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Another day at the office: windowdressing

May 31, 2010

The untrained designer as expert

May 27, 2010
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I often think about how in earlier times design&making skills would have been so incredibly important for survival and for building a good life. Everybody needed to be able to identify a problem or articulate a need, figure out a solution and implement it – with whatever resources were at hand. And how that is still the case in many parts of the world.

(Here illustrated by (the brilliant) Richard Scarry’s Uncle Willy, who, having been dumped on a deserted island by a wicked band of  pirates (and forced to watch them munch down his lunch-pie) gets himself out of his tricky situation with some quick thinking and wicked skills involving branches, sea-shells and some long beach grass.)

It is something appealing about the idea of being well-rounded like Uncle Willy; he’s got life-skills! I think with specialization we’ve lost something important – designer/maker/end-user used to be the same person, but now the designing of products and systems that has to work for all of us is done by a few select, professional designers, often in offices far away.

But good news:

Emily Pilloton talks about The untrained designer as expert.

In Design Revolution she says that “More citizens worldwide are taking solution making into their own hands…The untrained designer – whether a professional from another field, a farmer in rural Africa, or even a child – has become more than a client or a user, now serving as a co-designer and expert on her own environment. Creations from untrained designers can often shed the most light on what a functional and user-accepted solution to a real problem might look like.”

I find that not only inspiring, but humbling. It gives me hope for a better world.

(All images from Richard Scarry’s Funniest Storybook Ever)

Another day at the office: Making nylon

May 24, 2010
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All the young things

May 21, 2010

There is really no way I can call myself young anymore – I often tend to think I am, but truth is, I’m no spring chicken. (I’m not that old, but just not, you know…I’m past my teens.)

But if you are – read on! Because lately I’ve noticed that lots of the big NGO’s have got little off-shoots squarely aimed at engaging youngsters with the bigger issues.

Oxfam has got a spunky little sister called 3things.

Convinced that the idea that ‘young people don’t care anymore’ was bogus, in 2008 they started collaborating with young designers and artists, exploring ways their profession could help contribute to a better world. Parallel with that they ran workshops at different unis demonstrating how you can care about social justice issues and act in positive ways without radically changing your life.

But they wanted to create a place where they could continue these conversations and further explore the connections between design and fashion, sustainability, social justice and more. This became 3things, an online platform with a news section discussing all sorts of issues – human rights, peace & conflict, women’s health – and with inspiring examples, like the brilliant voice project, a movement that aims to use the power of music to reach out to soldiers through songs that tell them they are forgiven, that they should come home.

The site is big on interaction: apart from the usual suspects (facebook, twitter) you are also invited to add your own project, in essence write your own blog under the umbrella of 3things, in the hope of connecting people looking to help out with people needing help with their projects.

WorldVision‘s youth activist website is called Stir you world!

They’ve got Stir sessions touring the country, with speakers “raw and real”, and their actions “relevant and meaningful”, participants are promised “dynamic, interactive nights that bring together young people who really want to know what’s going on in the world.” The latest stir session discussed the link between slavery and consumerism, delivered through local music acts and provoking short films.

The Stir website has got lots of stuff going on. Apart from a rolling news list on topics like Water & Sanitation, HIV & AIDS, Human Trafficking, there is The Blender, a discussion forum; Stir Tube videos (“We want a new reality not more reality TV”); the chance to help fight child exploitation through a small monthly donation. Of course Stir also goes just about everywhere where young people hang out (well, short of going clubbing): Bebo, Flickr, Twitter, Vimeo, Facebook.

Save The Children have got a campaign called Make Your Mark.

It is an initiative aiming to petition the government to do more about the 8.8 million children that die before the age of 5 each year. You can make a virtual mark online, or leave a real fingerprint at various festivals – “No cost associated. Just a canvas. Some ink. Your thumb. And a difference will be made.” There’s a YouTube doco competition, a call for fund raising ideas and a news reel.

Save the Children have also got a campaign called  Knit One Save One (which I wrote about here ), where they ask for contributions in the form of knitted squares, to be pieced together warm blankets for newborns who might otherwise run the risk of catching – and dying from – pneumonia.

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I think being young now is to live under enormous pressure. But there is lots of opportunity that wasn’t around ten or twenty years ago, and like Nelson Mandela said: “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation.”

Photo of Tibetan boy with guitar by Steve Argent.

Got vehicle, bring it on

May 19, 2010

Ooooohh, definitely time for some ingenious problem solving again – this time on the theme of  ‘Got motorized vehicle, can do anything’. Like these fellas, off on holiday, do you reckon?

Got some nice Goods & People Moving Business going.

Not exactly sure what these guys are doing but it looks safe

Just moving house, that’s all. Might as well do it in one go.

If in doubt, bring spare parts.

More problemsolvings here!

Another day at the office: Being a cattle farmer

May 17, 2010
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Cordula Kehrer – not dying to please everyone and to be noticed

May 14, 2010

When I sent German designer Cordula Kehrer an email blushing with infatuation with her Bow bins – damaged old plastic bins that are given a second chance just as they were ready for the tip; holes mended and plastic pieces are woven together with wicker, rattan and weed – she replied:

“You are right, it is about using damaged and old plastic buckets, and repairing them, resampling them and give a second life to them. This might be a topic lots of designers find interesting at the moment, but I think it’s a good direction that design could take, especially for designers who like to think not only design but also about resources, people, politics, and a lot more…”

She also said: What is it you are desillusioned about? (In explaining my love for her work I’d admitted to being obsessed with weaving at the moment as well as a being desillusioned product designer).

