Product Design's Long Shadow: On Form and Better (In)forming of Product Ecologies.

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Product Design's Long Shadow: On Form and Better (In)forming of

Product Ecologies.



Abstract

What is the real form of an object? Is it the skin, the mechanical aspects, or the nervous system
-

the
smart technology which allow them to adapt to consumer
's changing needs? Each of these aspects
combined with our insatiable thirst for new and different product typologies has created an
unsustainable cycle. The environmental footprint created from material extraction, energy
consumption, and environmental

degradation at the end of the product's useful life must once again
be re
-
contextualized back into the equation of what product's ultimate form is? This presentation looks
at the past history of product development, how it grew organically outside of a l
arger contextualized
setting, and how that lack of context has created many of the current problems we now face. It
explores how these problems can only be solved through systematic and sustainable design thinking
which re
-
imagines the product in an entir
ely new light from start to finish. Through a thorough
examination of the past historical context that provided the artifact with symbolic meaning to new
emerging contexts, this presentation will provide an intimate look into the connections with the past

and the opportunities for the future with an emphasis on a few theoretical directions forward.



Introduction

I want to begin by prefacing this essay with two comments. Firstly I came to design indirectly; initially
through studio arts which provided me
my one kind of theoretical framework and then through craft as
a fine woodworker and furniture maker which provided me with another. By the time I studied
industrial design I was in my mid thirties with two very well established sets of somewhat contradic
tory
perspectives. I have constantly negotiated my understanding of design through these two filters. I say
this because as someone skilled in the art of making as well as design, I find that design is really an
abstraction of making and can leave the des
igner falsely empowered believing that he or she actually
knows how to make things when in fact, generally speaking, they do not. While this is a generalization
(there are design/build architects and designer/manufacturers) the division of labor has over
the years
abstracted even our contribution to the process. The industrial designer like the architect plans the
production and adds the critical interface to objects and spaces empowering the end
-
user to better
understand and ultimately use products and s
paces. This abstraction is directly and indirectly
referenced throughout this essay. The second thing I wish to say is that design is a small, and in some
respects a non
-
existent, part of the process of bringing artifacts into the world. The largest per
centage
of products sold are still products that are manufactured without a trained designer. Designers need
to remember that their contribution is primarily through their ability to contemplate and act on the
bigger issues of planning and problem solving

as opposed to the mere midwifery of objects.



The elusive nature of shadows

I want to begin with the idea of the shadow and its relationship to this essay. First of all a shadow is
an ambiguous figure or trope; it is both present through a kind of absen
ce (blocked light) and yet
intangible and certainly immaterial. Such a metaphor seemed apt to the rich and ambiguous
relationship we have to objects. Artifacts stretch back to our earliest history and shape our identity
-

specifically our pre
-
history.
The shadow is fluid, moving as its objects move, but requiring another
surface upon which to be cast. It is transitory yet grounded. While the footprint seems appropriate as a
metaphor of our material and energy usage specifically when it comes to scient
ific data and statistical
information, the shadow suggests a more complex relationship between us and our artifacts on many
different levels. It eludes more to the hidden or ambiguous costs of production and the seemingly
invisible network of forces at pl
ay
-

a mere shadow play to most consumers. Lastly the shadow is a
constant reminder of our psychic relationship to the object which has served to shape our very
humanity from the first tools to cognition and eventually language. The object has lost much o
f its
symbolic power over the past century or more and its shadow has become detached from the larger
reality. This paper is an attempt at reconnecting these two entities through historical analysis and
suggesting new strategies for re
-
imbuing the symbol
ic power of the artifact and re
-
engaging the user
as productive rather than merely passive in the consumption of material, energy and objects.


Culture, design, and symbolic production

Our humanity has been defined by our abilitiy to make useful objects
-

t
he faber in 'homo faber' which
remains etymologically connected to its Latin origin in the words fabric and fabrication. Handcraft
reached a peak of excellence in the period directly leading up to industrialization by which time we had
long since evolv
ed to being sapient beings. The French philosopher
Henri Bergson defined sapience
as the abstract ability to use a tool to infinitely make more and varied tools
1

which of course has led to
our ability to create machines to make ever more exact and elabora
te machines or highly refined tools
and objects. In short toolmaking has been a genetic asset implicit in our evolution and survival.
According to the anthropologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rocheberg
-
Halton in their
landmark study
The Meaning
of Things
, objects have even defined our genders. The authors point
out that the technology traditionally associated with female activities changed far less than that of
traditional males allowing women the opportunity to refine their social skills.”
2

Thi
s suggests that the
tool and its manipulation is so powerful that even if we are not interacting with tools we are transferring
that sensibility to the refinement of equally critical social skills.


