When we judge a product’s sensitivity to the environment, we often focus on its physical properties—what it’s made of, how much energy it consumes, and what kind of impact it will have on the landscape if it’s discarded. Less commonly thought about is how a product’s formal qualities—its design—can contribute to the goal of sustainability.
Consider modular design, which refers to the combination of standardized and interchangeable parts, or modules, to form larger compositions. LEGOs are probably the best known example of a modular system of design, but many other products reflect the same idea.
In what ways does modular design support environmentalism? To answer that question, start by asking yourself when the last time was that you or your child threw out any LEGOs. Because modular products by definition encourage reuse and renewal rather than disposability, they serve to reduce waste and consumption. So does the fact that you can usually get modules “by the piece,” which allows you to gather just the right quantity of product that your budget, or your space, allows—and then to add more if circumstances change later.
As a practicing architect, I was introduced to the concept of modularity when commissioned to design a group of prefab cottages for a resort project. The idea of creating work with a limited palette of standardized units was very intriguing to me, and eventually led to the discovery that there was no single resource for art and product design that was transformable, flexible and interactive. MODULE R was born to fill that gap.
Our catalog now numbers over a thousand pieces, and out of that assortment I’ve pulled out a half-dozen works of modular design that we hope demonstrates that something which looks good can do good too. A few more examples, that we don’t carry because they’re either just too big or are still in a concept phase, round out our top ten list of sustainable modular products for 2012.
Tegu Magnetic Blocks
Modular design implies play, and play starts with childhood. So it’s not surprising that many children’s toys are modular, and foster the kind of open-ended free play that stimulates mental development. One of our favorites, Tegu blocks are fabricated from sustainably sourced, eco-friendly Honduran hardwoods and assembled by local craftspeople.
AMAC’s Rhombin Desktop Storage and Play
Who says play has to stop with childhood? AMAC’s Rhombin Desktop Storage units
are bins in the shape of equilateral triangles, and are designed to stack as well as cluster together in limitless configurations. Made in California using Cereplast, a plant-based bioplastic.
Hexagons are one of nature’s most pristine modular forms (think honeycombs) by virtue of their ability to abut without leaving any gaps between them. Speaking of honeycombs, these colorful silicone trivets
are free of BPA, lead, latex, phthalates and other harsh chemicals, and are 100 percent recyclable.
Shigeru Ban 10-Unit Modular Furniture System
Have a seat—or a table, or bench, or pew. Designed by famed Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, you can make all of these from the 10 L-shaped modules
that come in the package. Modules are made from UPM ProFi, an environmentally innovative composite fashioned principally from recycled paper and plastic.
MIO Paperforms Wall Paneling
Who said walls need to be flat? Transform a space with environmentally friendly PaperForms sculptural wall tiles
. They’re a lightweight and recyclable paper product that can be left natural or painted. Tiles are 12 inches square and come in three styles, each with a boldly projecting three-dimensional motif.
Untitled Modular Art
Mark our words: co-creative art is the wave of the future. But don’t wait that long to get on board. Trevor Elliott’s Untitled Modular Art system
gives people a painless way of being their own artist, with no training required. Simply connect pieces of reclaimed wood embedded with magnets to each other to form beautiful tableaus suitable for ogling by friends and family.
Ze O Ze Modular Shoes
Thanks to a young industrial designer, Daniele Bekerman
, ladies may one day finally be able to say au revoir to the mismatched shoe blues. Her Ze o Ze
is a modular shoe concept that envisions footwear with adjustable and interchangeable parts so that a person can swap out heels and bodies, change colors, and modulate styles from casual to formal.
Praxis Modular Guitars
As different in concept as it is in appearance, the Praxis Modular Guitar
is a bold new vision for electric musical instruments. Guitar components are not only designed to be swapped out at will, but they’re also intended to be made from recycled, salvaged and upcycled materials using community workshop tools.
(Re)Plant Collection by Art Terre
The great outdoors is fertile ground for modular design these days. Take Art Terre’s (Re)Plant Collection
, which is an expandable system of planters suspended vertically in a chain of steel ladder steps and cables. The hanging apparatus is recycled PVC textile material salvaged from the automotive industry. (Re)Plant works equally well indoors.
World’s Tallest Modular Building, Brooklyn, New York
Topping out the list of this year’s most significant modular designs has to be the new 32-story apartment building
by SHoP Architects that’s just starting to rise in downtown Brooklyn. Modular homes, classroom buildings and commercial structures have long been part of the landscape, but this project represents the highest profile test yet of the boundaries of modular construction. And since high density development is by many measures the greenest form of human habitat, it appears modular architecture has a huge potential to advance the quest for sustainability.