In safe hands

Once upon a time Clare Brass was a designer of kitchenware, based in Italy. She did very well at it. You can still buy her Kalistò range: sleek, cylindrical kitchen boxes in stainless steel, designed for Alessi and first manufactured in 1992. Their longevity is a testament to their enduring elegance.

But Brass, born in 1962, doesn’t like talking about them. “I don’t often mention these,” she says. “It’s my dirty history.” For Brass is now team leader of Sustain at the Royal College of Art in London, where she presides over a radical initiative to make sustainability a core issue for all students, whether they are studying architecture, textiles, visual communications or industrial design. Rather than training designers to make yet more beautiful objects, Brass’s ambition is to show them how to tackle some of the largest problems we face on the planet: waste, depleted natural resources and overconsumption.

Brass’s evangelism derives from her own experience. “When I was a product designer I always had the feeling that most of my work ended up very quickly in landfill, so basically I was designing landfill.” Simply reducing the negative impact of what she was doing, however, did not seem enough. Instead, inspired by the American environmental scientist Donella Meadows, she spent several years analysing design’s positive contribution to the world.

“That enabled me to rethink what the role could be. I began to work with the concept that if designers are problem-solvers, then it is about shifting the problem that designers have to address.” As she reminds her students, designers have many talents. “[They] are very good at visualising things ... at thinking outside the box, connecting different areas of expertise. And at prototyping, trying things out.” They are good at getting their ideas across too, Brass suggests, “partly because they are able to communicate with drawings”.

Clare Brass at the RCA

What if they used these skills not to come up with a new kitchen gadget or a faster car but to solve the problems of food waste and peak oil? The key, for Brass, is for designers to address systems rather than objects. “Changing the object, the car, is quite easy for a car manufacturer – they can change the model, they do that every year. Changing the way we process, transport and put energy in our car is a lot more complicated, so if we can manage to do that, we are likely to have a lot more impact.”

Before Brass came to Sustain, she had already begun to put this new thinking into practice. Leader of sustainability at the UK’s Design Council from 2006-07, she set up the Seed (Social Environmental Enterprise + Design) Foundation with two colleagues in 2007. There, among other projects, she pioneered a system for composting on housing estates in north London, which fed food waste gathered by volunteers into a specially designed composting machine, the Rocket Composter. The compost was then used to cultivate fruit and vegetables on the estates.

As important as the design of the composter itself was the thinking through of the whole system of production – recognising and valuing, for instance, the intangible benefits to residents of learning to grow vegetables and feeling part of a community enterprise. And while the scheme may seem a long way from product design, it is still an object – in this case the Rocket Composter – that is at its heart.

Anton Alvarez’s thread-wrapping machine in use

“There is always an interaction with objects,” says Brass. “Objects are what allow us to do things differently. But those objects fit within a system, they have a purpose.”

But people will only be sold on sustainability, she believes, if those objects are attractive and fun to use.

“There is a desirability factor in design which is critical, because people will not change the way they do things unless there is a better, or more exciting, or sexier way to do them on offer.” She points to Omlet’s cute Eglu range of hen houses, created by a former RCA graduate, which has stimulated a surge in chic urban hen-keeping.

Brass insists that these ways of thinking can benefit all designers. Sustain is not a separate department at the RCA, a worthy ghetto, but a programme that inspires across disciplines. As Brass tells her students: “Energy prices are going up. Legislation is coming in. Customers are changing. Those three things affect the future of all students, whether they go on to work for themselves or in industry.” She encourages them to think of this as a way of stimulating creativity in an area of growing importance to manufacturers. Last year, Hitachi Europe came to work on a project with some of Brass’s students, while this year a group has been working with Nissan, looking at the future of sustainable mobility.

Bench covered with thread using Anton Alvarez’s machine

In September the RCA organised an exhibition of the best sustainability projects from across the college. There was an ingenious thread-wrapping machine from Anton Alvarez, a product design student, which can make crude but colourful furniture out of discarded materials by simply wrapping them together with thread. Four students in the Innovation Design Engineering department came up with a project to persuade us to eat insects, as a more sustainable source of protein than meat. They created a road map of public persuasion – TV programmes, pretty little boxes of adventurous snacks, the staged introduction of sushi-style boxes of locusts and so on.

The Esource bicycle-powered recycling system

Another graduate from the same department, Hal Watts, researched what happens to Europe’s abandoned computers on a dump in Ghana. Teenage boys burn off the plastic wires to recover the copper, with devastating consequences for their health and the environment. So Watts developed a bicycle-powered recycling system, Esource, to be made and used locally, which enables the boys to cut the plastic off the wire and to recover the more valuable unburnt copper.

The prizewinning project, however, had no such obvious practicality. Ai Hasegawa, in the Design Interactions department, tackled the issue of human reproduction in an age of overpopulation and environmental crisis by suggesting that any woman anxious to give birth but unable to conceive might volunteer to incubate and give birth to an endangered species – shark babies, anyone? This Swiftian proposal was illustrated with great verve and wit, including a model of a womb with a baby fish inside. It was your mind that was tickled rather than any acquisitive itch.

Many of these projects are brilliant conceptual exercises but others offer more immediate potential for further investment. Recently, RCA graduate Virginia Gardiner spoke to this year’s student intake about her project, Loowatt, to find a sustainable way of processing human waste for fuel and fertiliser. Developed with money from the RCA’s own in-house business incubator, InnovationRCA, a pilot project funded by the Gates Foundation has been under way in Madagascar.

It is a long way from making nice shiny things for Alessi to processing waste but for Brass, it is the same discipline. “It’s not that your role as a designer of things will be taken away,” she says, “but that the kinds of things you make will form part of a system.”

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