OMG Design: Can style move us to environmental action?

Most experts say nothing can. Consider all the current hype about products being “green” or “sustainable” design when in fact they don’t look any different than designs that came before them. The truth is this type of “green” or “sustainable” design is often the change of a single ingredient. Manufacturers and marketers feel obligated to create the illusion their products are “socially responsible”, so they follow the lead cultivated by the healthy food industry.  While changing the ingredients may be a good thing, its not design.  By contrast, in the decorative arts, design has always been a visual reflection of the ideals and values of its time. In fact, every style tells a story, except “green design.  This essay describes the attributes of a design that Obviously Manifests Green (OMG). It teaches why they are green, and provides examples that are fun, optimistic, and have common sense utility. They are positive symbols, and can begin to move us to environmental action.

Every year, the PEW research center releases a poll (see graph to right) ranking the issues we must address in terms of importance.  After the economy, terrorism, and a host of other concerns, environmental issues settle to the bottom of the list.  At Columbia University, an interdisciplinary group of business researchers, behavioral psychologists, economists, and anthropologists established CRED, an acronym for “The Center for Research on Environmental Decisions”.  This group convenes to study how we make decisions based on our perceptions of risk and benefit with regard to climate change and the environment.  Their findings indicate that people are unlikely to make lifestyle changes if there is even a perception of loss of benefit, that people will often not accept the most effective technological solution to an environmental challenge, or the solution may meet political opposition.  Mounting evidence indicates that humans are unlikely to act until personal experience moves them to action. For instance, neither the exodus from the island nation of Tuvalu because of the rising sea level nor the plight of the polar bears has moved us to action.

Despite the PEW research, and in spite of CRED findings, people CAN be moved to environmental action.  In fact, the history of design is a record of stories which celebrate a social milestone or a new era brought about by technology.  These stories  reflect shifts in our values, or thinking, or attitudes. They are communicated through what we loosely refer to as style.  Since design in the past has marked how we perceive the man made world, then perhaps a design style or guiding aesthetic sensibility can move us toward a sustainable future. I call this guiding aesthetic sensibility Eco Modernism. 

Eco modernism is about how we use materials and technologies to tell a story about sustainability.  The reality is that there are materials and technologies that are far more sustainable than what we accept as “green design” today. In fact, these materials and technologies are so green that in short order a person can learn which products  Obviously Manifest Green.  Identifying products that are OMG is no more difficult then perceiving the difference between a silver or stainless steel fork.  Eco Modernism is also about realizing the beauty and expressive qualities inherent in OMG. It is about creating OMG designs which can impact our choices.  They can evoke formality, fun, romance, hierarchy, calm, or whatever is intended by the designer. In a material sense, OMGs are what Malcom Gladwell would call outliers.  They transcend the status quo. They challenge the tyranny of tradition.  They embody the balance with nature we seek. They are the future.

Products that are OMG are a combination of OMG materials and OMG technologies:
Materials that are OMG can be natural or man-made.  They require the least amount of energy to generate, they are non-toxic, and are the easiest to recycle or renew.  Natural materials, if sustainably harvested, include forest products, like wood and paper; materials made from agricultural wastes, like barley and wheat boards; fibers like hemp, flax and cotton. Examples of man made materials include simple thermoplastics, primarily numbers 1 through 6 on a plastic recycle chart.

Technologies that are OMG are ones that optimize the use of OMG resources. These technologies have four main advantages.  First, they can reduce the amount of material by using the most effective technologies.  Second, they can substitute a more environmentally friendly material for a conventional one.  Third, conventional materials and construction methods would be OMG if structured to dramatically reduce the use of resources.  Finally OMGs use less energy.  For example, the production of aluminum uses 1/3 MORE energy than steel.  Plastic requires roughly HALF the energy of steel, and wood uses very little.

By now you may be thinking some of these questions: 
o   Are there specific examples of Eco Modernist design that can help me understand how OMGs are used? 
o  Can the use of OMGs really be effective in saving resources?
o  What properties must designs possess to be inherently and obviously sustainable?
o  How can we utilize these properties to benefit business and create desirable products? 