Me: To answer your question…I am desillusioned because I feel design could be so much more, so much better than what is currently being celebrated and therefore aspired to…I think designers are missing the whole point of design, actually, as a problem-solving activity, rather than engaging in just producing more stuff. I am worried about the obsession with newness which takes resources and time away from dealing with all the critical issues of our time – if designers could be freed up from trying to produce more glitzy bullshit in order to be seen and be the next darling in the design-world, and instead focus on, say, homelessness, obesity, social isolation…imagine what a better world we could make.

I believe that designers/makers/problem solvers traditionally have been a HUGE resource to any society, and I guess I feel like we’ve  stalled a bit in that capacity, and kind of lost direction. Of course there are still pockets of our profession working like that, but imagine if there was an event like the design-week that celebrated socially responsible problem-solving? What do you think? Does being a designer come with a certain responsibility?

Cordula: Thanks for answering my question about the desillusion – this is something that I really think a lot about these days, it’s something which arises even more questions for me: about Design itself and what it is or what it should be. I think the whole Design thing constantly spins around itself, like a contraption out of control  producing ever new stuff, as you said. One thing even more over the top than the last thing, dying to please everyone and to be noticed.

Sometimes it comes to my mind that Designers constantly worry about their right to do what they do. As Design is something in between art, architecture, but also industry, marketing and economy. We are trying to fill the gap between those really different areas, and maybe miss the point sometimes. There is so much Design around and in most cases, we don’t really know what it wants to tell us or what it is good for.

For me, one thing is sure: we don’t do art, and this quite new thing of expensive gallery one-offs seems strange and somehow pointless to me. When I think about this, the time comes to my mind when I was doing an internship at Marc Newson when he was preparing a limited edition for the Gargosian gallery in NY – he cut a shelf, chair and table of a big block of carrara marble. This seemed so inappropriate to me – using expensive material, producing lots of waste and shipping it around the world for no reason other than to impress some rich guys in a museum.

On the other hand, I don’t think that we should do the complete opposite and go back to traditional craft again, like weaving baskets – it’s important to use new techniques and try out new materials and production methods. It’s even ok to design another chair (on top of the million chairs that already exist…), if you manage to bring something new to it like using less material, using less costly manufacturing methods or making it stable so your children’s children still can use it (and still like it!). I personally like the last idea, that’s also sustainability to me: to be able to use a product for a long time and to use material that ages nicely. It’s not only about using eco-friendly material.

Me: Looking at the bow bins it doesn’t feel so much like a clash of materials but more like some kind of beautiful quirky marriage between an embracing plant and a stiff injection-molded being…what were your ideas behind them? Is there anything political about them?

Cordula: Regarding the bins, I didn’t want to make a political statement – I am not sure if Design is a good platform for that, or is powerful enough to really change things – the idea rather came naturally to me. The project was part of my diploma, and I designed dustbins for different companies. The topic itself is not very sexy, so i thought it was interesting to chose a company which is not very sexy either: a fair trade company. There have been lots of fair trade shops in Germany for a long time now, but the things you get there have got that Birkenstock/ Hippie/ Grandma image. Why not trying to change that and create something that fits the fair-trade idea and looks good and is useful at the same time? That’s one part of the idea.

The other part is the production: What kind of resources can be used when doing such a project? The bins were supposed to be made in non-industrialised countries, like african, asian or latin american countries. Some of the most valuable resources those countries have is time and cheap manpower, which is not available in western countries anymore: you just can’t afford someone weaving a basket for 4 hours and resell it at a reasonable price.

Another resource easily available is traditional handicraft such as basket making that uses cheap natural material growing locally. I would prefer the idea to produce them not too far from where it is finally sold, but this is not possible – cost is too high for handicraft in (Western) Europe. Basket weaving and lots of other traditional crafts are about to die out here, or will survive only if they can find a way to get into the high-end market. On one hand, it’s a shame that we forget about our traditions and don’t find a way to keep them alive. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s a way to save the crafts in Europe and other developed countries unless you don’t find a way to deploy them in a reasonable application. Designers shouldn’t stick to it if it doesn’t make sense to our whole style of living nowadays.

But still in other countries, it completely makes sense to use whatever resource is available now to help people make their living. And I hope that the bins make at least some few people think about one or two things I mentioned when they see the bins and wonder what it’s all about.

Me: When I look around, I see that you have shown your bow bins in Milan last year and again this year, and that they got a mention on most of the big design sites who have all got images of your baskets, but i haven’t found a single in-depth discussion of you ideas or concepts anywhere…

Cordula: It’s true that so far nobody really was interested to learn more about the bins. Yet if you want to create a good product, there always is a story behind it; if not, it’s not worthy of being produced. So even if people don’t ask, I think they feel that there’s more to it than that they just look nice.

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To check out the bowbins ( hopefully in production before the end of the year) and other work by the talented Miss Kehrer, go to her website, www.cordulakehrer.de