Sustainability and Design - For Leeds Arts University March 2018
Rebecca Carr // Sustainability in Design
When I began making, after finishing university, I said to myself, be conscious, be curious, but make work responsibly. I did not want to label myself as a sustainable brand, because, to me, sustainability is not a marketing tool. For big business, it is, for the massive industries that use it to sell clothes made in factories in huge quantities - they use buzz words as a way of making consumers feel better about the products they consume. For the independent, for the artist, designer or maker who thinks big but makes small, sustainability is not a trend, it is a way of life. It is conscious decision making, it is about being forward thinking, being politically active, taking ownership of your impact as a designer. “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything” and to quote William Morris - one of the most influential British textile Designers of the 19th Century: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Sustainability should be integral to all modern brands, regardless of size, of production levels, of the amount of employees. It is not an afterthought, it is a necessity. Sustainability and its practical values should be apparent and upheld in every decision you make. It is in every prototype, every product, in every pattern piece and toile, in the waste paper and card, in waste fabric, in the planning, in the looking, in the learning and in the producing.
This does not mean that you can’t be prolific, nor that you need to be constantly editing your thoughts and ideas.
It is more than important to explore, develop and experiment, but through this period of exploration, you have a responsibility to problem solve, and to develop methods of working and producing that mean that your practice is sustainable, that it has longevity and integrity. If we as artists and designers can actively make a difference in our small, local way, then change will and does trickle up, and eventually, the big guys cotton on. To use a hot drink analogy, its like when Starbucks realised 3 years after the independents that everyone drinks flat whites; so they start marketing it as a ‘new drink’ – have you tried a flat white? We, the little guys have been drinking and making flat whites for years, and a lot of the time in reusable, keep cups… it’s a slow movement, but it has the potential to make a lot of difference.
To create and live with a sustainable brand you need to be a polymath. You need to be politically engaged, to understand the economics of sustainable design, to be able to communicate visually what your brands core values are. You need to look, to understand why designs are successful, why others are not. It is about living, working and creating a balanced life that you feel is a positive one. In my mind, I want to be political, understand the zeitgeist, but I do not want to get overwhelmed by fashions and trends. I enjoy aesthetics, I enjoy texture and patina. I want my clothing and designs to be wearable, day to day, I avoid luxury, where possible, the focus is on quality in the everyday.
I want to design classics. Design objects, materials and processes, systems that can be used to make products more sustainable, and in the long term more desirable.
I don’t allow set systems to dictate how my collections are created and realised. I refuse to make a new spring summer collection and launch it in September merely to follow the fashion worlds cycle, if I am honest, I have never followed when the catwalk collections when the fashion weeks are on, I don’t understand it nor do I have any desire to understand it. I make clothing collections as an artist might make a collection of paintings, or a potter a batch of pots for an exhibition. I then show that collection, and let it live a bit, let the process develop naturally, and in tune with my own artistic development. I will not put pressure on myself to develop a range of pieces for high summer, when I know I have pieces in a collection that can be worn through the year. This is where sustainable thought and design comes in to play. How can I make clothing collections that are a-seasonal?
I use only natural fibres.
I use a mill in Ireland that producing extremely high-quality linens to traditional methods. They are a big mill, but it is a family business, and I trust them as a manufacturer. The linen is expensive, but I know I only need to buy 7m at a time, I don’t have a massive investment in cloth that sits in the studio gathering dust. It is timeless, the colours they have on offer are beautiful, they dye and wash and weave in the same factory, there is integrity and heritage and they are reliable. Linen, as you know is a beautiful natural fibre, plant based, and it is strong and durable. It is at least 2 if not 3 times stronger than cotton, so using Linen in my designs means that the garment will have a longer life than if I am using a cotton of the same weight. Not only is linen far more durable than cotton, it is also far more practical in hot weather, in rain, in snow- Pure linen can gain up to 20% of its dry weight in moisture before it begins to feel damp. It keeps you cool when it is hot and warm when it is cold. And dryer. And it’s got the most beautiful memory, the patina on a linen jacket after wear and washing is in my opinion just one of the most aesthetically pleasing textures.
The only other fibers I use are cotton drill from a mill in Bradford – it is a weave that keeps the durability high, think jeans and workwear… and wool – from a company in Leeds who you will know - Abraham Moon – wool again, being naturally cool/warm, durable and again has interesting patina, depending on the weave, and washes well. All these cloths do not need washing as much as other cloths, so again, there is less energy needed to keep the garment looking fresh, less water, less chemicals. Material and fibre is key – knowing your material and understanding its qualities is the starting point for good, conscious design – to quote Josef Albers, a Bauhaus tutor and another of the world’s most influential designers – “Im anfang steht allein das material” – “At the beginning the material stands alone.”