The symbolic importance of objects and how they bring p
ower to the bearer is both a practical and
symbolic extension of the self : “Objects affect what a person can do, either by expanding or restricting
the scope of that person's actions and thoughts. And because what a person does is largely what he
or she
is, objects have a determining effect on the development of the self, which is why
understanding the type of relationship that exists between people and things is so crucial.”
3

Neurologists, linguists, anthropologists, and even art historians and design t
heorists argue that the
skill of 'making' created the neural pathways to thinking. Some have even argued that these skills led
indirectly to the development of language
4
. This reality, however, has changed very recently: “For
more and more people, informa
tion
-
processing skills have taken the place of the primary productive
skills dependent on material objects. The tools of the eye have displaced the tools of the hand.
Things, however, have not ceased to send messages about who we are. By and large, we n
ow define
ourselves through objects of consumption rather than production.”
5

This shift from active producer to
passive consumer has had disastrous effects on our environment as well as on our individual and
communal psyches. The anthropologist Marshall
Sahlins points out that:

The world's most primitive
people have few possession, and they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of
goods...above all, it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention
of civilization.”
6

The object has been as critical in the creation of civilization as it has been in the
definition of poverty.



So if indeed we have become passive consumers, what historical events had to take place to
precipitate such a change? This i
s obviously a complex question which can only be answered in a
partial and abbreviated manner here, yet the answer is central to the latter part of this essay. While it
would be unfair to characterize consumer culture in purely negative terms since it has

increased
prosperity, democratized consumption, and propelled the notion of innovation across a wide spectrum
of domains (including health care, education, transportation, life expectancy, etc.), the downside has
been environmental degradation, social dep
rivation, and consumption for consumption's sake. The
symbolic aspect of the crafted object has largely been replaced by the status the mass produced



1

Bergson, Henri
Creative Evolution
. New York: H. Holt p. 139

2

The Meaning of Things Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Eugene Rochberg
-
Halton, Cambridge University Press, 1981

3

Ibid,

p. 230

4


The Hand How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture, Frank Wilson, Vintage Books, 1998;
Grasping With The Hand and Mind, Analog and Digital, Otl Aicher, Ernst and Sohn; From Hand to Mouth: The Origins of
Language by Michael
C. Corballis Princeton University Press

5

The Meaning of Things Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Eugene Rochberg
-
Halton, Cambridge University Press, 1981 p. 37

6

The Meaning of Things Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Eugene Rochberg
-
Halton, Cambridge University Press, 198
1 p. 230

object projects and a compulsion to simply possess more. And in a capitalist consumer market where
cost
is continuously driven downwards as adoption of new products and production rise, it is virtually
impossible to understand an object's origins or to have any active role in its creation. Consumption
has been severed from production in a traumatic way disc
onnecting us from the long cultural legacy
that previously connected the two. Consumers are now situated at the end of a long and very
sophisticated production and distribution mechanism that includes manufacturing, advertising,
marketing, distribution, a
nd retail. Such a reality is not only alienating, it is abstract to the point of total
obfuscation. And this mechanism is now embedded in the cultures of every industrialized nation
supplying countless jobs and generating enormous amounts of revenue whic
h in turn feed back into
the consumption model thus making change difficult without large scale adjustments. In summary we
have created an artificial ecology around the abstract production and consumption of goods all the
while cutting the user out of th
e information equation. In order to better understand possibilities for
change, we need to first understand how this situation came to be. While I cannot go into the larger
history of manufacturing from small batch production to large scale global producti
on, I believe it is
useful to look at some key milestones in terms of our relationship to the object and its loss of symbolic
importance. A very good place to start is with the one hundred year anniversary of the founding of the
Deutsche Werkbund in 1907.

It was during this period amidst the same theoretical arguments that the
logic of the Bauhaus was determined
-

a model which has impacted virtually every design curriculum
around the world. And while design culture was less influential on the world of manu
facturing last
century, it has now become a strategic component of consumer capitalism and therefore critical to the
success of any type of reform moving forward. I want to first look specifically at the complex
arguments of design reformers at the end of

the 19
th

century as they grappled with the impact of
industrialization on handcraft and what that meant for the larger culture. Specifically I want to look at
the many ways in which objects projected symbolic meaning even in the era leading up to full sc
ale
mechanization.


One might reasonably ask why Germany as opposed to England? The answer is simple: England had
what could be considered an organic growth in terms of industrialization
-

while it may have been fast
by other standards it was homegrown as
opposed to borrowed. Marx wrote The Communist
Manifesto (in German) outlining the disruptive forces of capitalism while living in England just prior to
the Great Exhibition of 1851 which initiated the phenomenon of the World's fairs
-

a precursor to large
-
scale global trade markets. Additionally many Germans visited or lived in England in the latter part of
the 19
th

century to study industrialization for the sole purpose of bringing those lessons back to
Germany during the period characterized as the Gruen
derzeit or founding epoch. So in Germany one
can see a situation of accelerated adoption, based in part on the building of a railroad infrastructure
and piggybacking on many of the innovations the British had created. In some ways we could
compare the dev
elopments in Germany to the situation in China today. In particular I would like to
focus on two significant changes: the substitution of
exchange value for functional and symbolic value
and fashion as a model of production and consumption. Before looking

at these however it is
important to first understand some of the critical cultural implications of industrialization.



