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Whatever happened to sustainability?

Really sustainable design seems to be a contradiction in terms as most furniture companies pay little more than lip service to green materials and manufacturing processes in their work. However this week in Milan, a few bright lights shine bravely through.

By No author / 17-04-2010

Wandering around Milan this week during the Fair you would be forgiven for thinking that oil is never going to run out and climate change is but a distant and unsubstantiated threat. 

Yes, there have been noticeably fewer new product launches, and there seems to be some sort of reconsidering going on in the industry, but whether this is because the mega-brands and big-name designers are concerned with green issues or just a response to the economic climate, is a very debatable point.

Financial downturn aside the big design houses still have relevant research budgets to play with, so why aren’t more of them spending it on creating exciting and innovative sustainable materials? Biodegradable fabrics, non-toxic lacquers, upcyclable products anyone? It can’t be rocket science (we sorted that one out decades ago).

Okay so a few companies are making an effort: Flos’ new collection focuses entirely on low-energy and LED and OLED lighting, Tokujin Yoshioka has made a chair out of recycled aluminium for Moroso, Emeco recycled plastic Coca-Cola bottles to make a chair and on a smaller scale Japanese wood furniture maker Karimoku (more on them below). But on the whole it seems that the big brands are happy to churn out furniture and accessories made out of toxic, non-renewable and unrecyclable materials.

What this means is that it’s up to individual designers and smaller companies to explore sustainability, or at the very least, to ask the right questions and minimize waste and their manufacturing footprint. Piet Hein Eek’s new chandelier for instance (on show at Spazio Rossana Orlandi) is made from 62 glass lamps that were left-over stock from a factory, similarly Droog bought a whole bunch of random objects from auction sites and companies that had gone bust and asked emerging and established designers to transform them into something different and new. More on the recycling front, co-founder of Studio-Re-Creation Nikola Nikolov dismantled his former car to create a robot while Dennis Slootweg recycles damaged and rusted metal plates and pipes to create cabinets.

One of the most coherent, beautiful and fully-formed contributions in this domain is by Amsterdam-based Bo Reudler Studio, showing once again as part of the Tuttobene group show in the Tortona district. Collaborating this year with bamboo architect Olav Bruin, the studio has created a series of bamboo pieces winningly called Haute Bamboo. Consisting only of four items – a table, a chair, a mirror and a candle-holder – the collection offers a new take on the tired old image of bamboo. “I wanted to upgrade the look of bamboo,” says Bo Reudler, lead designer and founder of the studio. “Why should sustainable design always look so sustainable? I want it to look chic and sexy.”

And sleek and sexy it does look, with its black glossy finish that “references Eastern lacquer work”. Also, and this is relevant, the end results looks just as good as if conventional lacquer had been used, but is actually made out of entirely natural linseed oil paint - the result of Reudler working with a spray painter “who was willing to experiment”. The bamboo too is not of the run-of-the-mill variety. It is a rare mutated form of the plant called Bambusa Ventricosa (also known as Buddha’s Belly), which is found in Thailand and has very striking bulbous stalks that Reudler used for the legs and frames of the objects, while the rest he made of bamboo plywood.

Tucked away in a non-descript side- street in the city centre is Karimoku’s installation. The brand has been around for 70 years and is Japan’s leading manufacturer of wood furniture. It seems also to be genuinely committed to sustainability and has laid down the gauntlet for the rest of the sector. Their new collection – Karimoku New standard – is made out of wood derived from the thinning of forests in the north of the country, wood that would otherwise go wasted. Under the creative direction of Teruhiro Yanagihara several international designers (including Scholten & Baijings who have made low geometrical tables for the collection) were asked to come up with ideas. The results are clean and crisp pieces that benefit from decades of expertise and advanced production equipment. The chairs by Belgian designer Sylvain Willenz in particular are of a deceptive and appealing simplicity, and are coated in low-VOC varnish and lacquers (meaning they are not entirely non-toxic, but have the highest eco certification available in Japan).

So much of what can be seen at the Fair is mediocre and a waste of resources, yet a few people and products shine out for their sense of responsibility and commitment to beauty. As Reudler says about his experiments with sustainable lacquer: “It’s difficult and a lot of work; it takes longer and it’s not as strong, but if we don’t use it others won’t take it to the next level.” And to the cliché that many companies trot out when asked about their approach to sustainability, “our products are timeless so you won’t need to replace them blah blah blah” – he has three words, “That’s just rubbish.”

Main image: Bo Reudler
Image 1: Piet Hein Eek
Image 2: Droog
Image 3: Dennis Slootweg
Image 4: Studio-Re-Creation
Image 5: Scholten & Baijings for Karimoku New Standard
Image 6: Sylvain Willenz for Karimoku New Standard

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