The end of the 20th century was a time of rapid industrialisation in China. It was noted on the world stage that if Asian countries started to pollute at the same rate as the Western world, then the environmental disasters predicted in the 1970s would come true much earlier than expected. The seriousness of the situation was acknowledged across the world culminating in the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, during which the UN drew up the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The field of design, caught between the arts and industry, was directly affected by this need to re-evaluate our gas-guzzling, polluting lifestyle. The 1990s were therefore characterised by the development of the theory of Eco-design, prompted by the article “Design for a Sustainable World” (1988) written by the design historian Victor Margolin and published in Design Issues, and similarly by the work Ecological Design (1996) by Sim van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan which talks of the integration architecture, urbanism and technology in the natural world. The trigger for this wave of thinking had been Ian McHarg’s book Design with Nature (1969), which had laid down the base considerations for environmentally-aware design (soil, climate, hydrology). Nowadays his theories have become the inspiration for the first principle of Smart Cities: harmonisation with nature.
Generally in Eco-Design the production of an object should factor in the base material, manufacturing, distribution, usage, waste materials, issues with production or issues with use. Therefore initially, Eco-design was not characterised so much by formal theories or trends but rather by recyclable materials, production processes and environmental impact. As such its status as a separate design movement appears confusing.
Eco-Design was firstly distinguished by the materials which it employed. Whilst 15 to 20% of plastic is recycled, it takes between 450 and 1,000 years for plastic to biodegrade. Although the majority of plastics are oil products, there are some bioplastics, such as natural rubber (Ficus elastica) or more recent discoveries such as plastics made from corn, wheat or sugar cane. Eco-design’s favoured materials however were wood, earth and cardboard. Only certain woods however were deemed environmentally friendly given issues with deforestation. Plywood, stuck together with solvent-free adhesives, was a good example of one as it could be recycled into particleboard. This is for example the case with Martin Szekely’s Table 00 (2000). As for earth, designers in Vallauris chose to design their wine cooler (1998) in easy to recycle terra-cotta. Finally cardboard’s appeal lay in the fact that it was easy to assemble without any need for glue. It could also be transported in great quantities because it was very light and malleable, which all helped to save energy.
Aesthetically speaking, designers aimed to give their works a timeless appearance which contributed to the sustainability of the design. This philosophy had much in common with the teachings of the American designer George Nakashima (1905-1990), who worked exclusively in wood and espoused principles that were as universal as possible. As such he did away with any trace of stylisation in order to be as close as possible to nature’s very own process of making the tree. From this process, which despite everything still somewhat differs from the principles of Eco-design, pieces emerged such as Fine cross-legged “Conoid” desk (1987), whose desktop was quite simply a log of ash.
As far as technology design was concerned, designers sought to create something, which was solid, consumed a minimal amount of energy and used renewable energies such as solar power. For example in 1993 the designer James Dyson launched his bag-less vacuum cleaner Dual Cyclone and in 2000 his Contrarotator washing machine, the second of which was so efficient it only required three and a half hours to do a family’s washing for a week. Similarly, made from recycled materials, 100% powered by renewable energy and accessible to everyone, Roger Bernard’s CooKit (1994) could cook the contents of a saucepan using only a cardboard package and some aluminium foil exposed to the sun. But besides encouraging the environmentally friendly manufacturing of ecological products, Eco-design became the framework shaping a new design aesthetic.
The aesthetics of recycling
The drive to recycle and to promote recycling ahead of the obsession with all things new raised further questions of aesthetics. Designers decided to use and rework second-hand objects, and emphasised the restorative nature of their work. An example of this kind of aesthetic can be seen in the project Réanim (2003) led by a collective called 5.5 designers; works included a wooden chair with a missing leg replaced by a fluorescent green bar. Their choice of green was not entirely innocent, given the context of ecological activism. This type of work clearly has a strong conceptual element, and in this particular example, a critical one too. Even if the idea could be further developed, each object was unique and thus closer to a work of art.