To answer these questions, let us follow several materials from their source and see how they can be transformed by an Eco Modern esthetic. Timber is a resource that is under stress.  A recent article on illegally harvested wood from the Washington Post stated that (and I quote): “In 2006 the USA imported $937 million worth of hardwood plywood from China and $4.2 billion worth of hardwood furniture.  World demand imposes extreme pressure to harvest timber worldwide, and this pressure creates a market for illegally harvested wood.  Illegal logging on public lands annually costs governments in poor countries more than $10 billion annually in lost assets and revenues.  The World Bank estimates that a billion people make their livelihood in forests.  As forests are degraded, and as logging proceeds, soil washes away and communities suffer from flooding, forest fires and loss of game.  Endangered forests are a bulwark against global warming, capturing carbon dioxide that would otherwise contribute to heating the planet.  Natural forests in Indonesia and Burma will be exhausted within a decade.”

According to the American Forest and Paper Association, an estimated 10% of global timber production may be of suspicious origin. If the ecology and the economy of tribal villages in Indonesia and Burma sound remote, you may be thinking: “What does that have to do with me?” Consider the possibility that some of that wood may be in your living room.  

So how do we reduce the stress on world timber resources?  Simple answer: use less wood.

Fortunately, we have the technology to DOUBLE wood furniture output and cut in HALF the amount of timber going into furniture.  All we have to do is change our preconceived notions of how furniture should be designed.  Here’s a solution:  A typical bent-ply chair requires roughly 1/9th the amount of wood that ordinarily goes into a chair made of solid wood. The technology to produce it requires remarkably little energy and resources.  If sustainably harvested, the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere to convert wood into furniture is actually less than the amount of CO2 consumed by the tree from which it came. So by some accounts, use of this technology cultivates a net positive effect on reducing greenhouse gases and timber resources. Since most anyone can tell the difference between ply-bent furniture and solid wood furniture, it clearly is OMG design.  Why don‘t manufacturers all just start making ply-bent furniture?    Unfortunately, furniture employing this technique is not preferred in today’s marketplace.  The market for it is small.

So how come the market for bent-ply furniture is so small compared to that of solid wood?  It‘s because ply-bent furniture occupies a narrow part of the design spectrum.  It is associated with Danish or Mid-Century Modern design because the technology behind ply-bent designs emerged during this time.  Since then there has been a failure to innovate.

We are also bound by the tyranny of tradition, and neither we nor the planet can afford it.  Until the design community recognizes the opportunities that we all have at our disposal, how can we expect our manufacturers to become OMG on their own?  So OMG design is about the power of creative designers making effective choices and educating their customers to the importance of their choice.

My challenge as a designer is to create ply-bent furniture that encompasses a broader part of the design spectrum. When I designed the OperaVerde chair I wanted it to be more formal in appearance than a traditional Mid-Century Modern chair.  The higher backrest adds formality.  Formality is also achieved by the use of a darker wood and the bookmatched face veneers.  On the table, the contrasting woods and the leg shape distance the design from the purely rational, and give it a more decorative bearing. The ply-layers seen on the edges of the top are used in a decorative manner because they complement the striated edges on the table’s legs and the surrounding chairs.

The designs for the Stewardship bench, the wave top EcoEden chair, and the Baobab table take ply-bending outside the realm of Mid-Century Modern design. It is the use of sophisticated computer aided machining, which did not exist in the 1950s, that allows this medium to transcend stylistically. In fact, the styling is unique. They are soft, romantic, and have a flowing organic quality normally associated with Art Nouveau. They conjure a future time when design celebrates the interdependence of nature and man on an emotional level.  An Eco Modernist aesthetic must have an emotional appeal because the people are drawn to designs on an emotional level.  Marketing research finds that people decide to purchase on an emotional level, and then apply logic and rational thinking to back up their decision. Romance in design, contrary to the beliefs of many in the design community, must be an important aspect of sustainable design. 

