By Jennifer Leonard
Designers, theorists, students and strategists gathered in Malmö, Sweden October 17-19 for an annual event called Designboost. Our mandate was to discuss sustainable design, a topic so broad and behemoth that it’s borderline absurd. But with gusto, wide-eyed curiosity and heartfelt sincerity, event organizers David Carlson and Peer Eriksson embraced its absurdity and used it to their (and our) advantage by weaving together two full-day agendas that supported meaningful exchange and relationship-building in a variety of stimulating milieu – from the top two floors of Santiago Calatrava’s Turning Torso to the ceremonial dining hall of the city’s Rådhuset (Court House) and, later, booming Etage Nakktclub.
On Day 1, from on high, we were assigned three different discussion groups, each with a provocation, e.g. “How might we extend the notion of sustainable design beyond the limits of products and materials?” The technique of curating intimate conversations straight away was helpful in breaking the ice that typically coats first encounters, as well as opening our minds to points of view that aligned with a range of disciplines and cultural interpretations.
In my first session, a half-dozen of us discussed the similarities between human relationships and our relationships with “stuff.” We wondered aloud, “What makes relationships endure? What’s the glue that binds? How do bonds become valuable over time? What about attachment? Non-attachment? Is less more? Does quality always usurp quantity?” No conclusions were made – maybe it was the altitude, the strong Swedish coffee, or simply the nature of the debate – but the essential ingredients were assembled and the pot was set to stir.
In my second session, with a new assembly of folks, we were introduced to the notion of “undressed” products (thanks, Kristina Börjesson!) and wondered if quality helps make things sustain(able). Most interesting to me was the existential discussion around our concept of time: with enthusiasm, many of us considered the notion that perhaps it’s linear thinking that drives the sort of consumer need that can never be satiated, and that non-linear thinking, or cyclical thinking, which more closely models the rhythms of life, has the power to prod us back in step with our own (human) nature and the natural systems we inhabit.
In my third and final session of the day, I was assigned a group whose mission was to consider the value of human-centered research in the design process. Does it in fact produce “better artifacts?” Of all the sessions, here’s where disparate views were strongest. Some felt good design comes from the bottom-up, that it’s the result of close examination of human behavior. Some felt good design comes exclusively from the top, that it’s entirely due to the brilliance of a design visionary, or creative genius. So we hotly debated the question of who knows best. Users? Designers? (Aren’t designers users too?) Ultimately, my personal stance was/is that good design is a balancing act reflective of context and responsive to human needs, design visionaries included.
Day 2 was full of solo presentations, by myself and the likes of “cultural nomad” Satyendra Pakhale, who asserted, “We can’t afford to buy cheap things”; Jens Martin Skibsted, who decreed, “Our fears of inadequacy and not being loved overwhelm our fear of global warming”; Mathilda Tham, who differentiated clothes (material) from fashion (symbolic) and offered up a handy matrix to measure a brand’s identity and integrity; Jonas Bylund, who spoke convincingly about the power of brand stories and how to tell them through design so that advertising no longer becomes necessary; Stephen Burks, who shared video clips from his adventures in the developing world, working with local craftspeople to help them turn one-offs into mass-produced items; and Brent Richards, director of the Design Laboratory at Central Saint Martins, who compared sustainable design to good sex: “It’s not what you do, it’s how you think about it…and you’ve got to do it slowly.”
The third and final day offered an exhibition opening inside the old cinema space at Fridhemstorget, where artifacts on display included Pakhale’s stunning radiator design, Burks’ wire-frame tables, the Biomega glow-in-the-dark bike by Marc Newson, Tom Dixon’s biodegradable tableware, Iittala carafes and cooking pots, and HC Ericson's three-dimensional typography called ABCHCE.
Reflecting back, Designboost was a stimulating mix of perspectives and projects; sights and sounds; cultures and conversations. I left feeling inspired to return next year – to sustain, so to speak, the sustainable – and to continue, personally, to make connections each and everyday with people and ideas that uplift, push, surprise and keep me engaged with the “stuff” that really matters, immaterial and otherwise.