Sustainability in the education of future furniture designers

Matt Smith
 by Matt Smith
Sustainability in the education of future furniture designers

Educating our emerging designers in sustainable furniture design.

Sustainability and mindfulness of the environment should be innate in everything we do as designers. We need to ensure that every new product or furniture piece we design is carefully considered, justifies the resource expense, and deserves to be produced. This means moving past the high-end offerings and trends and embedding sustainability in our design practices.

'Sustainable furniture' shouldn't be a greenwash marketing term as it so often is, it needs to be the basis of everything new we design and create.

The concept of integrated sustainability is a key element in my role as a Design Professional Teaching Fellow at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. My own design education included the task of developing a personal design manifesto. After researching, reading, and borrowing snippets from designers I admired I settled on the following:

  1. Always start from the beginning. 

  2. Understand the core of the issue.

  3. Tread lightly. 

20 years later this manifesto still stands and I now use it to shape the way I educate my students.

The focus in design education is research, critical thinking, and innovation. The opportunity exists to delve deep into the problem and understand the core of the issue, the user, their needs, and the social, cultural, and environmental impact of the solution.

The first step in the teaching process is to strip back the preconceived ideas and to broaden the student's sometimes narrow view of what sustainability in furniture design is and the plethora of opportunities that exist within this.

And yes, while recycled and repurposed materials and rapid manufacturing techniques are one approach, they are not the be-all and end-all of sustainable furniture design. Furniture made from salvaged timber, shipping pallets, and bamboo, as well as flatpack laser cut or routered hoop pine is an admirable start - any attempt at sustainability is better than nothing - but when we fully understand the concept of sustainable design and the breadth of opportunity within it, there is so much more.

The essence of sustainable furniture design is to reduce the negative impacts on the environment in the creation of our designs.

Approaching this as an opportunity rather than a limitation is the first step, an initial brainstorm provides us with a number of areas to explore and mine for innovation, some of which include:

Lifespan - how long will our design last? Does it use appropriate materials in order to be recycled at the end of life? Or is it durable and designed for longevity? Has it been designed to be repaired and parts replaced if needed? Is it designed for disassembly, to break down the parts for ease of recycling?

By-products - can we create a piece made solely from the by-products of other processes? Giving us a potentially cheap material that may have been otherwise destined for the waste cycle.

Carbon emissions - what materials, processes, packaging, transport options can we use to reduce the carbon footprint of our design?

Virgin materials - are they friendly to the environment? Have we chosen materials that don't emit toxins, carcinogens and volatile organic compounds (VOCs)? Were they low on resource use, such as energy and water, in their creation?

Renewable materials - can they be harvested without killing the source (such as cork, wool, algae, even recycled plastics)? or are they quick to grow and regenerate (like hemp and bamboo)?

Transport - how can we get our product to the consumer? Is the packaging environmentally friendly? Do we ship it or only use electric vehicles? Can it be made with local materials and manufacturers in order to remove transport altogether?

These are just a few approaches to consider. 

At the end of the day, sometimes less really is more, we have to ask the question - "do we really need this? What does my design offer that existing products don't?" It is extremely hard to justify the use of raw materials and energy to produce a product or piece that fails to improve on the status quo and benefit the world.

Accessibility is another huge factor in sustainable design. A sustainably designed high-priced luxury item with low volume sales is a good start, but an affordable solution is a way to reach the masses and have the greatest impact. Replace (or compete against) the market leader with a comparably priced sustainable option and we can start to see a shift.

Accessibility and affordability don't always have to come from the scale of manufacturing. Careful consideration in the design process, such as single material pieces (which benefit recycling at end of life), utilizing local skills and manufacturing (benefiting the community and reducing transport costs and emissions), and design minimalism or reducing the design down to the essential are just some of the methods that can be incorporated to bring an affordable product to market.

The goal is for our emerging designers to shed the easy preconceptions, innovate, and deliver an affordable product that truly is sustainable.

The market is there, consumers are driven more and more to choices they perceive as sustainable and environmentally positive. The new consumer demands knowledge and transparency - they want to know where their product was made and by who, they want to know from what it is made and how they can conscientiously dispose of it should they wish to, they want to trust that they can share their purchase with their social groups and positively align themselves with the objects they surround themselves with.

The emerging designer who can offer an innovative, affordable, functional, and appealing furniture piece won't have trouble finding a place in this world, be it within a company or striking out on their own. The emerging designer who truly and honestly build sustainability into everything they do can't help but succeed.

What could be better than sitting back knowing your designs are making a positive impact in people's lives?

Matt Smith
by Matt Smith
Matt is originally trained in Industrial Design and his experience covers both furniture, interior, product branding, and packaging. Matt is currently teaching at the University of Canterbury educating the next generation of designers.