Our coverage of New York Design Week has highlighted some of the most exciting new green products, furnishings, and materials from designers all over the world. And while these sustainable designs really honed in on implementing green measures such as energy efficient lighting and recycled post-consumer materials, no designers went as far in their search for holistic sustainability as a group of students from the University of Washington and Maryland Institute College of Art. Under the direction of professors Domenic Murren, Inna Alesina and Gavin Stewart, this young bunch showcased their fresh take on traditional craftsmanship with projects created for the '100 Mile Design Challenge', which asked students to design and manufacture locally, using only materials and processes found within a 100-mile radius of their hometowns. The results gave way to pieces that not only managed a reduction of embodied energy, but pieces that were also able to evoke the natural and cultural environments of the cities of Seattle and Baltimore.
The city of Baltimore has grown through its interaction with the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding marshlands, and raw materials that can be found in the region range from oyster shells, to invasive bamboo and vine species, and even driftwood and other industrial rubble. From this material palette, 100 Mile designs from the MICA contingent focus on creating products that capture the innovative spirit of this historically entrepreneurial trading port. The final product from these prodigious Environmental Design majors hint at the cultural and material variety of this Mid-Atlantic creative center.
Cindy Jian’s Oyster Soap is mixed from organic honey and oatmeal, with finely ground oyster shell particles mixed in to improve skin quality with its amino acids and calcium. Each soap is poured inside of a found oyster shell, and coated in wax and glycerin, giving it a unique shape and luster, and fitting neatly into a person’s hand. Jian continues to use found oyster shells in her Oyster Gardening Tools, which also utilize locally-sourced walnut wood in the form of ergonomically carved handles. As these tools are used, small pieces of the shells break off and into the ground, their high mineral content helping fertilize the soil.
Another student inspired by regional marine fauna is Renee Shen, who resolves many a seafood afficcionado’s dilemma with her Crab-To-Go seafood takeout container. This stylish, reusable wood and recycled canvas bag recalls the shape of a Blue Shell Crab, a local delicacy. Crab-To-Go has small pockets along the sides of its canvas lining where the user can insert bamboo charcoal to diffuse some of the fresh sea scent of its contents. Once the delicious meal is finished, composting of the shells is facilitated by the high mineral content of the charcoal.
Projects inspired by coastal Maryland’s marshlands focused on the collection of invasive plant life for raw materials. With the help of The Conservation Department at The National Aquarium and Weed Warriors, MICA students formed a local environmental army to collect unwanted bamboo and vine from this fragile ecosystem. Several students feasted upon the bounty of flexible, durable material to create a fascinating variety of eco-conscious objects. Hair Rollers by Ann Louise Markison simply use small hollow sections of bamboo with minimal slices and holes to create a natural styling tool. Mier Luo slices even smaller sections of bamboo in the Circle2 line of bowls, vases, tables, and coasters. Each section is tied to the next by a waxed linen thread to form a gird of circles, organized into various light and playful decorative objects. The Poe Pen, Garrett O’Brochta’s homage to the famous local poet, encases a marker within a stylized carved bamboo body and cap, its graphic quality reminiscent of a Crayola marker.
Another group of College of the Arts students preoccupied themselves with industrial and post-consumer materials. The Ringed Corner Chair by Taryn Delinsky consists of a web of circular sections of manila rope tied together in linen string; its fibrous ropes recall Maryland’s fishing and textile industry past.
Hyeji Jun’s Album Quilt Tote, a canvas bag that bring back to life a popular local design from the 1840’s, derives its name from the quilted blocks on its sides. Each piece is a reused piece of fabric taken from clothing and linen at local thrift stores, the designs chosen specifically due to their specific ties to the city of Baltimore. Like the other 100 Mile Design Challenge participants from Baltimore, this design extends the meaning of sustainability beyond its ecological roots. These MICA students strive to sustain not just their region’s ecosystem, but also its traditions, through locally resourced and crafted products that tell a story about their place of origin.
While some University of Washington designers, such as Sohroosh Hashemi with his Wax Cloth Hunting Hat, emphasized similar cultural connections as their Baltimore counterparts, the most apparent theme in the Pacific Northwest School’s response to the Challenge was that of material fabrication. A majority of University of Washington projects consisted at least partially of home-made plastics, rosins, or dyes. Instead of sourcing her materials locally, Kay Heekyung Kim produces her own bioplastic from milk and vinegar to use in her Milk Plastic Candle Holder. The natural product, in conjunction with her beeswax and green crayon candle, portrays a handmade but pleasing aesthetic that is flexible enough to fit any shape and sustainable enough to please any green stalwart.
Frances Tung utilizes the same hand-made aesthetic in the Convertible Flower Planter, a fully biodegradable and compostable pot. Inspired by broken flower pots, this alternative strives to extend the life of a pot beyond its primary use. A ceramic compound out of baking soda and corn starch is the base for the product, with a lining mixture of beeswax, tree rosin and charcoal coating the inside surface to protect the clay from moist soil. Once the pot breaks, it can be crushed and put back into planting soil, as baking soda is commonly used as a soil pH neutralizer and fungicide.
The 100 Mile Design Challenge proves that with stringent restrictions on physical resources, product designers can come up with wildly innovative green materials and objects that redefine sustainability. For a product to be truly sustainable, a design must take into consideration the full green footprint of its manufacturing process, from the energy taken to produce it to the cultural ramifications and regional economic effects of its production. If even a small percentage of other exhibitors at ICFF and NY Design Week take the lessons learned by the students at MICA and University of Washington, there is no doubt that the field of sustainable design will evolve by leaps and bounds in the coming years.