With climate change a tangible reality, environmental issues are climbing to the top of everyone’s agenda. Design is no exception. After a decade-long party accompanying their rising popular profile and commercial success, designers have begun to sober up.

At Design Tide and 100% Design, the big shows at last week’s Tokyo Designer’s Week, this shift was evident.

Eminent British designer Jasper Morrison, writing in U.K. design magazine Icon in August, hit a nerve with the following words: “Design, which used to be almost unknown as a profession, has become a major source of pollution. Encouraged by glossy lifestyle magazines and marketing departments, it’s become a competition to make things as noticeable as possible by means of color, shape and surprise. Its historic and idealistic purpose, to serve industry and the happy consuming masses at the same time, of conceiving things easier to make and better to live with, seems to have been side-tracked.” The same journal has even publicly called for a “design recession” to trim the fat and to refocus design talent and ideals toward responding to genuine needs.

For many younger designers, the looming sense of environmental crisis offers a way out of this cul-de-sac of decadence and a fortifying sense of moral purpose. Influential design critic Marcus Fairs, editor in chief of the online design magazine dezeen.com, has been charting the trend: “Issues of sustainability and green design have become really important to designers everywhere. They are beginning to feel that they have some responsibility to start to love the Earth a bit more — because what most designers do is that they provide things for people to buy and so are part of the consumption problem. The more things people design the more things people buy and more resources are used and everything gets worse.”

The range of responses traverses a broad spectrum. A few tackle the issues head on, exploring recycled materials or understanding the design task as one of minimizing wastefulness. Most engage the issue in more oblique ways, bringing a sensitivity attuned to nature into their work or employing the communicative capacities of design to raise awareness.

Such approaches are yielding fresh aesthetic directions, resulting in creations that evoke the beauty of the natural world or alternatively finding new value in traditional craft techniques and castoff materials.

The trusty environmentalist slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” continues to sum up the approach of the designers who are most disturbed by the predations of consumerism on the environment.

Their eyes often see the hidden potentials in the discarded and the disregarded. Such a sensibility is evident in the low-tech but intricate lampshades that South African designer Heath Nash assembles from flower-shaped cutouts of discarded plastic bottles, part of a series of works entitled “Other People’s Rubbish.” The “Treasured Trash” section of the Design Tide show has been showcasing such work for the past two years.

Manufacturing processes are another area in which environmental awareness is finding direct application, often drawing inspiration from traditional craft practices and supporting local communities in the developing countries where so much of the world’s consumer products are made. Artecnica is an LA-based design producer whose explicit mission is to produce “enchanting and inspiring” products in environmentally and socially sustainable ways.

The Trans-Neomatic bowl, designed by the famous Campana brothers of Brazil and manufactured in Vietnam, is a typical example. This product is an unexpected combination of two ubiquitous materials in contemporary Vietnam — woven rattan and old scooter tires — and manufactured in homes rather than production lines. Artecnica’s aim is to show that environmental responsibility doesn’t necessarily require compromising a design’s formal or conceptual qualities.

Even for designers whose primary interests lie elsewhere, an awareness of the environmental impact of their ideas has increasingly become part of their design process. Laurens van Wieringen, a young Dutch designer who exhibited at the Holland stand at 100% Design, whose pliable vinyl vases and lamps suggest more of an interest in wit than sustainability, told me of his investigations of a plant-based biodegradable plastic to replace the vinyl — allowing him to maintain the design intent while reducing its environmental impact.

Likewise, Austrian designer Adam Wehsely-Swiczinsky has designed an electric guitar using an eco-friendly but acoustically resonant hemp-cellulose material for its body, and he is aiming to source all its components within an 800-km radius to minimize the transportation portion of its carbon footprint.

In the larger scheme of things, these efforts may be only symbolic, but it is precisely through design’s symbolic effectiveness that such efforts can be magnified beyond their immediate sphere of influence.

The design of objects has been more about communication than function. This adage still holds true in an era of environmental responsibility. Although designers can directly address the environmental impact of their products through using green materials or local sourcing, some are pursuing a more indirect but potentially more powerful route.

Cedric Decroux and Yves Fidalgo are a young Swiss duo whose design outfit, Fulgaro, is “emphasizing the connection that man fosters with water and the vegetal in dwelling.” Their products are almost absurdly simple yet endearing: an umbrella stand that drains into a pot plant; a leaf-shaped water collector that does the same thing; a bath that recycles wastewater to household plants.

While the environmental impact of the products themselves may be negligible, their effectiveness consists in offering a precise expression of sensitivity to water — something that has won attention for both the products and their creators. By hitching design’s power to communicate to the media’s ability to amplify it, the general awareness of humanity’s dependence upon nature can be raised, a technique that could be described as “environmental acupuncture.”

The cynic will point out that the green theme is simply the latest marketing strategy to sell more unnecessary products — based on assuaging consumer guilt through soothing messages of ecological responsibility. Certainly not all designers are embracing a born-again, save-the-planet puritanism. There is much that is all sweetness and light, bringing a little pleasure from a visual pun or cute twist — what could be called the “Hello Kitty” approach (something that gets a good deal of commercial mileage in Japan).

Some aim higher aesthetically, aiming at using design skills to create beauty or wonder, such as the mesmerizing work of Japanese graphics studios WOW and Team-Lab. Some rising design stars, such as Jaime Hayon, are piggybacking on the current effervescence of the art market to make their names (and fortunes), a strategy that can evade questions of environmental responsibility simply by claiming the total creative freedom that is the prerogative of art.

Yet the particular beauty and burden of design is that it is directly connected to daily life and consumer society. This makes it uniquely positioned to fully explore the potentials and paradoxes of humanity’s relationship with the planet that it inhabits. It is this larger sense of purpose that is slowly dawning on a new generation of designers, something far more intoxicating than an endless round of champagne cocktails.

Julian Worrall is Assistant Professor of Architecture and Urban Studies at the School of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University.


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