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At Art Center College of Design, sustainability meets form and function

The private college hopes to be a global leader in stylish designs that leave small carbon footprints and don't end up in landfills.

March 15, 2009|Reed Johnson

Radhika Bhalla dreamed of empowering women in her native India by designing an attractive, multipurpose bicycle cart made of inexpensive, easily obtained local materials. At present, many rural Indian women must haul heavy loads of firewood and flour bags by hand, on foot.

Bhalla calculates that the new carts could save up to five hours of walking per day. That, in turn, could help win over husbands who traditionally don't like to see their womenfolk getting too mobile and independent.

"As long as there's monetary gain, men are interested," said Bhalla, a 25-year-old student at Art Center College of Design, the nearly 80-year-old Pasadena school that's one of the world's foremost hothouses of art and design innovation.

Now, Art Center has a new goal that is being enthusiastically embraced by students and faculty alike: to make the private college a global leader in stylish, consumer-seducing designs that also leave small carbon footprints and don't end up rotting in landfills.

In the three years since the school adopted sustainability as one of its core values, students have responded with a wave of imaginative, bold projects. Spencer Nikosey is fabricating a line of ruggedly attractive designer bags and totes made out of materials such as Army truck surplus tarps and salvaged city of Pasadena fire hoses that had been damaged and deemed no longer of use. He then contracted with what he describes as an "old world" Los Angeles company to manufacture the bags, and accessorized them with numbered dog tags to give them the cachet of limited-edition exclusivity.

A big part of the value of his bags, Nikosey believes, derives from their unusual pedigree and personal history. "To me, high-end is about the story and the feeling."

Sharon Levy invented a sleek-looking, single-serving electric tea set to reduce the amount of energy that tea drinkers waste heating excess water. (The Brits alone spew out thousands of tons of carbon dioxide every day doing this.) "I decided that was a good opportunity to change the user behavior. It's supposed to encourage a sustainable lifestyle," said Levy, 31, a seventh-term student.

All these projects reflect the new philosophy at Art Center, which was founded in 1930 at the onset of the Great Depression, a time, like our own, when designers were searching for game-changing new methods and models to replace ones that were worn out or no longer feasible.

In recent years the college -- which has about 1,400 undergraduates and 150 graduate students, 22% of them from overseas -- has reshuffled its curriculum and shaken up its hilltop campus by making sustainability a central tenet of everything that its students design and develop. Design's dynamic duo of form and function has officially been replaced by the holy trinity of form, functionality and sustainability. Eco-consciousness is now a given in many design and architecture curricula, but leaders at Art Center think they are in the vanguard of using it as an organizing principle.

Many of these products not only are more environmentally friendly and durable but also better looking and (that ineffable quality) cooler -- if also, in some cases, slightly more expensive -- than the energy-gorging, hard-to-recycle ones they aim to replace.

Nikolaus Hafermaas, the college's acting chief academic officer, said that a combination of student demand and faculty awareness caused the school to make sustainability central to its mission, following up on recommendations by the cross-departmental faculty council and a white paper issued five years ago.

"My personal goal would be that the S-word is placed out in no time and we don't have any dedicated sustainability class anymore because it's so ingrained in everything we do here and it's a no-brainer," he said in his chicly minimalist offices in the 175-acre, Craig Ellwood-designed campus.

Of course, Art Center's endeavors in planetary protectionism won't amount to much if the students don't make things that consumers actually want to buy. Designers may be hybrids of artists and social engineers, but they're also technical problem solvers who must keep their clients happy.

To achieve that synthesis, Hafermaas thinks designers must continue to move beyond what he regards as a false dichotomy between beauty and ecological correctness. Growing up in Germany in the 1970s and '80s, during the first wave of the Green movement, he witnessed the puritanical rigidity of this either/or paradigm.

"Not too long ago, things that looked too good were deeply suspicious to people who thought they owned the [righteous] cause," he said. "Do you want to have beautiful and toxic, or do you want to have the good stuff that looks like crap? If you looked too slick, you were the enemy."

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