Circular Design Series

“Materials play a paramount role in not only the way we design, but also the way that we live,” states Paola Antonelli, MOMA’s Senior Curator of Design & Architecture.

“Not only are materials the matter we make things with, but they also influence behaviours of citizens that use the objects, and the corporations that make the objects. Not to mention policy making.” 

It is an oversimplification, of course, but an excellent starting point for the consideration of a vast and complicated subject, discussed with a panel consisting of Antonelli; Snohetta Founding Partner, Kjetil Trædal Thorsen; MIT Media Lab Professor, Neri Oxman; Google’s Vice President of Hardware Design, Ivy Ross; and Wallpaper* Editor-in-Chief, Sarah Douglas. 

“We know our responsibility as designers and architects, but we have to take into consideration that we’re a fairly small group worldwide,” says Thorsen, adding the pressure of having to think ahead of lawmakers, engaging not just designers and lobbyists, but users – or as Antonelli prefers, citizens – to think about use and time in new and different ways.

Ultimately, he argues, it is crucial the design community create “strategies that are much more in relationship to what we use in the first place,” says Thorsen. Ross agrees: “It is up to us [designers] at the beginning of the creation cycle to be thinking about [the materials we use and the implications they hold]. Material reuse, repurposing, and recycling are at the core of the circular economy.”

But it isn’t a silver bullet. “By choice, yes, most materials could be, at least, in a very short future be recyclable. But do we really want that?” poses Thorsen. “We’ve seen that recycling of plastics encourages production of virgin plastic. It’s not said that everything that is recyclable also comes out at the other end as something environmentally friendly.” 

Arguing against the distinction between biomaterials and technical materials, Oxman adds: “I think the main challenge that designers and architects have as a whole is that we’re succumbing to or trained and educated to material select as opposed to material create.”

“This isn’t a set of singular problems that can be broken down into a protocol,” laments Oxman, but one we must accept and embrace. “Turning challenge into a possibility is a major factor for success,” adds Thorsen.