Henrietta Thompson is the co-curator of “Everything Forever Now”, an exhibition of sustainable design initiated by the British Council and currently on display at Publika, KL. She is also Editor-at-Large at Wallpaper* and contributing editor at Tank.
Henrietta was a speaker at the 6th Poskod Talks, “Design: Making Things Happen”. Our editor Ling Low caught up with her afterwards to talk about sustainable design, improving cities, and why it’s okay to be lazy.
The word “sustainable” is thrown around a lot these days. What does it mean to you?
Sustainability is key because it’s not just about the environment. It also encompasses social issues and it can be viewed on different platforms and different levels. It’s a better word than “eco” or “green” or all of these other words. Essentially it means products, services and development strategies that do not deplete resources. They actually give back and may even put in more than they take out, which is where design gets really exciting.
Your book Remake It Home encourages people to take old objects and make them into useful and beautiful things. However, isn’t laziness is a real obstacle in getting people to remake things? Do designers take laziness into account enough?
Laziness is a huge factor in everything we do. This is a fundamental human trait which will always be there. People just want things to be easy. But that also feeds into the other major human condition – the need to have fun and enjoy ourselves. If it looks like it’s going to be entertaining and fun then laziness is out of the picture. So it’s about making an activity fun. The incentive of just saving the planet, weirdly, isn’t good enough.
“What if all designs could be downloaded?”
I read that you’re a fan of “open source” design projects where a simple idea can be widely adapted and distributed. Can you give me examples?
One that springs to mind, though it’s not exactly “open source”, is the Pallet Project by Nina Tolstrup of Studiomama. Tolstrup designed a chair and other furniture that could be made from simple wooden pallets. She didn’t want to reproduce them herself so she put the designs online and then charged people for the download.
This really changed how designs could be distributed. Some charities started using these designs to give training and help find people employment. One initiative in Brazil, for example, used the designs in a rehabilitation process.
Tolstrup herself went over to Brazil and she was really shocked by the conditions people were living in. So when she got back to London she made some of the pallet chairs herself and got some famous artists to customise them. She then auctioned them off and used that money to buy a new studio workshop for the people she’d met in Brazil. So it all came full circle.
That project is quite inspiring because it shows the possibility of designing and distributing in completely different ways. What if all designs could be downloaded? Or if we designed without dictating all the materials that our designs are made from? You could have a Norman Foster template for a shed, for example, and then people could make it in different materials in different countries.
It seems like Nina Tolstrup bridged the divide between the elite art world and the needs of ordinary people with her project. But do you think elitism is an inherent problem with the design community?
It seems to be changing. There are people who are working for very elite boutiques, making expensive products by commission. But then it’s often the same people designing things in order to change the world, make a difference and save lives. It amazes me that it is the same people doing both. Yves Béhar is one example: he’s designing office chairs for Herman Miler and chandeliers for Swarovski but then he also makes glasses for children in Mexico to help their eyesight.
“It’s not just about getting people in the same room but getting them inspired to see what the possibilities are”
Moving from product design to a bigger scale: cities. In your opinion, what is the most important thing that local governments and urban planners should consider to enhance liveability in a city?
One thing? Well assuming they have things like public furniture covered, I think it’s creating spaces and events that inspire more people to get involved and act together as a community. Finding ways to use those redundant spaces, much like the Urban Physic Garden project.
It’s not just about getting people in the same room but getting them inspired to see what the possibilities are, so that then they can do more and it causes a chain reaction.
How can designers contribute to a significant change in their built environment?
By looking at what spaces there are already and making the most of those. Seeing what’s there. There’s a lot of really beautiful stuff and ways of using found materials that can be very rich, although it takes time and creativity.
It’s not all about recycling, though. That’s only one part of the story. It’s also important to make sure we’re looking at new materials and technology. Rapid prototyping and 3D printing are really changing the whole landscape and it’s up to designers to look at how they should be used best.
Can you give examples of some standout Malaysian design projects from the “Everything Forever Now” exhibition you have curated?
I love the Bicycle Project by Studio 25: it’s something that’s so simple and done very impressively. I’m also very excited about The ULTRA 10 project by We Are Ultra.