Wemanage Observatory Interview #4: Davide Fornari on Sustainability’s Aesthetics

A project by Wemanage Group

Wemanage Observatory is a project aimed at sharing insights and discoveries in key areas of contemporary discourse, such as sustainability and digitalization. The goal of this project is to activate an experimental approach, by creating new connections through interviews with experts in the field. In the fourth of a series of interviews with inspiring creatives of our times, we talked to Davide Fornari, an associate professor at ECAL/University of Art and Design Lausanne and head of the school’s applied Research and Development sector, about the conundrum behind the aesthetics of sustainability, how system errors can sometimes be the most interesting gaps in the design landscape and the future of design practices.

How do you think design as a practice, in general, is changing?

What we saw during the pandemic is a disruption of the system of distribution of products and also in general of all areas related to design. Even the commissioning of new designs was affected, as many projects for which communication design was needed were either cancelled or postponed. This brought to a “parallel universe” — as the collective Parallel Parallel called it –, where design is commissioned but doesn’t take real place. At the same time, in product design, we were not allowed to buy new products, and once we were allowed, retail distributors were no longer able to deliver or obtain the amount of products they needed. In a way, this pandemic contributed to exposing all of the system errors that were, if you want, hidden in the system, for example, the overproduction of furniture, then, of course, the saturation of events that suddenly became virtual or didn’t happen at all. So probably, if there is a lesson to take from what happened, reducing and shrinking the system helps to have a stronger view of what can be sustainable in all fields and in all domains.

Talking about system errors, last time we talked, you mentioned a book you worked on called “Vico Magistretti: Stories of objects”, and you did note that the book explores the concepts of fiascos and failures in product design, and investigates the manifold factors underpinning the decisions to cease production on twelve of Magistretti’s iconic creations. Can you talk about your contribution to the book’s production and expand on how it connects to the future of circularity in design?

This book was edited by Anniina Koivu, a curator and a scholar of product design, and it presents the results of a research project she led at ECAL in Lausanne. I collaborated with her on one specific case study, which explores a series of products designed by Vico Magistretti produced by Alias Design. We’re talking about designs created during the late seventies, at the very beginning of Alias Design’s activity, when designer Carlo Forcolini, who received the Compasso d’Oro this year, was still leading the brand. The case study explored the ‘Broomstick’ collection, and the idea was, I would say, anticipatory of what IKEA could do now. When I interviewed Carlo Forcolini, we agreed that “if we went to IKEA back then with this idea, they could have made it sustainable in terms of price” because it was a complete series of furniture: there was a bed, a table, a coffee table, a chair, an armchair, a shelf for books, all made of elementary components such as the stick of brooms that were articulated and jointed in a way that could fold easily. They were designed when Vico Magistretti decided to have a small flat in London, near where Carlo Forcolini was living at the end of the seventies, and as he had to furnish it, and back then it was tough to find suitable furniture, so Vico Magistretti came up with the idea of creating a series made of simple foldable pieces made of broomsticks, firstly for himself, and then to market it. Carlo Forcolini strongly supported him in turning this idea into a real series, which was then launched in Milan and was well received. But then it was challenging to market it sustainably because they found out when exploring the feasibility of these pieces that broomsticks cannot be directly employed in the making, so they realised that if they wanted to work wood in such a way, they would have to use actually turned wood instead of broomsticks. Only one of the pieces is still in production, a coat-rack, but of course, the idea behind these products was to target an audience of young couples or young families or people who had to furnish a second house on the sea. But it proved unsustainable because the cost of production was too high for what the company was aiming for it to be in the market. Nevertheless, it was brilliant because everything was flat packed, and if you want, it perfectly responded to the criteria for the good IKEA base of furniture now, but it was much in advance and far too expensive to be in the right price slot for what it was. In general, this book and this research project were an interesting way to highlight why such iconic projects that we all know about are no longer on the market. You would say that the market selects the best, and it is not true. The market decides what is more sellable, and the products on the market are not automatically the best choice.

Would you say, connecting this to something you mentioned last time, which was “the aesthetics of sustainability”, that the product you selected for the book was definitely “aesthetically pleasing” as well, in a sense?

Well, of course, among the 300+ projects that he designed, not all of them — I would say — are fit for today’s aesthetics. Some of them got old, as it would happen to any designer heritage. I would say some of them grew old very well, and some other less, so of course, in some cases, the market selects what is still relevant aesthetically. Yet, for example, if you take the Selene chair, which has always been regarded as a future-forward looking piece, it’s striking that it is no longer on the market. Of course, not all of them are sustainable, some of them were a product of a time when from the sixties, we assisted a boom of plastic product design in Italy, and it might be a bit less sustainable if you look at it with the eyes of today.