The complex nature of ornament

Central to the cultural disruptions of capitalism was the abstraction of production
-

most critically th
e
substitution of large scale machinery to replace what had previously been hand made by skilled
craftspeople. In
Margaret Olin's essay
Self
-
Representation: Resemblance and Convention in Two
Nineteenth
-
Century Theories of Architecture and the Decorative A
rts,

the author's examination of
past theories reveals just how complex the negotiations were in this period to supply meaning to
architecture and the decorative arts beyond the obvious act of making. One key concept, structural
symbolism, which owes a deb
t to the English Arts and Crafts movement, struggled to ameliorate the ill
effects of industrialization by imbuing the artifact and its creation with greater meaning by connecting it
back to older examples of historical handicraft. The English Arts and Cra
fts movement had indeed
returned the worker to the center of production while the objects produced often referenced ancient
examples for inspiration. Owen Jones' source book The Grammar of Ornament (1856) was one such
example.

The Austrian historian Aloi
s Riegl, whose work
Stilfragen

elaborated a theory of ornament
far beyond mere decoration, recognized in the decorative arts a communication system spanning
centuries and representing a kind of communal will to create (kunstwollen) which drove ornament ove
r
time to evolve into an idealized and highly effective style impacted neither by mimicry of nature nor by
technology.


To simplify or banish ornamentation because it was no longer feasible in industrially produced artifacts
and architecture was unthinkab
le for many at that time. Ornamentation was a central part of the
surface of any object or building and as such conveyed a symbolic power and connection back in time.
Self imitation (representation) was a possible way forward connecting directly to the Ro
mantic idea of
self expression while maintaining a critical link to the positive idea of style. Style was directly
connected to ornamentation in as much as it embodied the given time period through highly
conventionalized forms.

Style in this sense was n
ot an empty signifier of newness but a real
communal cultural achievement. Gottfried Semper, a German expatriot architect, historian and writer
living in England for a period of seven years coinciding with the Great Exhibition of 1851, witnessed
first han
d the degradation of industrialized production which impacted his own thinking about the
relationship between handcraft and culture. His ideas were inspired by the Romantic philosopher
Frederich Schelling who wrote that: “t
o aspire to art, architecture mu
st become the 'free imitation of
itself'
7
.

So for artifacts and architecture, function was called on to speak for itself or, as Olin points
out, self represent: a chair had to communicate 'chairness' just as a building had to communicate
'buildingness'.

This might be conveyed directly through materials, structure, or techniques of
construction.


The symbolic prototype

Many individuals involved with the Werkbund, including the sociologist Georg Simmel attemped to
connected style in the decorative arts
to contemporary mass production through type:


The rigor of
Style is paring away of the particular, and the result is a form of reference beyond the individual with
qualities shared by all examples of a species of objects.”
8

. In this way 'type' was the
essence of
industrialized form and directly connected with the earlier usage of the word 'style' in relation to
handcrafted objects. Just as ornamentation aspired to an 'ideal' type, so too now should mass
production. Because need, as experienced by large
numbers of people, was best realized through
mass production, the final prototype or model when perfected to its ultimate functional form was a
suitable substitute for the communal style represented previously through ornamentation
-

or so the
thinking wen
t: “this is the symbol that these things have their law outside of themselves, that each one
is only the random example of a universal; in short, that the meaning of its form in Style, not
individuality.”
9

The individuality of the handcrafted artifact was

now substituted for the mass produced
idealized form or type.


Such an idea may seem simplistic but recall that functionality was not always the primary motivator of
form. The craft object had the sign of the maker embedded in it through the actual hand p
roduction
whereas a machine could not possibly communicate uniqueness in its production. So the form itself
had to abstractly communicate what the hand had previously done if it was to have significance
beyond its material presence. Like painting when con
fronted with photography, the medium needed to
change to differentiate itself. Painting no longer needed to 'represent' reality when the new
photograph could do it so much better. Design in the age of mechanical reproduction no longer
needed to represent
the hand process
-

but it did need to represent something to have meaning
-




7


Self
-
Representation: Resemblance and Convention in Two
Nineteenth
-
Century Theories of Architecture and the Decorative Arts,

, 49 Bd., H. 3. (1986),
pp. 377

8


The Werkbund Design Theory and Mass Culture before th
e First World War by Frederic J. Schwartz , Yale
University Press, 1996

9

ibid

namely typicality of form.



