function as an object of seating. Inspired by the Canadian ice dancer and choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne who used the chair as a partner, seating objects according to the Anti Chair Movement are a reflection of the way we treat them. Now if we look at it a little differently, we can build a long-lasting and deeper relationship with our chairs.
And also with many more of our products.