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Recently, I was invited to speak at a conference about sustainable design. I was planning to talk about designs that improve our quality of life, but instead, at the last minute, I decided to prepare something that would more effectively illustrate my philosophy that “green is good, but common sense is a lot better.” Of course, I respect LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and other similar organizations, but I believe designers should do more than just belong to associations. They should use common sense when they design something.
My talk began with a vision I’ve had for years: the world as a big refrigerator, full of leftovers. One of my passions is cooking so I began with a cooking lesson. People stared at me like I was at the wrong conference. I explained that for me, the best part of cooking is opening my fridge and using the scraps. I tell this story because I believe that designers should think in a similar fashion. As designers, we should be able to take whatever is in this “fridge” and create designs using those existing scraps. We have plenty of material to use, but we lack a cohesive system to organize those pieces.
While cooking, I started giving some examples to build credibility to this theory. The first was a project I had undertaken with my students at a big design school in Georgia. A large hotel company had come to us and asked for new furniture designs for one of their chains. Our proposal was to take the existing furniture and modify it rather than starting all over. We took the existing pieces and tweaked them to fit their new design scheme. Some of the wood used for the changes came from taking apart and rebuilding the existing furniture using the same material. We modified the furniture legs, transformed armoires so they could hold large, flat-paneled TVs, replaced existing hardware, cut where necessary and, in less than two days, were able to save about 140,000 pieces of furniture by reusing what was already there.
I then shared a collection of furniture I designed about 10 years ago for an Italian company. The idea sprouted from walking around factories that made leather bags and shoes. Rather than have the masses of scraps sent to landfills, I used these “leftovers” to make a new line of furniture accessories. The main design in the collection is a flower, and the flower is not purely decorative but suggests that you can recycle even the smallest piece of leather into a new design.
This goes to show that the simple concept of looking around and reusing whatever we have—our leftovers—is working to some extent. However, what isn’t working is the system itself. Every city and county should work to create smaller, local “refrigerators” and fill them up with scraps from construction sites, manufacturing facilities and other remains from the detritus of modern life that can be repurposed to make new designs. Instead of throwing away these remnants these should feed into a shared store. There are a few examples of spaces like this in the United States (Urban Ore in Berkeley, Build it Green in Brooklyn, or West End Architectural Salvage in Des Moines) but we need a cohesive, world-wide movement to push this type of thinking to the forefront of the design world.
But it’s not just the design world we need to convince. We should encourage every level of government to think along these lines and then perhaps this theory of living in a large refrigerator will no longer be just a theory. Just like the two examples I gave, we can design products using solely recycled materials.
As a small child I remember my grandmother would save every glass jar and cardboard box and reuse these materials for everything. I was struck by this and learned that what she was doing wasn’t about being “green” or being a part of a fancy association but rather doing what designers and governments should be doing every day: using common sense!