The ultimate materials boy’s challenge to Clerkenwell Design Week

braungart

“Celebrate life, rather than minimise damage”, a perfect rallying cry to kick off Clerkenwell Design Week from Professor Michael Braungart, speaking at the launch of the SCIN Gallery‘s new Green Room.

Clerkenwell is home to more creative businesses and architects per square mile than anywhere else, and as this design week celebrates ever more brands, more product launches and more visitors, the #Being Human talk reminded us that beneath the superlatives, materials are the basis or everything.  As a chemist, and co-author, with William McDonough, of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (2002), Braungart is perhaps the ultimate materials boy.  Readers of that key sustainability text will know that materials provide the foundation for a “transformation of human industry through ecologically intelligent design.”

Braungart began by debunking a few eco-design fallacies.  He cautioned us not to romanticise nature, “the most toxic chemicals to us are the most natural chemicals”.  Neither should environmental considerations be presented as the ethical option, abandoned under conditions of stress. Timothy Devinney’s thorough description of “The Careless Consumer” in a recent article for the RSA Journal explained the attitude-behaviour gap “if you are attempting to sell an ethical product you cannot expect individuals to sacrifice any aspect of the other things that matter”, such as price and quality.

Conventional design approaches to environmentalism have focused reducing, reusing and recycling. World Business Council for Sustainable Development coined the term eco-efficiency in Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective on Development and the Environment”, “It is going to be next to impossible for a business to be competitive without also being ‘eco-efficient’ – adding more value to a good or service while using fewer resources and releasing less pollution”. Becoming more eco-efficient has bolstered many businesses’ bottom line, and had a beneficial environmental impact.

However, efficiencies only slow down the rate of depletion or destruction. This is what John Mathers, CEO of the Design Council described as “disjointed incrementalism” (in a recent article, “Design Intervention”), and often leads to perverse outcomes. When the EU banned asbestos from brake pads several major car manufacturers advertised their products as “free-from” asbestos.  But, antimony sulphide, a stronger carcinogen, was substituted for asbestos.  Products designed without their end of life in mind are usually ‘down-cycled’ as contaminants lower the quality of recycled materials. Neither do efficiencies always reveal their full impact. Braungart provided many examples of “products plus” where you get the product you bought, plus additives you did not, such as a polyester shirt containing toxic dyes that leach into your skin when you sweat.

“Less bad” is an underwhelming goal, and not an inspirational brand value. Braungart reminded the designers and architects in the audience that efficiencies rarely make hearts sing. Design for eco-effectiveness, rather than eco-efficiency.
In nature, waste equals food, and so too in the Cradle-to-Cradle design paradigm. Safe materials are disassembled and recycled as technical nutrients or composted as biological nutrients in two distinct, closed-loop systems.  The biosphere contains products for consumption, such as food, books, textiles, that are made of renewable materials that can be safely returned to water or soil without synthetic or toxic contaminants.  Braungart and McDonough’s latest book, “Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance” is one of the first to be printed from materials that could be safely composted or burnt, as this video from the printer, Gugler, explains.

prof-dr-michael-braungart-rsm-erasmus-university-november-30th-2011-28-728-1In contrast, in the technosphere, non-renewable materials are fully recycled into high-quality service products for generations.  For example, Orangebox’s Ara ‘task’ (office) chair uses materials and assembly techniques that make it easy to repair and completely recycle. Desso take back their own carpets, and those of competitors. The yarn and backing are separated into two material streams, the yarn is recycled, and the bitumen backing used as raw material for roofs or roads.

glA point of differentiation with the circular economy framework is Braungart’s emphasis on continuous improvement. Circular economy diagrams illustrate technical materials cascading through loops of maintenance, reuse, refurbish to recycle. At the heart of the Cradle-to-Cradle is the intention to design for environmental health and abundance, “a rich human experience with all that entails—fun, beauty, enjoyment, inspiration and poetry.” In the SCIN Gallery’s Green Room, Trash Surface Bureau’s beautiful and playful glass tiles and slabs reflect this design intention. The products are created from the local collection, processing, and transformation of glass in central London’s Soho.

