From Overwrought to Overly Simple: Is Green Design Anti-Style?

Like everyone else, the design field braced for the fallout from the financial meltdown. At the time, some of us argued that good things could come from a period of constraint and reexamination. The consumer culture of design had become overwrought, with limited edition candleholders that sell for $2,700. For all its pain, the downturn gave design a chance to revitalize by taking on the pressing problems of infrastructure, energy efficiency, and transit. Who better than designers to come up with inventive answers to complex problems?

california academy

To be sure, green design has produced some unqualified successes, like the California Academy of Sciences (above) by Renzo Piano. But the first wave of designs associated with the new efficiency is also being met with some murmurs of disappointment. In our zeal to be conscientious, are we creating designs that fit our notions of what green should be, but which don't actually look good? To put it another way: Is virtuous design always good design?

In an article published in the Sunday New York Times, curator and critic Alice Rawsthorn lays into the new fleet of electric cars. "Can you think of a better opportunity to wow us with an amazingly seductive object than a brand-new type of car? Probably not," she wrote. "Why then do so many electric cars look so boring? Or, if not boring, ugly?"

nissan leaf

The Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf (above), she said, "look dishearteningly like the dullest of Nissan and Chevrolet's gas guzzlers."

Mitsubishi --miev

The Tesla Roadster Sport "isn't quite foxy enough." The plug-in i-MiEV from Mitsubushi (above) "looks chillingly like a Smart car that's been pigging out at Krispy Kreme."

cadillac

Does the new plug-in mark the end of the car as a romantic icon? In Detroit, form always followed fantasy, with exaggerated tail fins and hubcaps gaudy with chrome. It's hard to imagine people collecting the new electric cars as they do vintage Mustangs and MGs. They may be worthy advances, but they hardly quicken the pulse.

vancouver_olympics1

In some cases, the urgency to appear green may actually stand in the way of good design. That's the argument Kriston Capps makes in a recent issue of American Prospect. Capps reports that Robert A.M. Stern was hired to design parts of the 2010 Olympic village in Vancouver, but the city fired him when his scheme didn't look sufficiently green. A local firm, Arthur Erickson Corp., filled in with a mandate to focus squarely on function and sustainability. As a result, Capps says, the village structures have "a default 'green' look to them: blocky, all glass, covered in matted foliage. It looks as though the developers simply forgot to design the place."

scraplab furniture

I suspect that a lot of mediocre design, particularly furniture and accessories, is making its way into the marketplace simply on the dubious claim of sustainability. Is the use of, say, a recyclable metal a raison d'ĂȘtre, or should a table or chair be judged by its appearance and day-to-day function?

Green design may simply be going through an unfortunate adolescent phase as it evolves its way into the new era of efficiency. In truth, it's hard to object to design that emphasizes function and responsibility after so many years of wanton styling from designers like Studio Job, Marcel Wanders and Philippe Starck. But it would be good to have a eye-popping piece of new work to rally around.

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5 Comments

  • Eve Javier

    i know of industrial designers who are experts in materials and processes, who could tell you where and how to use that friendly polymer and what not..but they are not good with aesthetics, and their expertise in material usage is lost in depressingly bad design.

    i think its about time people who Do have good taste, like philippe starck, to start working with people who are experts in environmentally loving materials and together produce beautiful green stuff. alot of people are averse towards "eco-design" because in their notion, we're just giving them something from the junkyard which we recycled. let's start changing their minds, work together, and save the earth along the way.

  • Chitra Vishwanath

    Anything which lasts long robs future generations from having new things and having something new is human right. So Travis I would be bored stiff of the stainless steel chair if I had to see it for 10 years and it would be difficult to throw it away too. What is required is that we should design well, design which can be recycled or returned to nature safely.

  • Kaliya Hamlin

    "The Tesla Roadster Sport "isn't quite foxy enough."" - are you kidding me??? Have you ever seen a Tesla in person. I was at an event in the DogPatch a neighborhood in SF 6 months ago. There was a Yellow Telsa parked outside the venue and EVERYONE who saw it going into the event was drooling over it. Amazing - I had never really drooled over a car ever in my life and this one "had me".

  • Travis Price

    One of the myths is that all things green doesn't include classic materials, ie stainless steel. When added up, stainless is the least energy, least carbon footprint material for its life. But , feel good left over straws and recylced barn walls somehow make it as "green" nostalic fashion. Truly, good design has nothing to do with the latest green fads. Good is good. So a stainless Starck chair of 10 years ago is still much greener than a new "rescyled" goof chair. Hopefully, excellence will prevail, we'll get out of the 3rd green fad since 1972, and we'll realize that modernity and good design ideas have little if anything to do with how many BTU's are on the head of a pin! Travis Price - Pioneering Green Architect since 1972.