Right, so talking instead about sustainability itself: sustainability while being a new form of humanity, as it has been proposed and dealt with in many urban and landscape projects, as you mentioned, “often lacks an essential characteristic of the anthropic space” which is seduction. Can you expand on your work on the book “Material experiments in product design: the aesthetics of sustainability” that was just released? How did the idea of the project come about?

I worked on this book edited by Thilo Alex Brunner, a product designer and former head of the product design department at ECAL, and is also the creative director of shoe brand “ON”. He wanted to work with MA students about the issue of how seducing could be sustainability: we often talk about, rather than think about sustainable materials, and this seems to be a magic word that solves every problem, but, if you look at sustainable products that have success on the market, well it’s another story, so probably a lot has to be done, not only to be aware of sustainability but to be mindful of how to use sustainable materials in a creative way that makes products charming and seducing nevertheless. I mean, incorporating this from the very beginning of the design process and the way you think about design is not simple. It’s not only about using sustainable materials but also about treating them in a way that makes them successful regardless. I mean, of course, all products should be in the short term sustainable and made of sustainable materials. But how can we avoid convincing people that sustainability is only that (good but ugly)? What if products were seducing per se without having to employ the rhetoric of sustainability to be successful? It would be much better, and it would positively affect the market. So the research team first built a list of more than eighty materials, then worked on a limited selection to see how they could be processed differently by a group of MA students, and eventually produced prototypes that are an interesting take on sustainability. Some of the projects we have are a sleeping bag made out of textile coming from algae; an egg packaging made of paper foam; a coat hanger made of solid textile boards, which are recycled textile from fast fashion; a slipper made of ground pieces of shoe soles — it’s quite fun because, in the end, it’s a shoe made of shoes. Of course, some of them are not meant to be real products, but in a way, there are interesting takes that highlight system errors, which in the end are the most interesting gaps or spots in the design landscape.

How do you think this concept of the aesthetics of sustainability can act as a fundamental tool for the success of a new model of green planning, not just from an environmental and economic point of view, but perhaps and most importantly from a social and mental one?

I am sorry to sound like the bad cop of design and say that we have to reduce our buying. It’s sad because, in the end, the problem is that companies are interested in novelty. The way they work on their designs influences the education system, the professional practice, the production system, and how museums and galleries canonise the system. It is all about promoting novelty, novelty, novelty and what can sell on the market. So the problem is when marketing takes over the operations, originality and making numbers become fundamental. But it works powerfully against the sustainability of the system. I could give you a historical example: Dino Gavina was an incredible design entrepreneur who launched his brands that produced new pieces of furniture and looked back in the archives of what had been made earlier in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s to see what was right to put back into production. He was only looking for long-lasting pieces — I would define them as ‘long sellers’. He was a very “prophetic” entrepreneur, maybe not the best entrepreneur because, of course, he had highs and lows in his numbers, so he had to sell some of his companies, but I still look at his catalogue as one of the most exciting and engaging adventures in design, thinking of novelty but seeing what could be taken forward from the past. This, for me, is more sustainable than a constant search for novelties and presentations at fairs, and I think again, this pandemic, by disrupting the system of fairs where new products are presented, allowed for a reflection on what is going on and how the system could be more sustainable.

Okay. I would say I’d like to end the interview asking about what do you think are the emerging philosophies in design and how do you think design can intersect with the concept of cultural sustainability — that we talked about last time — rather than the, I would say, the standard idea of sustainability?

There is another book I edited and art directed with Régis Tosetti for ECAL and Rizzoli international, about the fashion brand Bianca e Blu, which for me was the perfect example of a prophetic approach to a system, although in this case, it is fashion design. The designer, Monica Bolzoni, worked for thirty years on one collection, which was growing over time. It was made of basics and aimed at building a wardrobe over the years instead of buying a piece that would fall out of fashion. It was not about fashion for her, but it was about fashion design, so the design and the project part was crucial. If something from the past should come back into a trend, it should be this idea. I think we’re approaching this point, it’s just a matter of several years for companies to adapt to this idea of producing long-lasting goods instead of fast selling goods, also because I think, probably the system of customers and clients, basically, all of us, will come to the point of maturity where we will be looking for more sustainable approaches to things, and we will be enjoying the political power that being a customer entails.

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