At the micro, or company level the Cradle-to-Cradle principles are: material health; material reutilization; operations powered by renewable energy; and water stewardship. The fifth principle of social fairness, celebrating all people and natural systems, aspires to macro-level transformation. In the Netherlands, a cross-sectoral network of organisations called Nutrient Platform signed an agreement in 2011 to close the nutrient cycle and end the imports of phosphate fertilisers by 2020. Phosphates are recovered from sewage, sludge and municipal organic waste and manure to be processed into products such as fertilizers. There is less waste, less use of fertilizer and less contamination of surface water. Excess phosphate can be exported, and agriculture has a more secure supply chain. Government has a clear role to play, setting transparent, long-term, stable policies that create a framework for abundant growth. We all have a role to play, defining how we want to live, in five or twenty years time. We need to redesign not just products but systems, through dynamic public policy, cross-sectoral collaboration and transparency of environmental and social impacts. Braungart challenged the Clerkenwell Design Week community to become co-creators in abundance.

Related links:

http://www.cradletocradle.com

http://www.mbdc.com

Image credits: SCIN Gallery; Prof Michael Braungart

A conversation with the creator of the Artichair

kizis1This month, in collaboration with the SCIN Gallery, Carefully Curated is delighted to present the innovative materials researcher and designer Spyros Kizis, and his Artichair, made from artichoke thistle fibre.  SCIN describe Kizis as a materials-Superman and are buzzing about both his current work and his future plans, “Definitely one to watch!” 

Edinburgh School of Art graduate, Kizis’ design approach explores not only the material, but also the systems and processes that support the material’s extraction, the product’s manufacture, its distribution and disposal.  As we approach Global Peak Oil, Kizis wanted to find an alternative to oil-derived plastics, without the associated negative environmental impacts.  He developed a composite of Greek artichoke thistle fibres and a bio-based resin, made from waste cooking oil.  Artichoke Thistle (Cynara Cardunculus) grows readily without the need for pesticides or irrigation. Grown easily in a Mediterranean climate, he sees it as a way to encourage local production in his home country, Greece.  The material is created from renewable, sustainable plants, and is 100% biodegradable.

kizis2The Artichair dining chair, pictured above, is moulded and set on simple wooden legs.   Influenced by a classic Eames chair, the material is celebrated in a clean, contemporary shape.  The lounge chair is more generous in its proportions, and with warm honeyed tones it seems to invite you to linger.

1. You are currently featured in the Plausible Implausible exhibition. Can you please tell us more about how you started to experiment with agricultural waste, turning it into new materials?

The whole project started as an investigation into alternative ways to redevelop the Greek economy after the financial crisis. The main idea was to take advantage of local natural resources to design and make products.  After lot of research I ended up using the Artichoke Thistle, which is produced for biofuel purposes at extremely low cost, and the waste was the starting point for this project. What is fascinating about this process and all projects on the same principles, is the journey from nothing to something of value, or if you wish, from something useless to something useful.

2.  What do you think is people’s perception of design when using a new material? How do you feel the Artichair fits into this rapidly evolving design scene?

In my opinion, there is a totally different way of design-thinking behind so called “materiality”.  Instead of traditionally thinking what material could we use to built a specific project, the process is now reversed: what could we built with a new awkward material that we have in our hands? In this way we explore new potentials, new designs, and new concepts. I believe that Artichair really fits this developing scene. My ambition, though, is to go further and instead of being limited to a craft scale, or cool experimentation, to be part of a sustainable mass production system which effects considerably more of our lives.

3.  What future do you envisage for your material? Do you have any large scale plans for it?

The future plans are quite big and exciting. I was lucky enough to be approached by people that saw this as an opportunity, that are sensitive in environmental issues, and very open to giving young people, and new designers a chance. I am now to the Schaffenburg office furniture company from the Netherlands.  We are now designing a new chair which they are going to put in production soon.

4.  Can you see your material being used in other industries?

I could see the material being used in other industries, particularly in interiors and panels. What I would find really interesting, though, is a collaboration with chemical engineers to extract the cellulose from the plant and make a bio-plastic suitable for injection moulding techniques. This would really increase range of applications for the material in different industries.

5.  Are you planning on experimenting with any other waste materials in the future?

Experimentation with other waste materials is a way I would like to continue to work, but that does not mean that I will not continue to work with more traditional commercial techniques. At the moment, I am working on a project about pendant lights, experimenting with wood ashes, waste polystyrene boxes and bio-resins.

Kizis’ work is part of the Plausible/Implausible exhibition currently on show at the SCIN Gallery until 3rd October.

Image credits:  Photos provided by SCIN Gallery

Related links:

http://www.themethodcase.com/spyros-kizis-artichair/

http://www.scin.co.uk/blog/2014/8/12/0ru6yx4v73bs9c65uz5edevtubhf2z