Eco Modernism requires rethinking both esthetics and engineering to create new structures.  The chair I am standing on weighs only 11 pounds yet it can easily carry my 220 pounds without the use of bracing beneath the seat. The structure of this chair is quite different from conventional chair construction.  Ply-bent construction and novel engineering allow designs to be dematerialized while maintaining strength.  Another example is the Atmos rocker. It weighs 22 pounds and is the size of many lounge chairs that weigh 70 lbs. The seat and back webbing tap into post-industrial waste streams of seat belt material.  This rocker demonstrates that it is possible to re-purpose materials without sacrificing comfort, function, beauty and style. 

For over a decade now I have been experimenting with hollow core (HC) plastic sheet panels.  The potential to vastly reduce our dependence on forest products by making cabinets and furniture with these panels is profound.  They are attractive, they do not require finishing (VOCs), and they can be used in place of MDF or plywood panels at a fraction of their mass.  They also eliminate the use of problematic binding resins.  Finally, their use in products would be obvious. (OMG) 

The infrastructure to recycle these panels is already in place, primarily #2 & #5 on a recycle chart.  Many automobile companies are publicizing their commitment to the environment in advertisements that boast a zero waste closed resource loop in their manufacturing process. This closed loop is possible in large part due to the use of these HC plastic panels.  For example, if a plant in Indiana is making fenders and shipping them to Michigan, HC plastic panels are used to make packaging that cradles and protects the fenders from damage.  When the fenders arrive in Michigan, they are off-loaded onto the assembly line. The packaging is then quickly knocked down flat, consolidated, and returned to the plant in Indiana to be reused again and again.  When that particular fender is no longer needed, the plastic packaging is shredded, and re-extruded back into HC panels.  The panels are fabricated back into packaging for the next model year, and cycle begins again. This is a text book example of a closed loop system.

My experimentation with using HC panels for furniture have lead me to invent and patent a machine that attractively closes off the open edges of these HC plastic panels. Since then I have been making furniture prototypes to demonstrate the viability of using this material for cabinets, chairs and lamps.

The Nue seating group is my first attempt to commercialize the use of HC plastic panels for consumer use.  This design goes to the heart of sustainable design and the spirit of Eco Modernism. Its esthetic is clean and versatile.  It combines OMGs in a way that is honest, novel and fun.  Close consideration was given to the design‘s low carbon footprint, how it optimizes resources, and how it can be disassembled for recycling.

This chair is also a direct challenge to the findings of CRED. (Center for Research on Environmental Decisions)  The Nue side chair at 9.2 pounds is dematerialized yet passes the BIFMA proof drop test.  However, some people question its durability because most chairs are twice this weight and the HC panels are so dematerialized.  Now consider this: a bicycle frame that also weighs 10 pounds is admired for its engineering and a 200 pound person feels safe riding it down a hill at 30 mph.  Since the bicycle frame endures 100 times more stress as the chair over its lifetime, this comparison begs us to reconsider our pre-conceived notions about weight and durability.  Fortunately, the demands we face as furniture designers are far simpler and more forgiving than bicycles.

CRED finds that people are unlikely to make changes if there is even a perception of loss of benefit.  On the other hand, the chair is pretty hip and competitively priced.  Will this design be accepted in the marketplace? 

A stunning example of sustainability in terms of beauty and function can be seen in this kitchen.  The dematerialized translucent panels have an ethereal quality, and when lit from within the boundaries between cabinet and room appear blurred. This ethereal quality becomes magical at close inspection because the doors are not physically fastened to the cabinets.  In fact, there is not any hardware of any kind, they just hang in space at the front of the cabinets.  I invented and patented on what I call a virtual hinge. Instead of using a physical pin to pivot around, these doors pivot via intersecting magnetic fields.  They perform exactly as a hinge does. If given a firm tug a door can be removed for cleaning or flipped to hinge from the opposite stile. Since there is no hardware the door can be removed entirely to display what is inside the cabinet. To re-hang the door it simply needs be moved near the stile and the magnetic fields snap it back into place. The doors hang precisely.

