Sustain This, My Friends

A fellow member of The Office of Design-Speak Critique, a cranky design-language salon, sent a link to a Portland joint selling turned wood with a light bulb plunked on top. One is meant to buy this item and use it in what appears to be a gesture called, totem to earnest design and considered production.

We grill these marketplace sites like chops. We scrape across their images and more importantly their stories like the FTC interrogating fraudulent claims of permanent hair removal. (Did you know that those who make this claim around their devices and potions can be subject to investigation and punishment by the U.S. government? You think I jest?

Back to the wee lamp: Bare incandescent (energy hog) bulb foisted into a wood base marketed as a sustainable product built to last.

For our diverse cabal of design observers, based at a former Greyhound Bus garage in the neighborhood where I-280 meets the gleaming new Benioff Children’s Hospital in SF, where our sidewalks are often teeming with camp sites forged from found materials (now that’s a proven sustainable practice in our consumerist society, dwellings constructed from others’ garbage — see Manila, etc, for large-scale versions), these sorts of projects incite heated, enduring debate. For there is no better way to spend a morning than scraping the ironies of sustainability claims of designers, large and small.

(By the way, our group manifesto makes it clear we are not looking to define nor set an agenda around this term, nor any other in design-speak world. We leave that work to others who are invested in being thought leaders at that scale. Our group is committed to the simple interrogation of design-speak. Our clubhouse features a large photo of Eric Blair — George Orwell to his writing public — surrounded by a set of electric candles we bought at a Big Box warehouse store, the open flame not permitted in the Greyhound Bus garage where many volatile chemicals are in service to painters and furniture makers. Not to mention all the taffeta floating around the fashion department. We embrace our own flagrant inabilities to lead lives of perfect consumer goodness. This does not undermine our credibility. We are joined in the dissonance of action and belief around sustainable and other words woven through design life right now. Why? Cultural criticism is fun. Talking through problems illuminates solutions. Cranky punditry has a long and storied past for good reason. Need I say more?)

Where did our discussion land for now? The incandescent bulb in question brought to mind The Princess Bride: “Sustainable. You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The Office of Design-Speak Critique is up and running. We gather examples of language in dubious service to well-meaning (or not) designers, makers, thinkers, NGOs, governments, political movement, corporations. We are creating an archive.

(The irony that a lightbulb spawned today’s reflections does not elude us, by the way.)

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