Mitchell Schwartzer writes in
The Design Prototype as Artistic Boundary: The Debate on History
and Industry in Central European Applied Arts Museums, 186
0
-
1900

that cultural critics and
theorists believed that the creation of historical prototypes (ideal objects) should be housed in
decorative arts museums to serve as examples and inspiration to the many fine artists who were put in
charge of design and p
roduction of new products for industry. Such prototypes could help bridge
handcraft and industrialization. The past, in this way, would be respected while also serving as a
springboard for the newly industrialized production. This debate went on for deca
des before ultimately
failing for a number of reasons including the quality afforded by industrialization and the industrialists'
interest in capacity over fidelity. Perhaps most importantly out of this same struggle came the notion
that industrializatio
n required its own logic: that an object's form should be the result of technology
rather than history. Adolph Loos in Vienna was calling for the elimination of ornamentation altogether
while Greenough's idea, given international currency by architect Lou
is Sulivan, espoused that 'form
ever follows function.' In Loos' modern call for reform, he directly connected ornamentation to a much
shallower idea of dead and inappropriate styles and feared that such ornamentation would actually
date an object thereby
contributing to its cultural obsolescence. Ornamentation also made production
less efficient. According to Schwartzer it was Julius
Lessing,

director of the Berlin Museum of
Applied Art,

whose thinking about modern production and the futility of transfe
rring the handicrafts
directly into mass production that foreshadowed the Werkbund's ideas of type or
Typisierung
.




Type is not to be confused however with interchangeable parts which had become standardized in a
variety of manufacturing sectors includi
ng weaponry (for practical and strategic reasons) as well as
clocks and other mechanical objects.

Type was a far more complex concept that involved perfecting a
form based on functionality, manufacturability, and aesthetics. Type in this sense rose to a
symbolic
level of refinement and perfection attempting to replace what was previously held by ornament in
Europe. This was not however the case in the U.S. as John Heskett points out in his book Industrial
Design. In the U.S. crafts guilds were not as wel
l established and a large influx of unskilled immigrants
made the “American System” of manufacturing thrive
10
. The relatively young industrial culture of the
U.S. was a perfect breeding ground for a large scale de
-
humanized industrial culture. It was here

that
both Taylorism and Fordism could flourish as capitalism imposed a totalizing logic over production with
little recourse for the worker until the battles of unionization exploded. As individual national markets
continued to develop their own logic of

production competition forced each nation to consider ways of
improving and speeding up production to lower costs. The site of production while still localized
nationally was now competing with the shadow of innovation from around the world. Internationa
l
trade fairs were the site of scrutiny of both foreign goods and curiousity of formal production models.


Fashion

Type, even in Europe, was not to be the savior of mass produced goods. Frederich Schwartz's book
The Werkbund Design Theory and Mass Culture

Before the First World War

points out that
exchange value was beginning to trump functional or symbolic value and that fashion as a model of
production and consumption was quickly becoming the norm. Schwartz quotes Alexander Schwab's
observation of 1915
, only eight years after the Werkbund's founding, that their production of furniture
was no longer being produced according to use criteria but instead according to its exchange value.
Manufacturers were increasingly viewing production in terms of capital

investment rather than need
which, when addressed at all, was merely a by
-
product of the bigger process
11
. Werner Sombart
writing in
Der moderne Kapitalismus

points out that price or quality could have provided a
competitive edge but difference quickly
became the decisive factor
-

anything to make a product stand
out from competitors. The model increasingly employed was that of fashion which also linked directly



10


Industrial Design, John Heskett Thames & Hudson, 1985 p. 52

11


The Werkbund Design Theory and Mass Culture before the First World War by Frederic J. Schwartz , Yale
Univers
ity Press, 1996 , p. 33

to ideas of modernity: ”Then there is the notion that the inclination to buy is increased when

new items
display small variations compared with earlier ones: an item is replaced (by the buyer) not because it
is in any way worn out, but because it is no longer “modern.”
12

Ulrich Lehmann, the author of
Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity, points out t
hat mode (fashion) and modernity are etymologically
linked as well as conceptually linked
13
. Fashion in fact became a vehicle or attitude for distancing
oneself from a classical past. The artist and the designer wishing to create a new modern culture
reli
ed heavily on the ephemeral nature of change as a key signifier of the times. Conspicuous
consumption was being birthed.



Style, as manifested in fashion, was now firmly disconnected from the older notion of style which the
applied arts museums and the

Arts and Crafts had worked so hard to preserve; it was in fact its polar
opposite
-

the 'here and now,' or what Walter Benjamin referred to as 'jetzzeit'. And fashion, as
Schwartz points out, was a very complex mechanism studied and analyzed by sociologi
sts,
economists, and design theorists alike. According to the economist Walter Troeltsch, fashion had the
effect of conditioning consumers and redefining needs to serve the new organization of production
rather than the actual needs of the users. “Fashio
n undermines the habit of moderate consumption
based on individual need; it stimulates the passion for constant change even when this is not
objectively necessary; it directs demand toward objects whose often dubious merit consists in being
modern; it sedu
ces and trains people to apply an entirely new standard to commodities.”
14



Whereas style, in Riegl's account, was a slow but intentional, almost mystical accumulation produced
by a group effort, fashion was transitory, fleeting, and far more individual
istic. Ironically fashion
assisted the modern urban dweller in disconnecting from the classical past while engaging in a
modern pastiche of the past through quotation. Walter Benjamin used the term Tigersprung to
describe the curious ability to 'jump back

in time to mine the past'
15

So the earlier theoretical battles
for meaning through self
-
representation had been largely trumped by capitalism's need to push the
commodities it was now over producing. Self representation through functionality, type, or a
ny deeper
connection to the object or artifact in modern design was now competing against the capitalist
mechanism of fashion and cycles of ever faster change.


