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Design

Mass Reduction

by Tim McKeough

January 13, 2010

Welcome to slowLab, a collective of designers applying a cradle-to-cradle philosophy to consumer goods.

The slow-design movement thinks it's time to go beyond the old watchwords of form and function. "When we talk about slower design, we talk about reflective consumption," says Carolyn F. Strauss, the director of slowLab, a nonprofit that encourages design professionals to take a deep breath and think about the history, meaning, and life cycle of products and built environments. Slow design is "a considered approach to design," she says, and designers should be thinking through the many consequences of their creations.Strauss, who studied philosophy and architecture at Columbia University, founded slowLab in 2003. "At that time, green design was not, for me, holistic enough," she says. It was only concerned with alternative materials and recycling, "and not looking much at social sustainability," she says. Besides, "instead of just designing a product with green materials, we should be calling into question the need for the product in the first place."Noticing that a handful of designers was already doing just that, Strauss created slowLab as an umbrella organization and think tank. The organization documents and disseminates case studies, holds intimate discussions about slow design (called "slow dialogues") in various cities, and works with educational institutions and exhibition curators to present a different way of thinking about design. SlowLab's work focuses on six core principles: to reveal missed experiences in everyday life, to expand the expression of objects beyond pure functionality, to encourage people to reflect on consumer habits, to engage multiple partners, to facilitate the participation of the end user, and to promote the evolution of ideas and objects over time. Slow-design projects also often reject mass production and disposability, and favor local materials and manufacturing.It's a lot of theory to take in, but there are many products that poetically illustrate the ideas. Broken White dinnerware by the Rotterdam, Netherlands-based designer Simon Heijdens, for instance, is a collection of ceramic dishes that start out smooth but develop small cracks in the glaze that form a floral pattern with continued use. The project encourages reflection, evolves over the years, and questions whether cracks in dishes should really be considered imperfections at all (so maybe you don't need to replace them).Julia Lohmann, another London-based designer, asks people to contemplate the widespread use of animal materials in consumer goods. Her Flock illuminated ceiling, for instance, appears as light and carefree as a cartoon cloud-but only until you realize that it's made from sheep stomachs. Lohmann has also designed leather furniture, and her benches come with a lesson: shaped like headless cows, the seats remind users that their coverings used to be living creatures.Of course, not all slow-design projects deal in provocation; some are much more practical, and simply seek to offer a thoughtful alternative to conventional products. Montreal's LoooLo Textiles, for instance, makes organic pillows and blankets that are fully biodegradable. "‘Slow' to me means that I am not leaving behind an object that is obsolete or toxic, and unable to return to the earth," says Joanna Notkin, LoooLo's founder, , pointing out that she takes the time to investigate suppliers while avoiding beautiful yet questionable textiles. LoooLo's products look and feel just like regular pillows and blankets, but if you tire of them, "you can throw them into a composter and they'll become useful ingredients once again."

The Projects of slowLab

60 Minutes Sofa/Bench
Alastair Fuad-Luke's 60 Minutes Sofa/Bench is a long seat with a gradually shifting shape. At one end it's for sitting upright, at the other, for reclining. By shifting your position along the length of the bench you can change your posture from one of alertness to one of relaxation, modulating your approach to the passage of time.
Tyranny of the Plug We take it for granted that our blenders and other electric kitchen devices function when we plug them in. But the simplicity of home electricity masks the work these devices actually do. Dick van Hoff's Tyranny of the Plug project is a collection of kitchen machines that work by hand, reconnecting us with the physicality of food preparation.
slowMail Here's one way to combat the frantic pace of electronic communication: Just slow it down. Carolyn Strauss (slowLab's director) and Julian Bleecker's slowMail is an email service that delays the delivery of emails based on, among other factors, the physical distance between sender and recipient and the emotional tenor of the message.
The Eco-Cathedral Louis Le Roy started work on his Eco-Cathedral more than 30 years ago, stacking discarded bricks and concrete slabs in a clearing in Mildam, the Netherlands. Over the years, his walls and towers grew, and nature grew around them, covering the emerging monument in moss and vines. The result is an indelible statement about the creative power of time.
Slow Clock For her clock project, the designer Thorunn Arnadottir created a string of colored beads that function as a timepiece when hung on a mechanical, wall-mounted spinning gear. To symbolically free herself from the wheels of time, she can remove the beads from the wall and wear them as a necklace.
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