Remember how confused I was about what to do next as I terminated my product manufacturing phase? Suddenly and unexpectedly, I had an epiphany while strolling through Bloomingdale’s. I was scrutinizing how my products were being merchandised and sold and a question popped into my mind. If everything I designed never existed, would it make a bit of difference to anyone besides me? It all ended up as garbage.
“You get more money for fashion” had always been my mantra. Now, no matter how I rationalized the usefulness of my creations, their existence festered in my mind. While I prospered, millions of gallons of fossil fuels were depleted; air was polluted, water was wasted, and landfills that were already inundated with award winning design, became further adorned with no longer fashionable products of my creation. I was beginning my metamorphosis from egomaniac to ecomaniac.
Other designers who I knew were still trying to invent the ultimate gimmick that would make them rich and famous. Not me. I’d design environmentally useful and long lasting products. I began designing inexpensive eye-catching insulating window treatments to help save energy. I created stylish recycling furniture out of recycled materials to help home recyclers fashionably and efficiently sort their trash. It seemed like everyone’s enthusiasm was infectious, however, who would speculate on the hefty initial investment of tooling, materials, packaging, and inventory? One manufacturer who I presented the concept to declared my idea as a ‘passing fad’ and dubbed it “yuppie garbage cans”.
I became painfully conscious of humanity’s environmental problems while I agonized over my own personal wastefulness and ever-accumulating trash. A few months earlier I’d imagined buying my own private jet, now I was torturing myself over what to do with a bottle cap. My rapidly decreasing income forced a change in lifestyle. I moved from a luxurious mid-town loft-sublet to a very claustrophobic rent stabilized tenement apartment in Little Italy. I rarely stayed there because I spent nights at my girlfriend Joanna’s tiny tenement apartment in the East Village. I had lived alone in a vast sky lit penthouse loft. Now, I was sharing a large windowed closet with Joanna, cockroaches, mice, and noisy neighbors.
Unfortunately, ‘at-a-boys’ and ‘pats on the back’ don’t pay the rent. I began teaching part time continuing education classes at the New School for Social Research in NYC – furniture making, woodcarving, creative woodworking, model making, and plastics workshops. I also taught an ‘Invention’ course at Parsons School of Design and an ‘Industrial Design’ class at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.
My primary income came from designing and fabricating exclusive furniture for designers and architects who served wealthy people. Over time, it became harder for me to cope with the pollution. Splinters, sawdust, and schlepping were already more than enough character building experience for me. I refused to work with toxic materials, which eliminated most composite materials, plastic laminates, adhesives, finishes, and clients. Then the straw that broke the camel’s back revealed its nasty face. My close friend and business partner in our custom furniture making shop surprised everyone by suddenly and unexpectedly becoming addicted to ‘Crack’. David took one toke and was hooked. Our work was being featured in major architecture and design magazines. At the same time, financial pressures and production deadlines were stressing us out. I had to hide the petty cash. I’d come to work in the morning and find cigarette butts standing on their filters all over the shop machinery. I cringed when the phone rang late at night. Come to think of it, I cringed when the phone rang during the day too. Our clients, who were mainly architects and designers, began telling me that they were disappointed in me and our suppliers were asking for money that I didn’t have. After calling the cocaine hotline a couple of times, David’s family and I intervened. We shipped him off to rehab in Puerto Rico. While he was away, I hastily liquidated our beloved workshop for a fraction of its value.
It dawned on me that by teaching industrial design, I was inadvertently polluting the world by helping others to manifest their ideas for personal profit and glory. I began teaching ‘Designing with Garbage’ at Parsons School of Design. I’d say to my students, “Wake up and smell the garbage”. Most design ends up as trash. Industrial, commercial, and post-consumer waste is the Urban Ore of the future. At first, people laughed at us picking materials out of the trash, but the more my students and I worked with these materials, the more we realized how easy it is to keep consuming and how a recycling closed loop needs to develop its own infrastructure. A community’s plastic milk and detergent bottles whose original use has been fulfilled can have a durable long lasting reincarnation as a deck, fence, park bench, or marine piling. Below, two of my favorite students from my ‘Designing with Garbage’ class at Parsons School of Design are working on their projects. If you click on Bobby Hansson’s photo, you can see a live presentation of his project on YouTube. I promise you’ll be entertained.
Concentrating on environmental issues was both enlightening and frustrating. I swung between incredible optimism and idealism and extreme cynicism and sarcasm. I know ‘every little bit helps’, but big issues like public education and environmental policy are what need to change. Dealing with these problems requires a fundamental shift in our society. Designers can play a vital role. When designers select materials to be used in a product they predetermine whether sustainable resources are used, how much energy will be consumed during production, what pollutants will be generated, and finally, how it will be disposed of, recycled, or reused.
