No More Stuff

Adding more stuff to our lives – the default position for designers, artists and architects – may no longer be a viable option at a time when the received wisdom of economic growth at all costs is increasingly being questioned. That was the starting point for a discussion introduced by Head of College Jeremy Till and featuring eight guest speakers.

Speakers

- Michelle Baddeley, Bartlett School of Construction & Project Management, UCL
- Orsola de Castro, pioneer in sustainable fashion
- Ekow Eshun, writer and broadcaster
- Sanjay Nazerali, Global Chief Strategy Officer at Dentsu Aegis Network
- Cecilie Elisabeth Rudolph, designer
- Alice Sherwood, visiting senior research fellow at Kings College London
- Ilana Taub, founder of Snact
- Clare Twomey, artist and research fellow at University of Westminster

Listen to a recording of the session:

Session Report

Designers, said Jeremy Till in his introduction, are part of our obsession with growth, associated as they are with the idea that we need more stuff, with notions of built-in obsolescence, and with our relentless focus on the new.

What happens to the role of design when it is no longer linked to the proliferation of stuff? ‘We need to adopt different values to those of neo-classical economics with its singularity of method and outlook,’ argued Jeremy. ‘It means looking at systems rather than objects.’

The idea of ‘no more stuff’ doesn’t limit the designer’s role – it expands it. Said Jeremy: Released from our preoccupation with more stuff we build new values of empathy, ecology and equity, and so return to the stuff ethically refreshed.’

Evocative scenarios

Exploring the link between unmanaged growth and inequality, Michelle Baddeley referenced JK Galbraith’s ‘conspicuous consumption’ in suggesting that large corporations were creating wants rather than satisfying needs.

‘Waste,’ said Michelle below a slide of refuse pickers in Hyderabad, ‘is fuelling inequality and insecurity.’ Designers, she said, can make a positive difference if they encourage consumers to replace products less frequently.

Describing her Fashion Revolution brand, a design label that upcycles by relying on remnants and internal obsolescence, Orsola de Castro said she wanted to see an industry in which words like democratic and luxury apply right across the supply chain. Who made my clothes? That’s the question we should all be asking. ‘When people know,’ said Orsola, ‘they care.’

For Ekow Eshun, the debate was a chance to view issues of scarcity and sustainability through the lens of art rather than as economic factors. ‘Art,’ he said, ‘offers a way of developing more evocative scenarios about want and need that delve beneath the surface.’

Citing Robert Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’, a monumental earthwork sculpture revealed or concealed by fluctuating water levels in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, and other artworks, Ekow championed the beauty of evanescence. ‘All is dust,’ he said. ‘Everything must end, and so all is worth treasuring.’

Scarcity and sustainability

Quoting the ‘own less, use more’ mantra of our times, Sanjay Nazerali called for a leveraging of dormant assets and more creative upcycling to maximise the value of existing resources. At the same time he scrutinised the prevailing ‘own less’ zeitgeist. ‘Ownership increases the perceived value of stuff,’ he pointed out. ‘And stuff is where our cultural values manifest themselves.’

For Danish CSM design graduate Cecilie Elisabeth Rudolph, combining function and beauty with sustainability means looking at food as much more than a source of nourishment. Giving salmon skin a second life as a novel eating experience or as a form of jewellery, for example, focuses our attention on issues of consumerism and food waste.

Comparing the equity in rival art brands Rembrandt and Warhol, Alice Sherwood suggested that in today’s ‘attention economy’, where scarcity is no longer the key to price or value, the American pop artist’s work outperforms everyone else’s despite its trademark abundance. ‘We need you,’ said Alice, addressing the audience, ‘to curate our attention, to tell us what matters or doesn’t.’

How long is forever?

For Ilana Taub, founder of snack brand Snact, and a London Leaders sustainability ambassador, the waste challenge is about reconnecting people with our food system so that they value all its elements and stages. Having launched with a fruit snacking product, Fruit Jerky, Snact’s ambition is built on an ethical activism that asks people to think about what and how they eat.

Describing three of her artworks that encourage the viewer to ‘step into’ them, Clare Twomey cited time, transience and the ephemeral as key themes of her output. Her ‘Forever’ installation invited signatories to commit ‘forever’ to ownership of a cup from the work via a legally binding agreement. ‘Let’s consider time,’ she urged, ‘and what forever might mean.’

In the discussion that followed, speakers and audience debated the definitions of want and need. Want, it was suggested, might be balanced or tempered by should or could in order to recognise needs and social responsibilities.