Charlotte McCurdy has a telling phrase for the things she creates in her practice. They are “charismatic objects,” she says, that “let people talk and think.”
McCurdy is a designer and researcher who developed an alternative plastic made from algae, which consumes carbon dioxide, as her thesis at the Rhode Island School of Design. She describes the material as “present-tense sunlight,” in the sense that the petroleum used to make conventional plastic is “ancient sunlight,” or carbon produced through photosynthesis millions of years ago.
“The conventional story we tell ourselves about climate change is that it’s a problem of burning fuels for the production of electricity and for fuels for transportation,” McCurdy says in an online keynote about her work. “What that story misses is the third of global emissions that come from the chemistry of stuff.”
The goal is to trap this “present-tense sunlight” in the garments we wear and products we design, a process more commonly known as carbon sequestration. Those objects include a raincoat that McCurdy made out of the algae-based plastic, which is currently on view at Cooper Hewitt and was the winner of the Experimental category in the 2019 Innovation by Design awards.
The language McCurdy uses to talk about her work is precise. It has intentionally little in common with the way many designers and companies discuss plastics and carbon emissions. While McCurdy creates objects, her project as a designer is also to engage as many people as possible in discussing climate change through those objects.
“The raincoat’s purpose is to be a tool for talking—it creates a space . . . so that we can continue to grapple and negotiate, in a more public forum, with what kinds of outcomes and impacts do we want our collective behaviors to have on things like climate change,” she says.
Before getting her graduate degree in industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design, McCurdy studied international development and economics at Yale and later worked as a sustainability consultant in the corporate world.
“I got to see how motivated these companies were, but I was really openly frustrated by feeling like I was helping them codify definitions of sustainability that were already out of date,” she says. Looking for a way for her to participate in bigger cultural conversations around climate change, “design became the toolset that I needed to continue this mission,” she says.
After graduating from RISD, McCurdy served as an inaugural Global Security Fellow at the school, and later, as a member of the New Museum’s cultural incubator, New Inc. Last week, she became the fourth winner of Fast Company’s Linda Tischler Memorial Award, which has honored an emerging designer every year since 2016.
She has no plans to commercialize the design for her algae plastic or carbon-negative raincoat—nor to partner with brands that simply want to make carbon sequestering materials or own what she’s developed. She wants to spread the ideas behind the project widely and openly, and hopefully engage not only companies and industries, but also people who might view climate change as political, or who simply tune out when they hear phrases like “parts per million.”
“By showing up and talking about ancient sunlight, and even by talking about materials instead of energy, maybe there are people who will listen just a little bit longer who are politically opposed to making progress on climate change,” she says. “If I can nudge, if I can intervene in that way, then that’s success for me.”