The environmental performance of this cabinet construction is far superior to conventional cabinets.  Even the most sustainably engineered conventional cabinets rate poorly in comparison. Here‘s why:  The kitchen shown is 30% of the mass of a conventional kitchen.  It uses 20% of the wood.  There is zero composite wood material and the only plywood is the drawer sides. All the plastic panels can be easily removed without removing the cabinets.  If at some point it becomes desirable to change the look of the kitchen, new panels can be ordered.  After installing new panels, the old panels are then placed in the same packaging and returned for recycling.  Since the cabinets do not use nails or glue or screws in their assembly, disassembly after their useful life is very rapid and materials are easily separated.
This kitchen design, and a more romantic approach to styling ply-bent furniture, demonstrate the novel beauty in Obviously Manifesting Green (OMG).  Bent-plywood takes on a broader range of styling, plastics become ethereal, rich and warm when associated with wood.  These designs are hardly the status quo, yet they offer a great opportunity to express the romance and beauty of living in harmony with our planet.  This is the goal of Eco Modernism.

Earlier in this essay we suggested that the history of design are essentially stories that shift our values and attitudes to accept new ways of thinking. 

Every significant social or technological change that has occurred since the beginning of the industrial revolution has been reflected in product design and architecture. For example, the British Arts and Crafts movement was spawned by Pre-Raphaelite thinking.  This style was a socially conscious reaction to the ills and social upheaval caused by the Industrial Revolution. The story it told was that life was much better in the time just before the artist Raphaelle.  It created a lifestyle centering on simpler design, handmade furnishings, and decorative coordination of furnishings.  Art Nouveau celebrated the new science of botany, new life forms revealed by the invention of the microscope, and the beginning of undersea exploration.  Design also celebrated the opening up of trade with China and Japan.  Manufacturers romanced Asian cultures with Asian inspired designs.  The use of steel as an inexpensive new material created a seismic shift in the decorative arts and architecture, beginning at the Bauhaus School. It is interesting to note that the story behind Bauhaus design was the polar opposite of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement.  While Pre-Raphaelite ideals rejected industrialization and romanticized the simpler times before the social chaos caused by the Industrial Revolution, Bauhaus thinking embraced industry and the potential of technology to create a utopian world.  Mid-Century modern design brimmed with optimism and bold new ideas. It told the story of how our technology, and the harnessing of the atom enabled us to triumph over World War II and the Great Depression.  It made a clean break from tradition and reaffirmed the social benefits of technology.

It is clear then, that design and the decorative arts have always told stories about our social concerns, our discoveries, and our triumphs.  So you can now see that design has always been a visual reflection of the values and ideals of its time.  Today, the term “green design” has become the sexy euphemism for the mundane reality of “green ingredients”.  So how come “Green Design” is not a part of our visual vocabulary?

Two reasons. First, we lack vision. The goal of Eco Modernism is to supply this vision. Second, the creation of a sustainable “design style” or “aesthetic” is seen by some as subversive to the to the vision and goals of the USGBC.   The USGBC is making great progress toward the use of greener ingredients and processes.  However, it is a consensus organization and works by pushing the envelope of the status quo. In essence this means that the seismic shift we need to achieve sustainability will not be encouraged or recognized by its member shareholders.  We need to realize that the most influential member shareholders are manufacturers, and a seismic shift toward sustainability has the potential to disrupt some markets.   It would create winners and losers. An OMG esthetic has the potential to create a seismic shift by visually reflecting “Green Design” in a way that is fun, desirable and educational.

