“Is there something more important than life itself?”
We are living in a time in which people are taking to the streets to express their views. We are concerned above all about the exploitation of nature or respect for human rights. Do designers have any influence on these kinds of developments? Or, from the opposite perspective, does our perception of these general societal conditions influence the ideas that creatives produce?
These issues were debated in the panel discussion at the Pure Campus Forum at imm cologne 2020. Jeannette Altherr and Design Journalist and Trend Researcher Frank A. Reinhardt spoke about the complexity of sustainability as a challenge for designers, businesses and consumers. Their conversation reveals that solutions are to be found in holistic approaches – a snapshot of the sustainability debate in the interior design industry.
“Is there something more important than life itself?”
The panel discussion on “What influence do designers have on life tomorrow?” was hosted as part of the Pure Campus Forum. Frank A. Reinhardt (far.consulting), Jeannette Altherr (Studio ADP), Martin Hirth and Matthias Oesterle (Phoenix Design) took part in the discussion. Photo: Koelnmesse
Frank A. Reinhardt: For a long time, our homes and nature were linked in a discussion led by the environmental movement about reducing harmful substances in furniture – and hence on healthy home living rather than a healthy global climate. That has changed considerably. “Green living” today is measured in terms of considerations such as climate neutrality and sustainable design – an extremely complex situation. Could this be what is fuelling the desire for a new simplicity, which can be seen in the work of many young designers? How do you see it in your work?
Jeannette Altherr: We have always identified with “essentialism” – the difference between it and simplicity is that we are less concerned about purely formal aspects. Rather, it is about looking for what is important. And is there something more important than life itself? Our sense of beauty and our vision of a good life are closely interlinked. We may not always know what is beautiful, but we know very definitely what isn’t: deprivation, poisoning, a lack of inspiration.
We are currently experiencing a shift in our perception of nature as “the other” – we are moving away from nature as a mere provider of resources and towards the idea of nature as an autonomous living system. We are realising that we are part of this living system and not something that stands above it. Balance is a fundamental consideration here. This shift will definitely change what we perceive as beautiful.
Frank A. Reinhardt: The debate on social media clearly shows that people are looking to designers for orientation in terms of the sustainability of product concepts. In many cases, this is probably the expression of an immense disorientation, which is being exacerbated by greenwashing. Do these kinds of expectations place too many demands on designers?
Jeanette Altherr: In my case, the pressure comes first and foremost from myself. As long as product design turns into consumer products, designers will be tied up with the fundamental problem of overconsumption. It is similar for architects. This is why many designers in the broadest sense of the term are asking themselves what and how they can still design at all with a clean conscience. It has thrown us into a real crisis, or at least it has for me.
This is compounded by the enormous complexity of the age that we live in. We need to understand that contradictions exist alongside each other and even within ourselves, to understand that there are no simple, clear-cut answers to many questions: We are all part of a great collective learning process. The number of factors that have to be considered now is simply incredible: from material sourcing to production conditions, energy use, quality/durability, flexible use as the cornerstone for long use, servicing requirements, transport costs and packaging all the way through recyclability. And added to this are the social aspects.
I think that the concept of what can be design will expand from producing products into something broader. I was especially moved by the examples of preserving, capturing and documenting in the exhibition Broken Nature, and by the examples that revealed the urgency of the situation the world is facing. Scientific findings alone won’t change how people think. We need to move from knowledge to understanding.
"I think that the idea of what design can be will expand beyond the production of products," Jeannette Altherr dares to look into the future. Photo: Koelnmesse
Frank A. Reinhardt: The discussion about sustainability models in the interior design industry is less heated than the debate in sectors such as the food industry. Gathering experience takes longer here; learning processes involve larger investments. But at the same time, the furniture industry needs to prepare to face potential shortages of materials that are being promoted as sustainable, such as wood.
Jeanette Altherr: Yes, especially with the impact of the devastating fires in the Amazon and the even more destructive fires in Australia this year. People are starting to question whether trees can be seen simply as a renewable material. Whether “new” can have such positive connotations as it used to, given the issue of oversupply. Whether high-quality slow design that repairs things will make a difference. Or whether second-hand products that can be reused are not the better choice. The industry must explore these scenarios from an early stage. We need to consider everything without any preconceptions.
Frank A. Reinhardt: There is no such thing as good, 100 per cent sustainable solutions – just as there is no such thing as the perfect product. Consumers must learn to weigh up their choices. This is a learning process that they have to be expected to go through. But no one wants to be the first to come under fire for making this suggestion.
Jeanette Altherr: The debate is so emotionally heated, and the shock we are experiencing is so great, that we feel the urgent need to do something fast. This often leads to simplified answers. After all, is it really better to replace plastic bags with cloth bags? Simply to end up with piles of cloth bags that you never use? And is replacing plastic straws with metal or glass straws really the answer?
If you have to use a reusable coffee cup as many as 3000 times for the resources needed to manufacture it to be less than those used to make a plastic cup – shouldn’t you continue to use plastic instead? We need to be much more fundamental in how we approach things; we need to think in life cycles. It’s not enough to stick with the throw-away system and merely replace the materials.
Frank A. Reinhardt: And at the same time, we need to learn to differentiate as a matter of urgency. Nobody disputes that we need to free the oceans from plastic waste. But the knee-jerk demonisation of plastic is short-sighted. On one hand, plastic produced from fossil materials is a very valuable and scarce resource that is irreplaceable in healthcare, for instance – or at least for the time being. On the other, this resource is being wasted in the masses of packaging in a consumer society that is increasingly reliant on convenience products.
Jeanette Altherr: And just as plastic isn’t the bad guy in every case, bioplastic is not the whole answer to the plastic problem either – because it has its own, quite specific challenges. The question has to be: Which material really makes sense in which situation? Long-life plastic in furniture or appliances isn’t the same as disposable plastic.
By employing solid wood and naturally tanned rhubarb leather, burgbad has chosen natural materials for its collection by design studio Altherr Désile Park. Photo: Constantin Meyer, burgbad
Frank A. Reinhardt: The challenge of operating sustainably for businesses lies in accepting the complexity of sustainability and presenting it transparently. But it has to be presented in a simplified way in order to communicate the company’s answers and solutions effectively.
Jeannette Altherr: I think the keyword here is “process”. It takes time and experience. Arper, for example, has had a sustainability department since 2005. It began by working on a life cycle assessment – an extremely demanding undertaking and the only one that seems to be genuinely rigorous in my view. Certificates are sometimes bureaucratic import obstacles. But certificates like the EPD are also a way to make products transparent, measurable and hence comparable. This is essential if we are to enable people to make a conscious choice.
But the issue of sustainability in design should not be limited to reducing carbon emissions. The answers put forward by design range from ecodesign, resource conservation, restorative design, biodesign, saving energy, reuse, recycling, life cycle models and so forth all the way through to raising awareness of the beauty of things and protecting what you love.
Frank A. Reinhardt: It is exciting to see how the sustainability debate is making waves in all directions – not just in relation to consumption, but also in terms of social standards and lifestyles. The climate crisis is a challenge for every sphere of our societies. If you tweak one thing, the whole dynamic changes – whether that is the Gulf Stream or global financial transactions. Isn’t that in itself an opportunity?
Jeannette Altherr: Yes, a society learns as well. And businesses are also evolving and responding to findings. They are going through the same experiences and changing as a result. A company like Arper, where this process has already been running for 15 years, can feel emboldened by this and can communicate its activities more widely – despite the risk of being accused of greenwashing. And just because you can never really please anyone in a media world, that shouldn’t stop us from taking the necessary steps to keep the learning process moving forward.