Emotionally Durable Design

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Caroline Bagley & Colin Westeinde

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Peak Stuff

“If we look on a global basis, in the west we have probably hit peak stuff,” said Ikea’s chief of sustainability, Steve Howard January 2016. “We talk about peak oil, I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff… Peak home furnishings.” Framed alongside IKEA’s goal of doubling its currently 36.9 billion dollar annual revenue by 2020 and recognizing IKEA as effectively controlling the furniture market (with the next largest company, Ashley, at 4 billion) a systemic paradox is established.

To backtrack, furniture maintains the longest and most direct relationship with humans of all the designed things. In a basic sense a composition of elevated forms meant to hold an animal body in a more comfortable position than possible by the ground alone, the learning process of what is and isn’t successful furniture pre-dates our species. The chair, read heuristic of furniture, is the most iterated and therefore maturely designed thing there is. As a physical manifestation the most produced, tested, and reconsidered idea as well as its constantly proximity to us — literally composing most of the spaces we chose to exist within — it is directly representative of our values.

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The original chaise lounge.

Speaking generally; historically furniture has been a significant and valued belonging, in part, due to a historical lack of access. As manufacturing evolved opportunities emerged to do things more precisely, stronger, faster, with simulated quality, and more economically. So long as the rate at which something could be produced was relatively limited the best method of extracting profit from said object was through increased value — justified in a large part by quality.

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The Thonet #14 chair, 1859. The original flat pack designed.

As iterations, quantities, distributability, and marketability increased the buying market’s relationship with access changed from one fighting for more to one overwhelmed by choice. Furthermore, the risk of commitment decreased as buyers placed less emphasis on an object’s endurance in exchange for lighter prices. The result is a consuming public that is often lazy and resigned — reluctant to critically examine something and therefore expecting not to understand how it works — which pessimistically makes low risk purchases with low expectations for the things they purchase. Both in response as well as fueling this decline Ikea, among others, offer quick solutions for people without a lot of time, space, or money. Its products are incredibly marketable responses to consumer needs, but are they good furniture?

Alvar Alto’s stool 60 against Ikea’s Frosta stool.

Back to expanding IKEA’s awareness that “in the west we have probably hit peak stuff.” We exist in a time with more people that will consume more products than ever before, as China and India and the rest of the developing world’s massive populations inch increasing closer to consuming on the levels of the western world no wonder IKEA isn’t doubtful of its continued growth. However, with the recognition that there is a “peak” and the unavoidable acknowledgement that to the extent things are currently consumed is globally problematic what more conveniently obvious paradox will it take for there to be enough widespread recognition that consumption, let alone increased consumption, in a linear context is infeasible to result in meaningful change? Or maybe that’s the problem, the logical finality of our system is ‘known’ as this is hardly the first convenient example of this absurdity, and public consciousness doesn’t care.

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Kangbashi is a subdivision of the northern Chinese city of Ordos, built in anticipation of large scale relocation inland.

That being said IKEA holds the market share because it is good, design. Not in a moral sense, at least not enough to matter, but out of respect for its efficacy as a distributable and pervasively desirable product that promotes turnover it does exactly what its creators intend it to. To break from IKEA, this is hardly an uncommon trait of most sellable goods, certainly on a large scale. To such an extent that the consumer has little if any option for things that are not intended to operate this way. And that’s the fundamental problem, given completely free choice there is enough interest in the short term’s easy way out that entire markets have transformed to offer nothing but the ‘fast’.

Our context of only increasingly infeasible overconsumption is testament to the failure of a system driven by the majority. And before this gets out of control in terms of political ideology all that is meant is a recognition of the statistical failure of every person to adequately consider the impacts of their choices past their immediate situation. For legitimate and predominantly economic reasons long term valuing of the survival of the species is not of immediate concern to most people who are certainly not looking in any meaningful way past their lifespans, let alone ahead a few years. Conversely freedom of choice and the variety of solutions it brings is important in facilitating innovative and alternative solutions, but under current contexts the primary value determining the success or failure of an idea is nearly absolutely profitability. And unfortunately the ‘goodness’ of an idea is not perfectly synonymous with its salability.

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*Method hand soap. Bottle still made from 90% virgin plastic.

Planned obsolescence represents the inherent disparity between an effective product and a completely considered and good thing. Point of sale is only a brief moment in the life of a product yet it determines almost if not all of the decisions made about it. Even the amount products currently that consider their environmental impact or disposal only do so to the extent that their sales pitch is enhanced, “buy this because it’s less guilty.” And although that is exactly what things need to do more of it ought to be the standard, not valued for its rarity and requiring the massively wrong other in order to appear sufficiently attractive. We also exist in a time with more access to and understanding of manufacturing and material possibilities, with more trained designers, and with a greater public consciousness of the problems of overconsumption than ever before. Perhaps the way forward is to recognize the knew knowledge our post-depression system of product design, fabrication, and consumption was founded without — that we exist in a limited system. To stop creating in deliberate ignorance of this simply because it’s the easy thing to do.

Forgetting the lack of consensus on definably good design and instead simply considering that waste has an impact on something, somewhere, how can that be better addressed? Could designed things no longer be allowed to be wasteful and what would with mean. If the aspects of a completely considered ‘good thing’ can be societally decided upon, could those left out by their opposition to a product’s salability still be included through governmental imposition?

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Storage pond for used fuel at the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant at the UK’s Sellafield site

The principle of dealing with hazardous materials already exists. Although not adequately recycled they are disposed of so as to not put people’s lives in direct risk. Ironically nuclear waste is less likely to kill us than the long term impacts of an every growing pile of broken Lack tables. Ikea’s mastery of flat packing and logistics allow it to export a previously cost prohibited lifestyle to new markets. Could this same commitment to efficiency be effectively applied recyclability. If an object’s inherent ability to accumulate is recognized as similarly dangerous to its ability to corrode or cause cancer could a closed loop, whether internally or via third party be the responsibility of all producers and what effect would this have on their products?

Works Cited:

Andrews, Tara. Design and Consume to Utopia: Where Industrial Design Went Wrong.. Design Philosophy Papers, 2009.

Frase, Peter. Four Futures. Jacobin, 2011. Web.

Is business action on climate change believable?. The Guardian, 14 Jan. 2016. Web. 11 May 2016. <http://www.theguardian.com/membership/audio/2016/jan/14/is-business-action-on-climate-change-believable-guardian-live-event&gt;.

Papinek, Victor. Design for the real world. N.p., 1972. Print.

Sorensen, Chris. Have we hit ‘peak stuff?’ Ikea says there’s röom to grow.. Macleans, 28 Jan. 2016. Web. <http://www.macleans.ca/economy/business/ikea-addresses-consumerism-in-the-age-of-peak-stuff/&gt;.

Wiles, Will. No one thinks of themselves as designing clutter. Dezeen, 19 Feb. 2016. Web. 11 May 2016. <http://www.dezeen.com/2016/02/19/opinion-will-wiles-consumer-design-market-backlash-against-clutter-peak-stuff-ikea/&gt;.