Quest for Sustainability

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A brick holds open a door. Bricks, we know, were not originally designed to be doorstops; however, they can be reinterpreted for this purpose. Would a brick ordinarily be considered an eco-material? Green? Sustainable? No, but in using this existing material in a new way, it suddenly becomes all those things.

As design discourse is dominated by sustainability, the solution is not just using ”green” materials. The challenge for designers, Chris Lefteri says, is to think about materials in innovative ways. ”How do we reappropriate materials that were never designed to be eco?” he says.

Lefteri studied industrial design at the Royal College of Art in London. His Wee Willie Winkie college project – a stepped side table with a fluorescent laminate that would glow in the dark to reassure children getting to sleep – marked his interest in the alternative use of materials.

Designers have always experimented with materials, of course. Lefteri gives the example of the Pratone chair. To sit on the piece, which is shaped like an oversized patch of lawn and has a commensurate sense of play, one must nestle between the tall blades of grass. Using polyurethane foam, it was designed in the 1960s when ”plastic was the future”.

But in 2012, with plastic being ”the worst thing in the whole world now”, the emphasis, and urgency, is on finding materials to work with that are environmentally friendly.

”They’re important because we need to change the way that we consume things,” Lefteri says.

”We will continue to consume things, we will not stop buying products, we will not stop replacing our phones every 18 months. How do we deal with this? How do we address this through design? Through material selection? Through the way we evaluate materials that are available to us?”

Shape-memory materials, for example, can be made in one shape, which will change once heat is applied to it. He says screws for a mobile phone could be made out of this. Once the phone is ready to be discarded, it could be dropped into hot water, activating the screws to change shape and unwind, disassembling to make the sorting and recycling of the other parts much easier.

Lefteri says if you looked up ”shape memory materials” online, ”you would never see the words ‘eco’ or ‘sustainability’, nothing. But if you think about that material in a new way, then you have something which is just as sustainable without carrying that big biodegradable, bio-material label, so that re-appropriation is really important.”

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