A bigger picture, a longer view, a fuller landscape

Industrialization and its resulting forms
cannot be considered without looking at the larger sociopolitical
context and, in particular, the relationship between technology and the military. Historian of technology
Lewis Mumford in his book Technics and Civilization
16

points out that large scale min
ing and militarism
were directly linked to industrialization. The scale and coordination required in extracting large
amounts of ore are mirrored in running large armies
-

from the production of large quantities of
uniforms to the manufacture of armaments.
This situation finds its modern apotheosis in what came to
be known as the military industrial complex with the start of the cold war. Large scale mining and
material extraction in general suggest a materialist mentality with little regard for the healt
h of
biological systems or the resulting devastation to the immediate environment and its effects on its
inhabitants. Natural resources, what Daly, Hawkins, and Lovins call natural capital, in the capitalist
mode of production is a fixed asset and its ex
traction has no immediate negative impact
-

natural
resources from wood to petroleum
-
based plastics are merely calculated into the equation without
recompense to any environmentally associated costs either positive or negative. As Paul Hawken
describes it
: “
Industries destroy natural capital because they have historically benefited from doing so.
As businesses successfully created more goods and jobs, consumer demand soared, compounding
the destruction of natural capital.”

Gray Brechin in his book Imperia
l San Francisco: Urban Power,



12


Ibid p. 103

13


Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity, Ulrich Lehmann MIT Press, 2002

14


The Werkbund Design Theory and Mass Culture before the First World War p. 102

15


Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity,

16

Technics and Civilization,
Harcourt 1963

Earthly Ruin
17

. expands upon Mumford's ideas broadening the underlying power structure into that of
a pyramid consisting of mechanization, militarism, metallurgy, and money
-
making at the four ordinal
points and mining at the
very apex. He writes that all modern urban development from ancient Rome
to modern day San Francisco has been at the expense of miners and a devastated landscape.
Progress has only recently been calculated in terms of environmental impact which changes t
he entire
equation of production. Objects while losing their symbolic meaning must now also be viewed in
terms of potentially detrimental environmental outcomes.


The symbolic transformation of the tool

Perhaps the easiest way of summarizing the changes
that have taken place is to look at the
transformation of the tool itself over the past century. The very thing that started civilization as we
know it has been so dramatically transformed in the space of a century as to be unrecognizable. The
tool and t
he skill required to manipulate it formerly defined hand craft connecting process and outcome
in a very direct way. Whether Karl Marx correctly numbered the variety of specialized hammer handles
in a typical Birmingham shop as 500 or 350 matters not, the
average worker was intimately attached
to his labor through the medium of the tool. By the middle of the twentieth century, however, the tool
had moved out of the worker's hand to be transformed into a capitalized machine accompanied by a
highly engineered

piece of tool
-
steel in the form of a multi
-
cavity mold with a value amortized over the
number of parts it could produced before failing. When such a tool successfully produced hundreds of
thousands (or better millions) of parts, the resulting object's va
lue decreases to a couple of cents, or
less, in American currency. Such a tool can pay for itself over time which becomes its sole justification
for existing
-

production is irrevocably tied economically to consumption. In the space of less than one
hundre
d years the tool had become an abstraction not manipulated by a human hand rather viewed as
a capitalized asset. The resulting artifact while democratic in nature (in terms of cost) had lost both its
aura and any sense of palpable value, and the worker's r
ole was increasingly one of assembling
rather than fabricating. This piece of injection molded plastic could not be repaired but only replaced
and rarely gained character through age but instead obsolesced along with its notion of newness.
This is not to

suggest that production go back to all natural materials and hand crafted processes. As
the architect William McDonough notes: “Just using natural materials is not the answer
-

if we all wear
Birkenstocks and organic cotton the world will run out of cork

and fresh water” A return to the past is
impossible but a transformation of the present is imperative and this requires re
-
symbolizing the
artifact both in its presence (self representing) and in its production process: a process now informed
by the lar
ger context of environmentalism.