Oddly, the idea for Eco Modernism began when I attended the “Green Build 2003” conference in Pittsburgh.  For all the excitement and energy put into the conference, there was no tangible progress toward sustainability in a visual or esthetic sense.  This seemed odd, since the majority of the participants were visual people: architects, planners and interior designers.  I remember everyone talking about the building we were in, the new David L. Lawrence convention center and how it was rated LEED Gold.  Built to the exacting standards of sustainability as set by the USGBC (United States Green Building Council) and the LEED initiatives (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).  The building is indeed beautiful. It’s obvious suspension construction even contributes an OMG characteristic.  Sadly, by my way of thinking, this characteristic could not be talked about.  A major opportunity was lost. 

Another impression I took away from Green Build 03 was how tedious it was to follow the LEED standards.  A designer is saddled with the responsibility of figuring out whether or not each product they specify complies with LEED standards. They must somehow validate that its chemistry and the processes by which it is made are truly green.  Architects and designers are visual people, creative types in pursuit of beauty, organization and harmony.  Though their attentiveness to these details is admirable, they did not choose their profession to be ingredient and process auditors.

To confuse matters, many of the “green” claims manufacturers make, though largely true, are misleading in that there is little clue to the degree of sustainability accomplished. So there is not really a way to truly compare products.  It is even hard to understand and compare products that are “certified” by third party organizations.

Trends toward an Eco Modern esthetic have been brewing long before the USGBC was established. To reference design history again, every major design movement has been preceded by an art movement.  For instance the Pre-Raphaelites preceded the British Arts and Crafts Movement.  The rise of Modernism and the International Style was preceded by a flurry of art movements including Cubism, Impressionism, De Stijl, and Futurism.  The same has been happening today.  A vanguard of artists, designers and architects have been employing recycled materials and found objects in their work. Their efforts are raising our consciousness toward recognizing the importance of recycling.  More importantly, they are laying the foundation a sustainable esthetic.

Recycling is an ethic of frugality that has always been part of our culture.  The emergence of Pop Art mid 20th Century brought attention to the idea that “found objects” (which includes most of what is thrown away in our culture) have esthetic value.  Pop art and the growing magnitude of landfills gave rise to the idea that this flotsam may be re-purposed and re-used.  In the early 1970s architect Michael Reynolds began building “Earthships” in New Mexico by recycling much of what goes into landfills.  In 1990 architect Sam Mockbee founded the Rural Studio at Auburn University. Working with his students, they created truly beautiful buildings for the rural poor from scavenged materials.  Concurrent with the efforts of these architects, artists were creating some very interesting artworks by collecting and recycling objects.  Pictured is Larry Fuente’s (1988) Game Fish which is made from recycling toys. (Collection of National Museum of American Art‘s Renwick Gallery.)

In 1998 an exhibit on re-cycling opened entitled:  Trashformations: Recycled Materials in Contemporary American Art and Design.  This exhibition, and the subsequent Trashformations East in 2004, was curated by Lloyd Herman, director emertis of the Renwick Gallery, part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art.  Pictured from the first Trashformations exhibit is a wedding dress knitted from trash bags .  The artist is Katherine Cobey and the title is Loose Ends.  This striking dress proves that craftsmanship and a simple, well conceived design, has a far more positive impact than the trashbags from which it is made.

Pictured from the Trashformations East show is an ergonomic side chair I designed from post-consumer materials.  The significance of this chair is that it can be mass produced in large quantities. The seat and back are made from shredded plastic jugs. For seat suspension, rubber tires were die cut and placed between the seat and back for flexibility. The chair was tested to BIFMA-ANSI* standards and passed difficulty. Each component was carefully sourced from existing waste streams and engineered to account for variability inherent in post consumer materials. The die cut rubber tires act to remove static fatigue by moving with the user.  The tires are an effective substitute for using urethane foam, which is less environmentally friendly.  Though not designed to have the same ergonomic performance as task seating, this chair comes close. It is certainty more comfortable than an ordinary stacking chair with a plastic seat. The design is fun.  It’s animated quality reflects the kinetic nature of the design.  The use of post consumer materials for mass production flies in the face of conventional product design. This chair demonstrates that using post-consumer materials for mass production is possible, and that sourcing from virgin materials is not always necessary. 