Unless responsible products are designed and promoted and substantial markets developed, recycling will fail. Billions of tons of accumulated plastics, mixed glass, construction debris, wooden shipping pallets, rubber tires, batteries, organic waste, and many other materials will be land-filled or incinerated and eventually end up in our lungs, blood, and genes. We’re being genetically modified by our lifestyle choices. These materials can be reincarnated into useful and long lasting products.
I identified with Don Quixote in my Designing with Garbage days. At least windmills don’t pollute. They should collect solar as well as wind energy to make them more efficient. Solar energy coatings can also be applied to roof tops and surfaces that are exposed to sunlight. Unfortunately, there are more ways to collect than store energy.
My all-time favorite industrial design student, Wendy Brawer, became my co-teacher for a ‘Design for the Environment’ class at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Wendy and I were on NYC’s Solid Waste and Citywide Recycling Advisory Boards and often spoke to local community boards about managing they’re ever accumulating trash. We also promoted the use of recycled plastics in NYC’s waterfront. Governmental bureaucracy, lack of adequate funding, and rigid building codes rendered most projects impracticable. We participated in as many events as possible, even though they were financially unrewarding. It’s easy to find pro-bono work and difficult to find true patrons and real financial support for social causes. Our clients would inquire, “Why’s it so expensive? It’s only Garbage!”
Wendy is the only student I’ve ever had that actually practiced what I preached. Even though she had no degree in Industrial Design, she became head of the environmental committee for the IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America). She also became Designer in Residence at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. Wendy created an amazing ecological “Green Map” system WWW.GREENMAP.ORG.
I’m very proud of her.
Wendy is a Cancer (feeling type) sun sign. She’s actually an intuitive type. She has ambitious index fingers on rectangular palms with short fingers. Her personality is much more like an Aries. She’s passionate, inspired most of the time, spontaneous, and extremely proactive. Her separated head and life line symbolize an innate dislike for bureaucracy and a natural rebelliousness. With fingers held closely together, Wendy is a great team player and a fabulous partner. Just ask her remarkable husband Ray. Check out the budding mapmakers below. Wendy has inspired many thousands of green minded people of all ages all over the planet.
Wendy’s “Stamp Out Junk Mail Kit” helped raise consumer awareness of paper waste.
One of Wendy and my pet projects was “Energy Savings Stamps”. We approached Con Edison and Long Island Lighting on the east coast and Pacific Gas & Electric on the west coast with our concept to include a page of stamps in their monthly or quarterly billing statements. Consumers could paste stamps into their calendars to remind them to perform simple very important energy savings tasks. The utilities claimed they liked our concept, but for one reason or another they ultimately rejected it. We thought about going to the US Postal Service, but didn’t. Talk about bureaucracies.
While Wendy and I taught Design for the Environment at Cooper Union, we initiated a class project to raise consumer awareness about transportation issues. There were so many possibilities. Imagine the peace, quiet, fresh air, and friendliness that could occur in a culture of alternative transportation. Envision designated highways free of heavy dangerous oil consuming and polluting vehicles. Visualize frequent stops for healthy foods and local services, maintenance, recreation, maps, and directories. Picture practical comfortable human and electric powered bikes, scooters, and work vehicles. What about vehicles with light weight frames and inflatable bodies?
The potential for inflatable technology has barely been tapped. Physical damage and personal injuries could be greatly reduced by building powerful durable airbags into car bumpers so that they can inflate outward on designated impact. Why wait for the vehicle to reach the passengers before the air bag inflates? Cars could actually bounce instead of trounce. Why not design inflatable outerwear for motorcycling and extreme sporting events? Why can’t gigantic baffled plasticized fiberglass airbags be built into the structure of buildings and bridges? Specific vibrations inflate airbags and temporarily hold structures together while many people escape certain death or injury. Why not retrofit existing structures? With so many definite possibilities, we wished we had the resources to speculate.
Airbags can also be used as inflatable insulation for maintaining a hot or cold environment. We can keep a six-pack or a walk in freezer cold or maintain warmth in a large industrial building. Drafty windows, doors, and attics can be permanently or temporarily retrofitted with clear air filled vinyl mattresses that easily inflate, deflate, and interlock and come in stock and adjustable sizes.
Our class decided to try to raise consumer awareness about automotive waste. A huge auto show was coming up soon. We talked the powers that be into letting us have a small space (for free) in the basement of the Jacob Javits Convention Center in NYC, along with several other alternative transportation advocates and inventors of electric and human powered vehicles. For anyone who has never been to one, auto shows are a lot of glitzy over-priced vehicles that go much faster than any speed limits. Scantily clad models with an overabundance of pheromones are objectified to help glamorize and sell cars. Our class produced T-shirts and bumper stickers. We barely sold anything and were regarded as heretics and renegades, but thousands of people got to see our messages. None of us had any regrets.