The throwaway society. How quaint that term seems now! I am old enough to remember the shock that attended its arrival as a description of modernity. The wastefulness it implied. The damage it evoked. The erosion it predicted, not just in terms of product durability but in terms of social durability, in the durability of society itself. And yet today the concept is so deeply entrenched in our cultural self-image as to be almost redundant. Very soon, I imagine, there will no longer be a generation that remembers what it was like to live in a society other than this. Was there really ever a time of make do and mend, of repair and reparability, of continuity and durability? Or was it just a dream? A figment of history books and senile imaginations? Our children have already inherited a very different view of the world. In which it is taken for granted that things don’t last. That relentless novelty is the order of the day. And for a few years they may even be able to sustain the belief that things don’t need to last. That today’s fashion is tomorrow’s junk. Today’s functionality is tomorrow’s dysfunctionality. Today’s beauty is tomorrow’s tawdry reject.
Trends encourage mass consumerism. They manipulate and exploit both the consumer and, usually, those making these fashionable – ‘trendy’ – products. High streets, retail parks and shopping centres cater almost exclusively to consumable goods. They rely on consumers to be impulsive individuals, taking little time to think about the merits of any purchase. How many consumers reflect: will I actually use this product; do I genuinely want or need it? But when Jamie Oliver is selling them cooking utensils, David Beckham is selling them cologne and Kirstie Allsopp is selling them bedding, well they must be good products, right? Wrong.
Consumer vs user. Are you a consumer of products or a user of products? Are your choices considered, genuine and environmentally-minded? Are you able to make intelligent decisions about design that you buy? Are you aware that whilst everything is design, not everything is good design. Answer yes to these questions and you are clearly a user of design, conscientious in the choices you make.
Furniture was traditionally built to last. We can still find, in vintage or antique stores, furniture that was made a very long time ago and are still in a perfect condition. Durability was a build in value that was taken for granted. That was before manufacturers discovered build obsolescence.
As quite ingeniously Jonathan Chapman argues (2005: 9), “Sustainable design methodologies lack philosophical depth”, approaching the problem with superficial treatments and not focusing on the actual cause of it “comparable with that of Western medicine”.
It takes a different worldview, so to suggest a new way of building our material world. There is a large amount of superficial approaches, as well as scientific suggestions that remain inapplicable, or too complicated to be implemented by industry and the designers.
There is no clear path to follow for designers. That makes it challenging and interesting, as well as disappointing and confusing.
Much of the current popular literature has to do with underlying the obvious for all design practices, in order to raise awareness and increase the participation of designers in the question. There have been significant attempts, but without structure and persistence. There are only very few exemptions with good results.
It is always better to deal with a problem at the early stages of it, so it is wise to focus on the design aspect of the problem. By suggesting colours and shapes, designers endorse production methods and materials and their consequences. This should be well addressed and examined in the design education.
“Just as we can measure whether or not a design is ‘usable’ or has a high ‘emotional appeal,’ we should begin to develop a framework to understand whether a design is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in a sustainable sense. Durability is a key dimension of what it means to be sustainable and therefore is seen as a contributor to the “goodness” of the design. Consequently, any definition of good design must transcend the traditional ‘eye of the beholder,” definition, which is based only on a subjective aesthetic meter and define a more objective definition of good design.”
Design used to be: social, revolutionary, democratic, utilitarian, functional, ergonomic etc. Nowadays form and shape is the beginning and cost and profit is the end of the design process. Design has ended up being: cool, hot, hip, chic, stylish, trendy, must have, Insta-cool, sexy, glamorous, latest etc.
Designers are not educated to consider social and environmental parameters. Young furniture designers are asked to explore and find their own “identity” as being a unique trademark and something distinctive and easily recognisable. Nobody is asked to consider: society, carbon footprint of materials, environmental consequences, product afterlife etc. If formal design education is not offering these insights, how can we expect furniture designers with such sensitivities?
Young furniture designers evolve an “approach” or “philosophy” that often has nothing to offer but what you see. Quite a few times this approach sounds thoughtful and well explored but if it gets analysed and studied, the results show quite the opposite. It is obvious that the “philosophy” is only a “marquee” for a design practice that is happening for all the wrong reasons. So to draw a parallel with a theatrical play or a movie, everything can be perfect. Costumes, scenography, music, lighting, production even performances but the actual play or film is superficial and purposeless.
The words of Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers in 1927, were clear: “People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality”.
The Waste Makers is a book that was written in 1960 by Vance Packard and describes this mental invasion in all its glory.
“The emerging philosophy was most fervently and bluntly stated perhaps in two long articles in The Journal of Retailing during the mid-fifties. The author was Marketing Consultant Victor Lebow. He made a forthright plea for “forced consumption.”
“Our enormously productive economy . . . demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. . . We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate.”
The results are: a total disregard to humans, the society and the planet in the name of “growth”. The plan had unbelievably “good” results. Today’s global consumption is exceeding earth’s capacity by 50%. Continuing on this manner by 2030 we will need two earths to support our consumer needs. Resources are running out and pollution is happening in all stages of a products life, from material extraction to product disposal.
Design has played its’ role in this effort. Graphic, interior and industrial design have been generally orientated towards this effort. Mainstream design education is usually market affiliated and it is perceived as a vital part of the consuming process.
Dieter Rams’s genius design needs to be examined closer. For a product with maximum longevity, it needs to have incorporated design values that will make it last aesthetically and not look ephemeral. Looking at Rams’s 10 design principles we can see that they all have greatly been implemented here. Aesthetic durability can be achieved by avoiding being fashionable and therefore never appears out of date. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years. That marks it as a design classic, which automatically makes it unchallenged from trends and ephemeral not lasting values.
Having this fulfilled the actual piece needs to be build in a physical way that is strong and withstands wear and tear. Yet, being adaptable – modular, any damaged part can be replaced and therefore prolong the life span endlessly. There lies the biggest value of all that is incorporated. Vitsœ is arguing that almost all the furniture that they have ever produced are still in use and they know because the loyal clients are still upgrading or repairing them.
“This was Vitsœ’s proposition in 1959: to eschew fashion whilst creating products that would be the blank canvas on which to paint your colourful life.” Pretty valid 56 years afterwards. Don’t you think?
A simple but useful tool. This website will help you to make sure your wood designs contribute to a better environment. Wood is natural, renewable, it stores carbon, it is available everywhere and can be reused many times. What are you going to do with it?