Saturday morning at Yale University School of Art (New Haven CT), I attended SHED, sponsored by AIGA CT and Mohawk Paper. Billed as “an open discussion about culture, happiness, consumerism, design and the future of our planet”, I was intrigued. One of the pillars of the interior design industry must surely be consumerism, so maybe I could learn a few tricks to reconcile the drive for new interiors with the burden this puts upon the planet.
The panel of “four amazing social good thinkers and doers” included: Moderator Julie Lasky, Editor of Change Observer; Eric Benson, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois and Founder of Re-Nourish; Neil Brown, Associate Creative Director at Barnum Design and founder of SaltSpace; Aaris Sherin, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at St. John's University and author of SustainAble. Each offered their viewpoints on the sustainable design work they are currently engaged in – read more on their respective websites.
While much of the discussion focused on graphic design, there was crossover to other segments of the design industry. Eric Benson discussed the idea of “emotional sustainability” and the need to engage empathy in order for people to care about this (or any) issue. Neil Brown expounded on the need to educate others about sustainability and empower them to design change. His point – people will be the instruments of change, not technology nor governments, but individuals within small community units. From my viewpoint as an interior designer, this dovetails with what I and other colleagues say: our job is to educate clients about sustainable choices and one by one, initiate change.
Aaris Sherin posed the question: how can you as a designer make the world a better place? As Neil pointed out, design is a thinking process for solving problems. Designers can and should connect what we are doing in our communities, using our skill sets, to foster solutions for the community as a whole. Interior designers like myself provide community support through local charity show house events like Designer Spaces & Market Places and Junior League of Hartford's Decorator Show Houses — raising funds for non-profit organizations by doing what we do best. Graphic designers can support community through initiatives like Design is Love. Apply your skills in any way that feels best, but make an effort to engage in your community – sustainable design is also about sustaining people.
Most applicable to interior designers, Ms. Sherin spoke about the “tyranny of things” and how so many people labor under the burden of their “stuff”. The example cited was a $200 teapot, purchased for the long term. Many agreed this was a wonderful concept, to purchase the best quality and keep it for life. But how to reconcile that ideal with the masses of people who can never afford that $200 teapot? Should they spend $10 on the Walmart teapot to be disposed of in a year? Never buy a teapot at all? For the producers of the $200 teapot – how do they sustain their business if they only sell one teapot to a consumer, ever? Should the $10 teapot manufacturer be driven out of business – what happens to their employees? So many layers of people affected by every aspect of the sustainability discussion. How will continual consumption work going forward?
Eric Benson offered this thought, so applicable to interior design: anthropomorphize the objects’ characteristics to create an enduring important relationship where “disposable” becomes an unfashionable and ultimately unthinkable concept. Wow, right? Think about the objects you live with – do you love them? Do they nurture you and your family? Do they function in a way that sustains you? If not, then SHED them. There is surely someone who will treasure that which you no longer do. Pass it on, pay it forward, freecycle – call it what you will, just do it.
Ultimately, sustainability is about mindfulness. The busyness of our lives distracts us from the decisions we make every day with every purchase. Make a considered decision to replace something, don’t let it be automatic. It’s okay to want something new or more functional or simply more beautiful, only consider where it comes from and where the piece being replaced is going. You don’t have to raise chickens on your high-rise balcony to live sustainably (unless you want to, of course). All you have to do is think.