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Design Globally, Manufacture Locally: A New Paradigm for Sustainability

A new chair concept exemplifies one interesting strategy for green design: Letting locals do the manufacturing.

charity chair

The mission of product design, when you boil everything else away, is to entice people into buying things that they almost certainly don’t need. As sustainability becomes a household word, that leaves designers in a tight spot: How can design ever be sustainable, if the discipline is fundamentally about making more stuff?

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We’ve seen some interesting responses to that conundrum: Some designers, such as Yves Behar, have created goods that rethink supply chains; others have emphasized thrift and recycling; Artecnica has created developing-world factories to manufacture some of its wares; still others have emphasized repairing things, rather than replacing them with what’s new.

Another intriguing strategy that designers are exploring: Making their designs open source, so that the manufacturing can occur on a hyper local level. That’s the idea behind the Charity Chair, designed by Andrej Blazon. Currently a finalist in the One Good Chair competition, it’s not only a clever design, but a manufacturing and distribution philosophy.

It was created to resemble the cornette traditionally worn by the Daughters of Charity. But it’s design is far simpler than it seems at first: It can be cut from a single sheet, and then bend into shape using slits and flaps. The idea is that anyone can make it, out of any materials that they have at hand. Thus, there’s no manufacturing or transport associated with the chair.

Others are exploring such strategies as well: Lika Volkova distributes clothing designs that anyone can make themselves; DK Ahn created a tabletop “microfactory,” which can download and cut patterns, to produce products from a single sheet.

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Ingenious stuff, but all of it really speaks to a change in how we look at design–a shift that views design not as a product, but as intellectual property. We’ve got a long way to go before that sort of mentality becomes commonplace. But it’s fascinating to ponder how far it could go—such as this concept for printing food on demand.

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About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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