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L.A. Environment Has Designers Back at Drawing Boards

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Question: How many environmental problems can be solved by an international team of renowned designers, closeted in a room for a day of discussing new ideas and debating blue-sky concepts--deliberately ignoring all the barriers of conventional form and structure?

Answer: None.

Nevertheless, the first-of-its kind workshop challenging German and American graphic- and industrial-designers to tackle an environmental agenda was pronounced a success by its dozen participants.

“We worked together intensely for a day and I think this was a unique event,” said Michael Erlhoff of Frankfurt, director of the German Design Council, in introducing the workshop’s public forum Thursday night at the Pacific Design Center. “We started an international discussion and a coordination of our work. We have set a pattern for the future.”

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The workshop was one event in a schedule of lectures, receptions, forums and panel discussions planned around last week’s opening of “Designed in Germany--Los Angeles 1990.” The exhibition of German products, everything from electronic telephones to automobiles, runs through June 23 at the Pacific Design Center.

Although the emphasis of the exhibition is on the present, the environmental workshop took a futuristic approach.

“It’s an experiment--to see if we can produce some global solutions,” explained Philine Bracht, industrial designer and UCLA faculty member who coordinated the event for a cluster of American and German professional design groups. “We are taking Los Angeles as a city of the future where things occur 10 years ahead of time and this includes environmental problems.”

It had been the sponsors’ original concept that the German-American graphic and industrial professionals could produce something tangible.

The schedule called them to take an early-morning bus tour of Los Angeles, looping Downtown and back from the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, sort of an environmental sight-seeing tour during which they would target specific problems. The group then was to spend the day huddling on a solution or two, and unveil its results on paper at the evening forum.

“We will have to identify a problem that can be solved with design, like a bus shelter or a recycling campaign,” Bracht had explained, several weeks ago. “It’s a big undertaking.”

Too big, it turned out. As the the workshop schedule took shape, it became evident that one day of intercultural brainstorming--no matter how intense--would not produce a quick fix for Los Angeles-magnitude problems, such as the 20,000 tons of waste dumped daily into landfills or the 300 miles of polluted, congested freeway traffic.

So the revised plan called for the design delegation to take notes, sketches and photographs of the city’s visual and physical pollution as a bus (a propane-fueled UCLA shuttle) traveled the Hollywood Freeway at a morning-drive time crawl. The tour circled through Downtown and returned on the Santa Monica Freeway. Those impressions provided the material for the day’s discussions.

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“You get confused by the global overview,” said one participant, during an afternoon break. “It is necessary to take smaller steps--something each of us can do on an individual scale and a professional scale.”

That became the day’s output. “Workshops can’t produce design,” summarized Dieter Rams, chief designer for Germany’s Braun Co. who headed the industrial design team. “There can be discussions, they can provide ideas, but that’s all.”

And ideas are were offered for the evening forum audience. At the panel discussion, the 11 men and one woman offered personal observations about their day’s work; they sounded much like any environmentally concerned group.

The trip through the traffic and graffiti and trash of Los Angeles, juxtaposed with its futuristic skyline, they agreed, had prodded their awareness of the environment’s urgency.

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“I almost didn’t take the bus trip, I’ve driven Downtown so many times,” said graphic designer Henk Elenga,"but when you’re on a bus instead of driving, and looking at the city through the eyes of your guests, you see it in a different way.”

Suggested Thomas Bley, president of Zebra Design in New York: “Our own profession is responsible for a certain amount of pollution. We saw what the entertainment industry did when they got together and wrote a song (“We Are the World”) that actually fed the poor.” The design industry, he said, could sponsor some event such as a world design conference.

A sense of collective action developed as the discussion continued. “We have economic clout,” said design consultant David Goodman, president of Catalyst who led the graphic design team. “We specify millions of dollars in supplies from vendors and manufacturers. That’s the base of our power.”

Along with ideas for university design competitions and corporate “green” logos for acceptable environmental behavior, the day’s jam session produced a grab-bag of other design ideas.

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Some were futuristic: Multiple-function service stations providing recycling centers and recharging outlets for electric vehicles.

Some were whimsical: Edible packaging (perhaps soybean) instead of Styrofoam for fast-food hamburgers.

Some were practical: Delivering milk to households in returnable glass bottles, rather than disposable plastic or paper containers.

Some were educational: A dictionary summarizing the environmental effects of materials that designers use or recommend to clients; this reference work could offer alternatives for the more toxic materials. “We don’t know enough about chemistry or the composition of plastics,” said one panelist. “We should address the dangers of the dioxin content in bleached papers. We should insist on an oxygenated bleaching process for milk cartons. We need to stand firm in relationship to food packaging.”

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And they acknowledged the reality of working for clients whose priorities were market competition, not environmental concerns.

Even that reality has a new look, said Bruce Severance, a student at the Art Center College of Design. He cited a poll in last November’s Fortune magazine that reported that more than 70% of American consumers say they would pay more for environmentally superior products.

“That’s almost unbelievable. We’re talking about a whole new niche for environmental alternatives to existing products. I think this is a turning point in history. . . . “

Participants expressed the hope that the experimental workshop itself would itself prove a turning point.

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“We just came together for one day and we had to overcome not knowing each other,” said Regina Henze, a design consultant in Frankfurt. “Consciousness about the environment is just developing among the design world, and we agreed to concentrate on how to inspire our own colleagues. We think we can make an impact on environmental problems.”


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