The environmentally conscious design has existed for years, but this year it’s different. It’s no longer a fringe conversation. It’s no longer an “oh that’s nice” detail. It’s not just about designing the same things, but making them “eco-friendly.” Designers are responding to the environmental crisis with more nuance, sophistication, and directness than ever before. They’re questioning their roles in an industry that contributes a great deal to the problem. And they’re figuring out where they have the most power to effect change.
Climate anxiety is defining our time and now, design. But is it enough to make an impact? If you look at all the amazing ways designers are redefining their relationship with the world at large, it just might be. At this year’s Milan Design Fair, the environmental crisis fueled material explorations, like chairs 3D printed from a cornstarch-based plastic, side tables made from recycled shells and feathers, and glazes made from volcanic ash.
Meanwhile, Charlotte McCurdy, an interdisciplinary designer based in Brooklyn, designed a raincoat made from algae-based plastic, which she describes as a carbon-negative material since algae sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Another designer, Garrett Benisch, redesigned the humble ball-point pen to made entirely out of biosolids—sewage that’s been digested by microorganisms—from the ink to the barrel.
Beyond making products out of natural materials, designers are also reinventing the systems we rely on to work in unison with nature. For instance, student designers from Chicago designed an analog air conditioner made from terra cotta that uses evaporative cooler rather than Freon and electricity to chill the air. Students also designed a water purifier that relies solely on evaporation and condensation. Never has the climate crisis been as apparent as it is now, and fortunately, designers are getting the memo. Sustainability is not a choice. Rather, it is the only way forward.