As a product designer, it may seem almost morbid to focus on the death of your creation, that part in the lifecycle where things fall apart or get thrown away. But there’s the reality, as plain as it can possibly be: your design, regardless of how useful or beautiful it is, is eventual trash. The Brooklyn-based design consultancy called Ecosystems sees kind of a poetry there, and is building a business around that lyrical cycle.
Founder Andrew Personette has made a habit out of gathering perspectives (his art school history indulged as much media as he could get his hands on), and so he was never interested in starting a design firm just by himself. Wanting to rally some collective thought and action around his new venture, Andrew started by posting a help wanted ad on the Craigslist website looking for an intern. His ad read simply:
You love design more than your pet. Your computer is your left hand. You dream of owning your own design firm. You are willing to commit at least 20hrs per week to assisting in the celebration of life.
Matt Tyson read the ad at his home only a few blocks down. It was exactly what he was looking for. Matt wrote back, in part:
Your craigslist post almost has me pegged, except I consider my computer to be my best friend, not my left hand.
From the moment Matt walked in the door, it was clear he was exactly the kind of person Andrew was looking for. “Matt just showed up with a T-shirt and a pair of jeans,” Andrew laughs. “So it was definitely a conversation about ideas, you know, it wasn’t anything about image.” Andrew had met their other partner, an Argentinean-born interior designer named Pablo Souto, through a development course he was taking. Matt played the part of intern for three months, and then came on board as a partner. And in late 2004, the three set out to shape their multidisciplinary firm called Acolyte.
Acolyte delivers what Andrew calls “design services that assist in the celebration of life.” It was founded on the ideal that design isn’t just about isolated beauty anymore – it’s also about paying back the earth. They started to notice that while there were a lot of companies advertising eco-friendly furniture, when they looked further into these companies and their practices, they realized there were a lot of gaps in process and materials. Many of the elements of this supposedly eco-friendly furniture weren’t eco-friendly at all. Acolyte decided to embrace the mission of a design that’s better not just for the user, but better for the earth at every moment within the process. It wasn’t long before they collectively began developing Ecosystems.
Ecosystems is contract furniture that supports sustainability at each step of the design process, from sourcing to delivery. They currently offer only seating, but have plans for many other furniture options. Ecosystems chairs are made from sustainable materials, are the product of automated manufacturing (minimizing fuel waste on large orders), are shipped flat-packed (thereby reducing the packaging time and materials), require tool free assembly (saving time and money), and in the end of what Acolyte calls the chair’s “first life,” they will pick it up from you and recycle all the materials. Now that’s what sustainable design looks like.
The design itself was simple, so the development process, spurred on by the impending date of the two major furniture trade show ICFF and NeoCon, went lightning fast. The first came up with a seating solution called Tandem 1, which functioned as a sort of proof of concept for a multiple seating application. Then, taking those ideas about materials and efficiency and pushing the framework of Tandem 1 even further, they evolved the design into one of their current offerings called Bamba. Bamba is the most effective way to make two unique chairs out of a single piece of bamboo: the arm, the seat and the back all come out of the chair’s side profile.
Assembly and distribution were other issues that had to be considered from a sustainability perspective. They had an idea to make hardware that a user could just snap it together, and then flat-pack it to minimize shipping waste. “If you’ve ever ordered contract furniture, oh my god!” says Andrew. “You’re practically throwing away another piece of furniture from the shipping material alone!”
The first time Pablo, Andrew and Matt saw their brand-new chair was at their first trade show. It was the first time the world saw it as well. “We actually didn’t see our furniture together, complete, until we set it up for the furniture show,” says Andrew. “There were two days to set up for the show, and we set up the last day. We had old versions of the hardware, we had old versions of the fabric, but the new versions… that was the first time we saw it all come together.”
“It was a wonderful expression of our system,” says Matt. “We can locally manufacture anywhere and do it quickly.”
“Yeah, we just all got there and we’re like, okay, you’ve got these components, I have these components, and it worked because it’s mechanically patched,” Andrew says. “And that means that if a piece did get damaged I could just replace that one piece. That’s a huge environmental point, and it allows for customization.” Ecosystems was a hit at the tradeshows, even if the live grass they imported into the booth reeked of fertilizer.
“What really gets me going is working towards a larger purpose,” says Matt. “I’ve always been into design, but what got me into industrial design itself was that I love to solve problems and to try to find new angles to observe things. When I’m walking down the street and I’m seeing things happening, I’m also asking myself what I’m not seeing. I feel like as designers, we need to be really present to the fact that everything we create will become trash at some point. There’s a large responsibility in that.”
Posted November 30, 2007