Clearly we are on the cusp of realizing a sustainable esthetic.  Following is a summary of the key aspects of what I call Eco Modernism.  An Eco Modern sensibility would:
• use materials and technology that Obviously Manifest Green (OMG)
• dematerialize design to dramatically reduce resource use
• favor technologies and crafts that optimize resources
• hint of the romantic (who wants to live in a world without romance?)
•  develop new styles that emerge from tradition
• create designs that quickly disassemble
• design so that materials can be recycled, not downcycled.
• employ the most environmentally benign materials

It is the obligation of architects, interior designers, product designers, and manufacturers to create designs using OMGs that are compelling enough to lure people beyond their comfort with the status quo.  Further, this design community is also obligated to communicate an understanding as to why their materials, technologies and design are Obviously Green Materials.

The shift to a sustainable culture is not going to happen by tweaking the status quo. It is not going to happen until our values are expressed by choosing design that is visually sustainable. Eco Modernism is about making compelling designs so people want to embrace a more sustainable life style. It is about envisioning our future with beauty, warmth, comfort, romance and most importantly, optimism.  It is about design honoring our balance with nature and our position as stewards of this amazing planet.

Pew Research Center


Trees as Resources

Natural materials can include trees

mountianside before wood is illegally harvested

Mountianside before and after wood is illegally harvested

mountianside after wood is illegally harvested
rolling veneer off a log

Above: Blade peels Veneer off log with no waste;

Below: solid lumber that is cut from logs yields substantial waste

solid wood yield from log
Molded Ply Chair

EcoEden chair uses wood more efficiently than solid wood chairs

Using ply layers as decorative elements

Opera Verde chair and table use ply layers as decorative elements. They also use contrasting woods to add formality

Stewardship Bench

Stewardship bench above and below the Baobab table andEcoEden chair create new style using ply-bent wood

BaoBab table with EcoEden Chair
Chair weighs 11lbs. and I weigh 220 lbs.

New Structures and material optimization make these designs truly green

Atmos Rocker symbolizes true green design
open edges of hollow core thermoplastic panel

Above is a hollow core plastic panel showing its exposed core. Below is the same panel with its edges closed using Danko's patented edge process.

closed edges of hollow core plastic panel
Nue chair uses hollow core plastic panels

The Nue chair

Kitchen as viewed from dining room

Above: Kitchen as viewed from dining room

Kitchen detail showing how nicely the plastic and wood work together

drawer detail showing how the plastic and wood complement each other

Cabinet by William Morris

Arts and Crafts style cabinet

Page from Ernst Haeckel's Book Art Forms in Nature

Page from Ernst Haeckel's Book Art Forms in Nature. One of the first coffee table books. It created quite a sensation in its time.

Paris Subway Entrance

The design of the Paris Subway entrance was influenced by forms in nature

Asian Design Influence

New awareness of Asian design influenced style in the decorative arts

Cesca Chairs

The International Style brought about the appreciation of industrial materials

Logo for the USGBC

Seal of the USGBC

David L. Lawrence Convention Center

The David L. Lawrence Convention Center

Pre-Raphaelite painting by Rossetti

Pre-Raphaelite painting by Rossetti romances earlier times

lionel frenniger

Cubist painting by Lyonel Feininger

artwor k from found objects

Artwork with found objects

Chapel by Sam Mockbee made from recycling materials

Artwork made from recycled materials by Larry Fuente

Artwork made from toys and recycled materials by Larry Fuente

Loose Ends by Katharine Cobey

Dress made from trash bags by Katherine Cobey

Chair made from recycled rubber tires and shredded plastic bottles and caps

Prototype of Danko NoCO2 chair made from recycled rubber tires and shredded plastic bottles and caps

Danko kitchen made using OMG materials

Danko kitchen made using OMG materials

earth courtesy NASA / NSSDC

courtesy NASA/NSSDC