Sustainable design in a superficial age

Curator Jolanthe Kugler calls for a return to more enduring, ethical principles as an antidote to disposable design

Sustainability has become a buzzword of our age; a term at the crux of political debate and attached to a smorgasbord of products from groceries to haute couture. But are we as a society truly taking on board the message to radically rethink the chain of manufacture and consumption – a chain that winds back from individual buying decisions all the way to the responsibilities of the designer?

Jolanthe Kugler, curator at Germany's Vitra Design Museum, shared her thoughts on the subject at the latest UBS Arts Forum, a platform to analyse current trends across art, architecture and design.

"Sustainable design is design that really fulfils real needs of people, not trends, not fashion," explains Kugler. "Even after 100 years they will be still in use because they fulfil basic human needs and they do not change so much – we still need a good chair."

A return to the old-fashioned notion of goods that are 'made to last' could help put the brakes on an endless cycle of production and disposal that has brought us to the brink of environmental catastrophe. In stark contrast to a trend-led product likely to be discarded as soon as the winds of fashion change, in Kugler's example "we can use this chair for 50 years, and that is sustainable."

Hand in hand with this philosophy is a need to "choose materials, ways of production, that survive the generation after you." Kugler believes that not only should sustainable design embrace ecologically sound materials and processes, but also remain open to more fundamental questions – even, ultimately, whether "what you are designing is really necessary."

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