The symbolic language of 'Away' and 'From'

The direct trade
-
off between increased material extraction for consumer goods and the resulting
environmental impact must be weighed as never before. Passive consumption has slow
ly eroded our
knowledge and respect of the materials required to create consumer products and the larger
environmental costs associated with their production and ultimate demise. Paul Hawken re
-
frames the
importance of materials as providing 'services' th
at keep us healthy: “A
lthough we usually think of
renewable resources in terms of desired materials, such as wood, their most important value lies in
the services they provide. These services are related to, but distinct from, the resources themselves.
The
y are not pulpwood but forest cover, not food but topsoil. Living systems feed us, protect us, heal
us, clean the nest, let us breathe. They are the "income" derived from a healthy environment: clean air
and water, climate stabilization, rainfall, ocean pr
oductivity, fertile soil, watersheds, and the less
appreciated functions of the environment, such as processing waste


both natural and industrial.”
18

Such an approach values the materials we turn into products as cleaning machines instead. Learning
to re
think our natural resources as commodities for powerful change is antithetical to capitalist
production. We must rethink the use of materials in our products so that their functional value
communicates their real net value as opposed to their timely fashio
nable value as signifiers of the



17

Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, by (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999)

18

Natural Capital, Paul Hawken Mother Jones April May 1997 issue, p. 3

'now.' While consumption cannot possibly disappear it must be viewed in the larger and more
inclusive context of natural capital.


Two critical aspects of that natural capital are the notions of 'from and away'


material
s and resources
travel from somewhere and must eventually be sent away after their useful life has ended for
upcycling or recycling. William

McDonough often speaks about the concept of 'away' pointing out that
“away has gone away itself.”
19

There is no un
iversal magic place called 'away' where old goods await
another useful life. Rather there are acres of landfill in every municipality around the planet, or worse
yet in streets and backyards. As McDonough and Braungart have pointed out, these material stre
ams
must be thought of as technical or biological nutrients in a closed loop rather than more potential trash
in the form of fashionable products that obsolesce either through trending or mechanical failure.
C
apitalist production has, by consequence of i
ts scale, forced production away from the site of its
consumption requiring the commercial infrastructure of distribution and retail to reconnect the end
-
user
to its over
-
sized capacity. In its wake nothing has been left untouched by commercialization in
cluding
most media and news which in the industrialized world is sponsored by the producers of consumer
goods and services. The resulting culture (in the form of advertising) takes on its own dynamics and
logic often as beautiful entertainment disconnecte
d from any larger environmental realities.

One such example will suffice. IKEA's ad campaign from 2003 for The Unbӧring Manifesto (complete
with the ersatz German umlaut to give it either credence or campiness) espoused a lifestyle that
encouraged wanton

consumption through continual updating
-

as if our products were an operating
system or computer software program. In the televised ad campaign, older household accessories
were put out on the side of the road like files dragged to some virtual trashbin on

a desktop with the
expectation that they would magically vanish with the click of a mouse. The campaign created by the
American ad agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky and the accompanying website have all but vanished
from the internet
-

save the original b
athetic commercial which many feel is a classic piece of
advertising shot by the Hollywood director Spike Jonze . Clearly the larger meaning has not crossed
the minds of those posting this video clip on youtube.
20


The reciprocal reality of 'away' is 'from
' which is something we must add back in to the equation of a
product's form. Just as we assume that trash conveniently goes away we also conveniently
understand that resources come the moment we turn on a light, open a spigot, or pick up a phone, etc.
T
he most beguiling interface of modernity comes in the form of outlets, switches, knobs, and any other
kind of button. Merely by turning something on we instigate an energy flow that rarely takes the
consumer's mind outside of the comfort and convenience o
f their own home. We do not see the
power plant, the water treatment plant, the gas supply line, let alone the petroleum pumps and
refining stations scattered about the planet
-

they are all conveniently hidden away. That is the nature
of the interface a
nd, ironically, one of the original motivators of design in its first golden age in the
1930s. The industrial designer not only hid the motor in a beautiful shroud but created an interface for
the end
-
user to more easily access the power of the product.
Gone were the hand cranks, the pedals,
and anything else requiring real energy and in its place came the light switch, the water faucet, the gas
valve, etc. Only a century ago indoor light seemed like a miracle and in
-
door plumbing and hot water
a royal l
uxury. Now it is standard fare and no one thinks twice about where it comes from or where its
by
-
products go. The future of any product's form will intimately link functional, environmental, material
and energy issues directly to its shape, longevity an
d its ultimate potential for renewal. Material and
process need to be returned to a level of symbolic self
-
representation. But how is this to be done?
That is the question and it is an extremely complex one.