In the same vein, Stuart Haygarth created his Tide Chandelier (2005) from various pieces of plastic rubbish. The objects were repurposed to serve a different function. Three forks and a plate could similarly be transformed into a bedside lamp as in Michele de Lucci’s Lampe trois fourchettes. And stacked milk-bottles could come together to make an elegant hanging lamp as in Milk Bottle Lamp (1993) by the firm Droog Design, currently showing at the exhibition “Design Oracles” at the Gaîté lyrique until 16 August 2015. If everything was put to use you could make savings on energy, material and waste.
Playing upon the themes of recycling and natural imagery, brothers Fernando and Humberto Campana used natural materials together with artificial objects such as cuddly toys, whilst also evoking nature through their very choice of toys. For example Banquete chair was a bench made out of toy animals sewn to one another, which is also currently on display at the “Design Oracles” exhibition. Their works are essentially made out of recovered objects. Throughout the 1990s, the duo enjoyed a dazzling rise to fame, and from 1998 were shown at MoMA, the Vitra Design Museum (Basel) and at the Musée des Arts décoratifs (Paris).
However, the aesthetics of recycling only constituted a more conceptual aspect of Eco-design. The movement therefore appears more variegated than its first definition might lead you to believe, to such an extent that one can question its unity as a movement; consideration for the environment had to spread throughout the economy.
Beyond the movement, a wider trend
Although the conceptual elements preserved their activist roots, environmental concerns seemed to have somewhat dissipated in design manufacturing, outside the Eco-design movement. The ecological war was and still is far from won – on this front the Paris Conference on climate change from 30 November until 11 December 2015 must end with a new international deal- but the ethics of respect for the environment were from then on upheld by designers who had made themselves known long before Eco-design.
In 1996 Philippe Starck, a big name in the world of design, created in collaboration with La Redoute a catalogue called Good Goods, stocking a vast array of ecological products. He designed several objects, which encouraged a healthy and environmentally friendly lifestyle, such as Nourriture biologique (1998)- boxes of organic food products- or the lamp Archimoon Eco (1998). Meanwhile, at the start of the new millennium, the British designer Ross Lovegrove, who originally specialised in technology and electronics design in the 1980s, started to design new projects using solar panels such as his Solar Tree (2006), and completely differently Biolove (2003), a bike with a single carbon monocoque. As far as public ventures were concerned, in 1995 construction began on the Hanover tramway, designed by Jasper Morrison and awarded the ecology prize by the Forum of German Industry in 1997.
Throughout the 200os, Eco-design seemed to develop caught between the threat of its disintegration as a movement— if one could ever consider it as such—and its activist dimension, which gave it identity in the world of design. For its 2014 edition, the Maison & Salon Fair in Paris, organised a discussion called “Eco-design vs Eco-conception. New paths in innovation.” Professionals were asked, “If Eco-conception is necessarily generalised, what space is left for Eco-design.” Despite these doubts the Eco Design Fair was founded in Shanghai in 2008. Its most recent edition took place from 7 until 16 June 2015 with more local influence than international. But the fact that a fair can be dedicated solely to Eco-design clearly attests to its individuality. Moreover the decision for it to be hosted in China is not insignificant. China is in fact investing heavily in sustainable development as a field for the future, despite the worries of the Western world about China’s carbon footprint. On this note, a report produced by the designer Jamy Yang, 2016-2017 China Design Trends Report (2015), attests to the current trends in Chinese design towards smart objects, healthy lifestyles and environmental respect.
Eco-design was defined by sustainable production and by its code of aesthetics, which play upon themes such as nature and recycling. However, it seems that the aesthetic aspect and the technical aspect may not be enduring. Activists for ecological technologies seem to have given the terminology a meaning that is both more practical and more generalised. For example the Eco Innovation Booster claims to work towards the cooperation of Research, Management and Creation, i.e. for the spread of ecologically responsible design. In hindsight the Eco-design movement of the 1990s and 2000s seems like a transitional period which deserves its own name to avoid any confusion with sustainable design, which the world needs if it is to avoid environmental disaster.