The fight is communicating this to consumers, conveying the importance of quality in material to the masses, this is something that I find to be the most difficult aspect of independent, small scale design – getting people to listen. It is a constant battle to communicate why your work costs what it does, why you use the material you do. It is a slow game. I make slow, I chug away, and it is hard work, but I believe that it is worth it. Making a conscious decision to use that fabric, to make less.
I make all garments to order. I have a sample in of each of my current pieces, which I use to demonstrate what I make.
In this way, process adds value to the product, it gives the customer the feeling that they are purchasing something special and unique – it means they look after it more, they buy less, but they are loyal, people like to feel loyal – this feeds into the economics of small scale design. I was asked in an interview with Selvedge magazine how I can make the brand work economically when my focus is on durability and sustainability, and when garments are intended to last a lifetime? My reply was that it is about finding like-minded, conscious consumers, occupying a space in the market place where people understand that they are buying into a lifestyle. It is more than clothing, more than an object, it’s a choice – again a way of life – see Jim Ede generally on art. It is about sharing and enjoying the material, supporting young forward-thinking artists and designers and thinking in a more sustainable way.
I try to uphold these ethics in my day to day life, but I understand how difficult it is. I understand that people want justification, as to why a product costs what it does, and I accept that no matter what I think, we are living it a greedy, capitalist society, so it’s working out how to fit in to that, questioning everything that is made, and balancing making a living with your own political and ethical values.
Even one of my favourite British clothing designers, Margaret Howell, has this constant battle. Where her clothing used to be entirely made in the UK, as production costs sore, she has been forced to outsource production to other countries – increasing the carbon footprint of each piece. There is always a quality that needs to be upheld so that returning customers feel they can rely on you, there is an expectation that you need to sustain, the ethos and ethics need to remain the same, but as a company expands – how can we ensure these values are not lost?
I haven’t managed to think that far, and I am not in any way an expert on the matter, but I know that these core values will always dictate how I grow and develop, and this ethic transfers to other projects I am currently driving.
Projects and collaborations with other artists and designers is my way of keeping myself on my toes creatively and mean I can hopefully make a small difference to creative community York.
Last December, John Hollington Design and I launched a design fair called Effects Design Market. The event showcases work from designers across the country, who design, make and sell sustainably, with similar values to ourselves. John and I have similar aesthetic tendencies, and we both have a drive to bring good design to the masses. Effects is a way of creating a conversation around good British Design, buying small and making well. This year we are hosting talks at the event and hoping to make the event bigger and better in order to support more young British Designers.
I have always been interested in the way environment has an effect on creativity. In January 2017, we founded Pica Studios with a group of artists and makers in York. The ethos around the studios is that we will always be artist led, we are all members of the cooperative, we respect each other and we respect our environment. Pica is an amazing space where artists and makers can work together, or simply on our own endeavors. It is an interdisciplinary studio, which houses 20 artists, designers, writers, musicians. You can have a browse through the inhabitants on picastudios.org
Current Process, Work, Pattern
I think that it is extremely important to understand context and environment when working through design process. Pica feeds my creativity, the people who work there create varied and interesting conversations and we challenge each other, critique work, but most of all we support one another and inspire.
I started painting after Christmas, I know this is directly influenced by the other artists that inhabit the studio space. I am currently working on a collection around gesture, print, stitch and surface. The process so far has been extremely exciting and fluid. This direction has led me to working with colour in a way I had never worked before, and I am using the development stages of this collection as a way of creating some sort of income – through print and paintings. The process of finding prints and surface pattern is leading to other products – its almost like a waste product that can be turned into something desirable…
I have an aspiration for zero waste as a company.
I had been asked to make some cushions for a sofa for a bespoke build made by a CNC company in Hull. This has led to me going to the factory and routing through their scraps to pick out wood which I am now using to create woodblock shapes and in turn, prints. Even though I am using waste wood from a furniture manufacturer – the same pile of wood I am using to paint repeat pattern boards, and landscapes – I still attempt to make zero waste (apart from the sawdust but I am determined to find a use for that) this desire has led me to making interlocking wood block pieces that form what looks like a jigsaw – another potential product. When I get bored with the shapes I will make them into wood reliefs – see Ben Nicholson, or mobiles – see Alexander Calder.
Working in this way is extremely satisfying, and I think that the enjoyment in material, process and experimentation is coming across in my work.
As creative people, we are constantly learning, developing and growing. Hokusai explained on his 90th birthday that he was only going to become a master of print / illustration when he had his 100th birthday. This humbling thought is something I think so often about when I feel an expectation or a pressure on myself to do. I will just try to look, learn and make, and this is my way of life.