Consumption and culture




19


Stanford Graduate School of Business online newsletter. Desig
n Buildings to Make Oxygen, Not Consume It,
February, 2003 by Lisa Eunson
http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/headlines/2003_vongugelberg.shtml


20

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TsQXQGaasUg


Culture is of course
a consumable. We consume it in the form of books, music, film, newspapers and
so on. One quick look back into a Viennese cafe roughly around the time of the Deutsches Werkbund
should help to show the complex connection between consumption and culture. I w
ill use the example
of the tree as a resource as well as a natural capital asset. Today it is estimated that the production
run for three editions of the average Sunday New York Times requires 270,000 trees (or the
equivalent of all the trees in Centra
l Park)
21

while 1 ton of paper (forty cases) requires the equivalent
of 24 trees (forty feet in height and 6
-
8 inches in diameter) 7,000 gallons of water, 4,100 kw hours of
electricity, and in turn produces 60 pounds of air pollution
22
. If we only used the
logic of Paul Hawken
to assess the real cultural value the newspaper promoted we would have missed a lot since the
newspaper has kept democracy together through a free press, has transmitted news about scientific
discoveries, and has been a constant dissem
inator of information vital to any culture. The story
however does not end there. The cafes of Vienna during the Fin de Siecle were vital meeting places
for a thriving intellectual community of thinkers and reformers. The popularity of the cafe came
indir
ectly as a result of the coffee bean in the late 1600's. The resulting cultural outcome was a cafe
culture (kaffekultur) and the resulting coffee houses to accommodate it. Such a phenomenon required
chairs those individuals frequenting these establishmen
ts. Gebruder Thonet fulfilled that need thus
launching a revolution in low cost mass produced furniture. The model number 14 also known as the
Kaffeehausstuhl became extremely popular
-

it is estimated that 20
-
30 million were manufactured by
the middle of
the 20
th

century. At the height of Vienna's coffee culture the average cafe also supplied
its clientelle upwards of 250 newspapers on a daily basis. Thonet became so successful that they
needed to expand production into Moravian forests just to supply th
e wood required to make their
products. A tree along with a bean had helped transform a culture into one of the most significant
intellectual hot spots in the world. The chair became the standard by which most modern chair were
judged. It was specified

by Le Corbusier and many other modernists designers while while inspiring
similarly efficient designs by Mart Stam, Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, Eileen Gray, LeCorbusier
and others. It is hard to unwrap such a spontaneous set of historical influence
s and imagine how it
might happen differently. Culture is created through a very interesting set of circumstances which are
often times out of anyone's control. Still the downside is that while the newspapers supplied
international news, intellectual sti
mulation, cultural reporting, etc. and the chair provided support,
together they deprived the Viennese citizens of all the positive effects that any tree has always
supplied environmentally. Fast forward to William McDonough's TED talks lecture and he has

this to
say about trees: “Imagine this design assignment: design something that makes oxygen, sequesters
carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills waters, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food,
creates microclimates, changes colors with the
seasons, and self replicates. Why don't we knock that
down and write on it.”
23

Which we did. We knocked it down, sat on it, wrote on it, and created a lot of
culture out of it but that was then and this is now. So where to next? We need to reconnect th
e older
idea of symbolic representation in an entirely new way: we as designers need to work with
manufacturers to produce products that self
-
represent their greenness, their efficiency, their
relationship to the larger planet and their longevity. Green m
ust become the new and never ending
fashion as exemplified in lightness, renewable materials, high efficiency in production, and be long
lasting. All our products must begin to express the new symbolism of efficiency and lightness.


Consumption's heavy sh
adow

As John Thackara, in his new book In the Bubble: Designing for a Complex World says: "We're filling
up the world with technology and devices, but we've lost sight of an important question: What is this
stuff for? What value does it add to our lives?
"
24

Thackara, like so many other design pundits, rails
against the current consumptive mode arguing that technology has evolved into a self perpetuating
system delivering ever more new products when, in fact, we seem not to need the majority of them.



21

http://thepaperplanet.blogspot.com/search/label/Recycled%20Paper


22

http://www.recycledproducts.org/join.html


23

http://www.ted.com/index.php/speakers/view/id/100


24

John Thackara, In The Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, MIT Pr
ess, 2006

Not on
ly do we not need many of the new products, the additional choices they create cause stress
according to the author
Barry Schwartz who points out the irony that greater choice can have exactly
the opposite effect: instead of empowering us it creates a cons
tant state of dissatisfaction. We spend
a lot of psychic energy wondering if the many other choices would have made our lives better. A few
examples of the profoundity of the situation from a TED talks
25

lecture using Schwartz's local retailers.
He counte
d 175 different salad dressings in his local grocery store. In another shop he calculated that
the variety of audio components on sale could be configured into 6.5 million different stereo systems.
While it may take a social scientist to pick up on such a
phenomenon, it proves that the redundancy
built into consumer capitalism can in fact paralyze people
26
.




Current consumption practices are also unsustainably heavy as Thackara points out
-

devoting an
entire chapter in the book to the topic of lightness.

