I am in the early stages of fully reёvaluating and re-purposing my blog in the face of a fundamental shift in values underlying my studio practice.  What follows is the first of many posts focusing on what it means to me to be a designer/ maker in the early 21st century – a time when a recognition of the Earth’s limits necessitates redefining how we work, how we engage with each other, and how we preserve the planet’s finite resources (and honor its complex systems).

A point of beginning.  I am a one-person show, manufacturing on a micro scale.  Arguably, my scale of production has negligible environmental impact, as compared with industrial textile and apparel manufacturing.  However, as I do produce textiles and apparel, I participate in some aspects of that supply chain, and feel it necessary to look more closely at my own studio activities and choices.  Why now?  Why didn’t I just start out with sustainability in mind?  I will address that at length in some future post, but the short answer would be that for many years, I was held sway by the “psychology of prior investment;” i.e., that it is difficult to break away from something to which one has invested copious amounts of time, money and energy.  Alas, things are getting spooky on Planet Earth and I think it’s time for a thorough examination of my life, including my creative practice and output.  My ultimate hope, I suppose, is that through this process, I might join a positive and constructive sea-change in response to the likely environmental (as well as social and economic) crises ahead (in the event we are unlikely to avert them).  Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but better to start somewhere than to continue living with my head in the sand.  If not now, when?

Laying the groundwork.  I had been trying to write about this inner shift as it relates to my studio practice and work-product for a while.  With so many possible entry points though, I felt overwhelmed and muddled.  In turn, every attempt I made to put any of it into words was incoherent and disjointed.  Then, I recently ran across this Design Museum “Design Ventura Toolkit” short (http://www.vimeo.com/170177851 ) which offered the perfect starting point.  While the questions posed in this video (and listed below) are specifically concerned with evaluating sustainability in product design and development, I instantly recognized them as an ideal framework for my task, so I decided to adopt them as a working outline and a foundation for future inquiry.  My appreciation goes out to the creators of the film.

Here’s the list:

  • Overarching/Environmental Sustainability: Will my product harm the environment?
  • Overarching/Ethical Sustainability: Will my product be designed in a fair way?
  • Will my product disadvantage or hurt any people?
  • Can I source materials that are recycled or repurposed?
  • Can I use natural materials rather than highly processed ones?
  • Are my materials from an ethical or renewable source?
  • Is my product going to stand the test of time?
  • Is it built to last?
  • Can it be reused, repaired or recycled when it comes to the end of its life?
  • Can my product modify the way a user behaves? i.e.:
  • Can it help them carry out an activity or live in a more sustainable way?
  • What kind of waste does my manufacturing process generate and how can I reduce this?
  • If I am making my product from a sheet material, for example, have I used a cutting method that will minimize left over material?
  • Have I considered the cost of labor in my budget?
  • Is the person making the product being paid fairly?
  • Is my packaging environmentally friendly?
  • How much packaging do I need?
  • Can I keep packaging to a minimum?
  • How far have the elements of my product traveled to get to the consumer?
  • Once it’s been made my product will have to be transported to the shop. How can I reduce the carbon footprint of my product?
  • Can I make it lighter or flat-pack it so it can be transported more efficiently?

Going Forward:  There are a number of practitioners who have dedicated their resources to addressing these concerns and I am grateful for their continued work and inspiration.  There are also many individuals looking at these interlocking ideas and issues from a variety of perspectives and I will necessarily rely on their research and analysis as I undertake this process.  In addition to my own experience, I will be drawing on the work and practices of craft/artists, craftivists, designers, makers, sustainability experts and commentators in industry, institutions and incubation centers, as well as academicians who are working at the intersection of textile/apparel design/ manufacture and social, economic and environmental sustainability.  Along the way, topics as diverse as technology, labor, economics, craft, fashion, personal expression, spirituality, doing “good” and living truly sustainably in the early 21st century will find their way onto these “pages”.  I hope you will join me!

Visit the Design Museum’s Website: www.designmuseum.org

Some years ago, I was fortunate to be able to spend a couple of weeks in Spain with my aunt and cousin.  It was a typical whirlwind trip but I tried to soak up everything I could about the area, in spite of catching a cold almost immediately upon getting off of the airplane!  One of the highlights for me was the time we spent in Barcelona taking in the work of Catalan master architect Antonio Gaudí, who primarily practiced in Barcelona in the 19th and early 20th centuries – the images shown here are from a visit to glorious Parc Güell.

Though a singular expression, Antonio Gaudí was reflecting a strong desire prevalent among his generation to look to the past for the seeds of a new sensibility which would counteract the fragmentation and alienation of the industrial era.  Gaudí was well aware of the work of contemporaries like the Pre-Raphaelite, John Ruskin, who called for a re-examination of industrial values and inspired the Arts and Crafts movement in England.  Through architecture and design, Gaudí looked for his inspiration and found it in nature.  Like his contemporaries, he embraced NeoGothicism and was strongly influenced by Gothic architecture; however, but he was also a keenly observant student of the nature.  His intuitive grasp of the formal and mechanical essence of the natural world would provide the foundation for innovative architectural solutions reflecting the fluid lines found in nature.  As a practitioner, he also had direct experience laboring with the materials that would become part of his oeuvre and continued to involve local craftsmen in the completion of each architectural project.  His work reflects the successful collaboration of master architect and master craftsmen in all trades.  A relatively lone voice in the architecture of his day, he challenged the hegemony of the simple geometry of square and circle.  Of course, by the time of his death, his vision was to be eclipsed by European modernism as exemplified by the work of Walter Gropius, among others – the complete antithesis of Gaudí’s aesthetic.

I feel a kinship with the Pre-Raphaelites and Gaudí, and definitely walk in that the same stream.  A recognition of the value of work made by hand, particularly one resonating with the pulse of nature, is what links many craft-artisans in the present era. Clearly in the late 19th century, there was a real desire (and need) to elevate hand-crafted work as a forceful counterpoint to the industrial steamroller.  Arguably, this current still runs through the motivation to consciously choose Craft today.  As we now begin to transition beyond the information age, it seems even more imperative that we rediscover our connection with the beauty of nature and the imperfect-perfection of hand-made work – work produced with “skillful means” at all levels.