In my previous post I outlined the thought of aesthetic sustainability and the components of an aesthetically durable look. There are obvious sustainable qualities in long-lasting products, whether this means products made of lasting materials, products with lasting or adjustable functionalities, products that provide emotional bonding between subject and object, or products with lasting aesthetics.
I am investigating what an aesthetically sustainable or durable look contains, and whether creating a strategy or guidelines for aesthetic sustainability is a possibility.
In this post I will summarize my thoughts on the creation of a durable (emotional) connection between subject and object as an important part of aesthetic sustainability as well as a way of designing to replace the need to consume, which one of TED’s TEN sustainable design strategies.
A threat to sustainability is what you could call aesthetic obsolescence , i.e. that the look of a dress or a chair or a pair of shoes looses its aesthetic value, in the sense that it no longer meets the cultural Zeitgeist-influenced standards of good taste. Aesthetic obsolescence means that even though the design-object isn’t worn out, it becomes unattractive and therefore discarded by its owner. But are there ways of designing objects that can minimise the risk of aesthetic obsolescence? Creating an aesthetically sustainable and emotional connection between subject and object could be a way.
In my post on aesthetic sustainability I mentioned adding time to design as a way of creating a durable connection between subject and object. There are, in my opinion, different ways of adding time, which I intend to sketch out in the following, as I find these interesting and relevant ways of working with durability as an emotional and aesthetic qualities.
One way of adding time to a design-object is by implementing the creation time or making the process visible in the product, and thereby establishing a “relationship” between object and subject / receiver. This can either be done as verbal or visual storytelling about the design process or the techniques used (on hangtags or websites), or by actually implementing traces of the process in the finished product. The latter intrigues me, as this means that the design-object itself could become a carrier of time.
Figure 1: Hangtag 0% Waste, Susanne Guldager
Danish designer Susanne Guldager worked with a Zero Waste strategy in her latest collection “Rubbish Couture” resulting in a collection of one-size garments with visible process-traces and variable styling options. The creation time is implemented in the pieces as hand-dyed fabrics, hand-painted details, and visible jigsaw puzzling.
Figure 2: Susanne Guldager, Rubbish Couture
Another, and perhaps a little more abstract, way of adding time to design is to merge past and presence, distance and closeness in the design-object.
In the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (published in 1936) German philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) uses the term aura, which I also chose to use in the title of this text. Benjamin differentiates between cultic and profane aura, and discusses how the modern reproduction-techniques imply a cultic aura loss. An aura-experience, cultic or profane, however, is an aesthetic experience. And aesthetic experiences, when described and discussed in philosophical writings, provide some sort of insight. The aura-experience can be described as a sudden experience of fusion between present and past, or between closeness and distance. The ”here and now” and the “has been” are momentarily one. A passage is created between “then” and “now”. Such experiences may lead to an insight in events from past as well as in present states of mind.
Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, who in 2012 opened a museum in Istanbul based on his novel The Museum of Innocence (2009), in which the main character Kemal spends his life collecting things that belong to, have belonged to, or remind him of his beloved Füsun. These things (e.g. cigarette butts, an old ruler (that he sometimes can’t help tasting), hair pins, porcelain figurines, pieces of clothing) provide him with an aura-experience; while touching them, a passage from the unbearable present to the wonderful, yet lost, past is created. Momentarily the distance between “then” and “now” is removed. Orhan Pamuk recently explained his fascination with things’ ability to create passages in time in an interview to The New York Times Style Magazine: “Let us say in the pocket of one of my old coats I find a movie ticket from many years ago. (…) Once I see the ticket, not only do I remember that I saw this movie, but also scenes from this movie, which I think I have entirely forgotten, come back to me. Objects have this power, and I like it.”
If you could, somehow, as a designer, implement qualities like these in your designs, you would be able to create a very strong emotional, and sustainable, bond between objects and subject/ consumer. Sustainable in the sense that consumers would be hesitant to replace objects that hold such qualities, since it would be like loosing an old friend.
The difficult part about working with emotional qualities like the above described is that they are extremely subjective and connected to personal memories and intimate experiences. However, I am convinced that there are general human experiences you can refer to as a designer and thus incorporate qualities alike the described. An example could be to seek inspiration in the things that belong to the magical, beloved other: things that can instantly merge distance and closeness by making the loved one feel close by even though he / she may be far away.
Seeking inspiration in the things that belong to the beloved other, could take the shape of women’s garments mimicking clothes that have been borrowed from a boyfriend. Some of the styles that Maison Martin Margiela created for their recent collaboration with H&M contain these qualities.
Figure 3: H&M and Maison Martin Margiela collaboration AW12
Swedish Nudie Jeans write on their homepage that since the material denim ages beautifully, jeans acquire more attitude and character the longer you wear them; they become a part of you, as were they a beloved or close friend. Nudie Jeans encourages their costumers to break in a new pair jeans, since this process and interaction creates an intimacy and a durable, emotional bond between the jeans and the user.
Figure 4: Nudie Jeans
Another way of integrating general emotional qualities and creating a fusion between distance and closeness in clothing and textile design is by adding references to myths, which per definition seek to explain or deal with human tragedy, the big themes in human life or with general human life-conditions.
Danish designer Anne Sofie Madsen worked with the Inuit myth of Sedna; the sea goddess who is believed to rule over the Inuit underworld, in her AW 12/13 collection. The myth deals with general human themes and feelings such as father-daughter conflicts and the desire for revenge.
Figure 5: Anne Sofie Madsen AW 12/13
Vintage design, or the vintage look, is a way of celebrating the time that leaves traces in products, and thereby the beauty in the worn and the weathered. And in that sense a third way of adding time to design. London based The Vintage Showroom recently published a gorgeous book on vintage menswear, and beautifully presents, in the book as well as on their blog, the auratic qualities of vintage garments.
Celebrating the worn and the weathered can also be done by upcycling, which is another TED’s TEN sustainable design strategies, i.e. adding value to design by processing already existing garments or materials.
The love of vintage is a love of materials that clearly show the passage of time as well as the love of things with history. In Matilda Aspinall’s previous text on design that looks at models from history and nature, an interesting vintage shop in Florence is described; Ceri Vintage. The shop sells well worn, holed, patched, damaged clothes – and, by doing so, exhibits the value, beauty, and aura of things with history.
I will collaborate on vintage-qualities and on adding value to design by upcycling in my next post, as well as on other aesthetic strategies that may lead to the creation of aesthetically and emotionally durable design-objects.
 Walker, Stuart,Sustainable by Design, Earthscan 2006