A couple of his examples should suffice here:
"It
takes 1.7 kg of material to make a 32 MB RAM microchip, that is, 630 times the mass of the final
product. The amount of waste matter in the manufacture of a single laptop computer is close to four
thousan
d times its weight.”
27

And most startling is the statistic that the average North American
caused roughly a million pounds of matter and the energy to be wasted in producing products in one
form or another which he equates to 10,000 bags of cement. This gr
owing concern with energy
consumption and inefficiency is echoed by critics, theorists, and scientists alike. The eco
-
entrepreneur Paul Hawken uses common products to prove the same point: “...

cars are barely 1
percent efficient in the sense that, for e
very 100 gallons of gasoline, only one gallon actually moves
the passengers. Likewise, only 8 to 10 percent of the energy used in heating the filament of an
incandescent lightbulb actually becomes visible light. (Some describe it as a space heater disguise
d
as a lightbulb.)”
28

This situation is however not relstricted to the energy in transportating or producing
light but in fact rampant through the entire chain of production. Citing figures from the industrial
metabolism expert Robert Ayres, Hawken point
s out that roughly “...94 percent of the materials
extracted for use in manufacturing durable products become waste before the product is even
manufactured”
29
. More waste is generated in production which is then lost if the product is not reused
or recycled
. Overall, America's material and energy efficiency is no more than 1 or 2 percent. In other
words, American industry uses as much as 100 times more material and energy than theoretically
required to deliver consumer services.
Thackara calls for a radical

move away from the physical
artifacts perspective to a services perspective or what he calls 'use, not own'. For many industrial
designers this may sound like the end of their livelihoods but, according to Thackara, it merely shifts
the designer's emphas
is from designing products to planning the complex impact a product, service,
or system will have on the environment.


The new symbolism of efficiency and lightness

Efficiency and lightness then are two of the new symbolic aspects of industrial design. A
s the author
A.N. Beukers points out in his book Lightness: “Slowly but inevitably we are becoming aware of the
fact that the price we pay for energy is unjustifiably low and part of the slash and burn culture that has
become too familiar to be noticed. In

the near future lightness will, however, once again turn into an
accepted starting point for the way we construct things
30
. “ Every single functional object that we make
evolves from a process that turns material in to a functional shape, the inevitable tr
inity of technology.
There is no shape without material and effort.”
31

The trade
-
off Beukers describes between material
and form is not simple; for example while aluminum may not be the lowest density material for an
airplane it is the one that can be be
st shaped into an airplane. So designers need to think about
material and energy usage right from the beginning. Beukers, McDonough, and other eco designers



25

http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/93


26

Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, HarperCollins Publishers, 2005

27

John Thackara, In The Bubble: Designing in
a Complex World

28

Natural Capital, Paul Hawken Mother Jones April May 1997 issue, p. 9

29

Natural Capital, Paul Hawken Mother Jones April May 1997 issue, p. 9

30

Lightness, A.N. Beukers, 010, Rotterdam p. 11

31

Lightness p. 23

are increasingly interested in the transfer of natural systems knowledge variously called bionics,

biomimetics or biognosis into what he calls a portfolio of paradigms. Beukers points out that: “In
nature, shape is cheaper than material” while in our existing paradigm shape is most strongly
associated to functionality and fashion as opposed to efficien
cy and cost. Shape is what sells itself to
the eye rather than the conscientious mind.


Designing information into form or (in)forming product

Whereas the hand in partnership with the head defined the craftsperson's approach (the body
-
memory
of any good cr
aftsperson often works intuitively) the new symbolic designers must use their heads in
direct partnership with their hands. A newly informed and more inclusive process must lead the
designer to apply his/her hand to create only after the options or opport
unities are fully understood.
The product can no longer simply be designed on paper, in a computer or mocked
-
up in foam to
validate shape, ergonomics and manufacturability but must be prototyped and tested for strength,
lightness and durability. The head w
ill also lead the hand in visualizing the immaterial in the form of
energy used to create a product and the environmental trade
-
offs it creates. A wealth of information
from product specifications and usage to repair and maintenance will need to accompany

any product.
Designers must strive to create products that can be maintained and upcycled or reconfigured for
other uses. The process must now become a more nuanced one of projecting deep into the future life
of a product to make it a symbol of environme
ntal stewardship through efficient and appropriate use
of materials. The products must have accompanying information about their origins and the energy
required to produce them
-

on appropriately well designed and informationally rich web sites. And
where
ver possible the product needs to piggyback off of other systems or services like the current line
of e
-
ink readers which allow whole books and newspapers to be read from a low energy product
utilizing smart technology. Additionally designers need to deve
lop more participatory products
requiring greater involvement beyond mere ownership in the product (do
-
it
-
yourself connections).
Products that can truly grow with the end user through creative modification.


Until we are able to design the truly light l
ow cost chair that lasts as long as a well made wooden one,
acquires a patina over time and supports our increasingly nomadic life while reading the news from
our human powered or solar
-
powered updatable and repairable laptops we can at least comfort
ourse
lves in the knowledge that the symbolic is making a slow but steady comeback.