Things left at the curb on garbage day make me sad.
I’m one of those people who thinks ‘things’ have identity, they have character and personality. Seeing them at the side of the road, has a whiff of death about it. I can’t help but think that someone bought that thing, and (I would hope!) with a sense of delight they brought it home. They went to a shop, looked at all the options and eventually thought, yes! That’s the one!
As it sits at the curb, I have to wonder what happened? What led to its fall from grace? Did it break and couldn’t be fixed? Did it not live up to its promise? Or did a newer version come along?
Whatever it was, it’s now at the curb. Beyond the sentimental thought of another product passing to the great beyond, I also think of what brought it into being. I’m intimately involved in product development and I know that even the most mundane of products will have a champion somewhere in its development, someone who believed in it, stewed over it and led it into production. I think of how they would feel. Interestingly, an early mentor of mine once said that he drove past curb-sides on garbage day with a bit of dread, wondering when he’d see one of his products there!
But to consider this in a more tangible way, the real subject for this piece is the sadness of the materials that went into making that thing are now en route to a landfill — there’s a larger, more tangible and far less sentimental sadness to that.
As I mentioned earlier, products have identity; they have a language and also a spirituality in that they capture the intent of those creating them. It can be felt — some objects speak clearly and have a resonance, while others simply perform a task or far too often they don’t perform the task and don’t speak so clearly. In a talk a few years ago Hella Jongerius spoke of there being 2 kinds of designers — merchants and pastors. This is a powerful and insightful idea. I may be paraphrasing a little but, merchants are in the business of selling things and pastors were concerned with tending the ‘spirituality’ of their flock…through designed objects. I wonder if the products of pastors appear as often as the products of merchants at the curb-side?
The materials a designer chooses to use are a significant and often not well considered part of their ‘language’. Whether. they are natural or synthetic, they are best used to optimize their key attributes. One of the ‘40Thing’s we identify in our manifesto, calls us to respect the nature of natural forces. When a material is used in a way that optimizes its key properties, it’s respecting the nature of natural forces. Among the many goals of our office, this is a big one. There is a sacredness to materials, there is a beauty and a power in materials.
Without respect for the materials, the usable timeframe for a product is significantly reduced, accelerating its route to the curb.
Materials are sacred; they offer us astonishing beauty and strength and facilitate the entirety of our built environment. In some cases they are not being managed well and becoming increasingly scarce making their selection and use all the more important. At the other end of the spectrum, when something is picked up at the curb, where do those materials go? The product really ceases to be a product and simply becomes a collection of materials. Michael Braungart describes the intent of a cradle-to-cradle approach to making things being that all materials become nutrients for something else when their time in the product is over. Natural nutrients go back to the earth and technical nutrients go back into manufacturing — in this idealized approach, there is no waste, only altered purpose — and a respect for the nature of natural forces.
These can be sobering thoughts. There are times when our work and the broader goals of our clients make certain choices impractical, but we continue to acknowledge the value of the materials we use everyday, and try to consider the longer view of how their use affects the products they are turned into and how they affect us on a psychological and spiritual level — when we get that right, the products we design, make, buy and use will all be better.