features
#077 / 2006
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furniturelink book review

Sustainable by Design

by Stuart Walker 2006, paperback edition

Earthscan, 192 pages, $49.95 CDN

Should the objects we produce "endure" if they are soon to be discarded? Is it possible to create "temporary" objects that have lasting emotional and cultural value? Stewart Walker poses these interrelated quandaries in the opening chapter of his book, "Sustainable by Design," and returns to them later, as he explores the concept of the title.

Although steeped in academic parlance - Walker teaches at the University of Calgary - this recently released title will interest even the most die-hard polytechnic/art school grad and established furniture maker. With his historical perspectives, eco-design methods and arguments, Walker makes a strong case that sustainability should be every designer's goal.

Neither is Walker shy about airing his views on the current role of industrial designers and design educators. He decries the preoccupation with superficial aesthetics and "a relinquishment of creativity, and a replacement of originality with bland, market-led, 'safe' solutions."

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He illustrates his thesis on sustainability with 43 colour images of design project "experiments" placed throughout the text. His rough design solutions reject perfect surfaces, fashion and fit-and-finish, which, he argues, only encourage waste, consumerism and globalization. Walker deliberately uses found and recyclable components to build his examples of furniture, lamps and electronic products and does so without using reference drawings or models. He practises a belief in local production and expands the sustainability debate to encompass issues of social and economic importance.

Academia is best-suited to this form of design-thinking, argues Walker, as the process can be separated from the commercial pressures of the marketplace or design studio. In some ways this aloofness from everyday life parallels the intuitive creations of fine artists in their studios. Although he points out that "design is not art" (in chapter 6), he later conjecturers that designers can act "as a special kind of artist." Indeed many of his experimental products tend to mimic the look and feel of traditional folk art, and his use of acidic fruit to power his electronic projects (see cover image) was explored by Vancouver artist, Richard Prince, in the early 1970s.

Walker advocates for more direct participation by students and designers in "making and doing" with real materials at full-scale, which bucks the current trend toward computer-rendered "virtual" products in the design departments of many universities (see issue #063). He also challenges designers to look beyond the status quo and include a range of human values, myths and beliefs into the equation - an approach that perhaps only an academic could formulate.

His support for locally made products that reflect regional materials and aspirations is a something that many SMEs, designers and educators have advocated for decades, with little result. The North American manufacturing sector would undoubtedly benefit with the adoption of Walker's methodologies by university educators, scientists, engineers, technicians and the labs they control. His approach would free students and faculty in these disciplines to create new materials and new processes in untold combinations and composites (many recycled) that would provide the new "raw materials" for viable local production.

Yet, Walker states, in our search for economic viability we must not lose sight of the dichotomy in the sustainable design process. He believes it is a fundamental error to emphasize the value of "utility," because "lasting value lies not in that which is useful but in that which is useless." In several chapters, he examines values based on morality, religion, myth and time to argue his case for the "notion of product transience." Walker believes if we understand the role uselessness should play in design-reasoning, we will "start seeing functional objects in a new way."

He suggests that we avoid fads and flavour-of-the-month designs, which are destructive to our environment, and develop those with more human-scale values. In earlier generations scarity helped keep our products honest. Today unchecked abundance has the opposite result, creating what Walker calls the "aesthetics of unsustainability." For instance, the core technology of most of today's products (especially electronic items) rapidly becomes obsolete, leading to their discard. But they continue to exist in landfills. The same can be said of much of the furniture produced today - flimsy bookcases, plastic patio tables, desk chairs, etc., all have a long life in the dump. Designers/makers have to consider the life expectancy of their products, as well as the aesthetics.

Walker believes we have to go beyond the everyday tasks of getting the product out the door to pay the bills and look for "meanings that surpass utility and resonate with our aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities." Some furniture, especially heirlooms, certainly fits this criteria, as they are passed to successive generations to use and enjoy. Even the recent trend of young people equating furniture only a few decades old as "retro" and "cool" is a mind shift that encompass Walker's theories of sustainable design.

"Sustainable by Design" - the concept and the book - is practical and essential for designers, makers and anyone involved with producing consumer goods for today's market.

Two online sources for the title: Canada UBC Press, USA Amazon

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