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

NEW LIFE: Spencer Nikosey made totes out of Army truck tarps and fire hoses.
NEW LIFE: Spencer Nikosey made totes out of Army truck tarps and fire hoses.
(Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times)

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.”

In the past, Art Center instructors said, making a product environmentally friendly sometimes was treated as an afterthought, once the design already was completed. Now, before they start making preliminary sketches or models, students in the Design for Sustainability class must submit their projects to a “lifecycle analysis,” breaking down their projects into components of “inputs” of energy and materials and “outputs” of emissions and waste, and plot their product’s entire projected lifeline, from resources, manufacture and point of sale to consumer use and beyond.

Students also are encouraged to design products that, if they break down, can be easily disassembled and have their individual parts replaced without having to trash the whole thing.

“Lifecycle analysis is the driver for the design, it’s not something we do later,” said Heidrun Mumper-Drumm, an Art Center adjunct associate professor who co-teaches Design for Sustainability.

In addition, all classroom activities must conform to a list of “Positive Practice Protocols.” A sort of Ten Commandments of eco-friendly classroom conduct, they include such injunctions as “No coated paper” and “Put the laptop in sleep mode when leaving the room.” “It’s a bit preachy, and I’m very careful not to go there, but the students seem to want this,” Mumper-Drumm said.

Leslie Evans, 27, incorporated her school’s prevailing vision into her “Vespera Hairdryer.” Hair dryers are notorious for being hard to disassemble when parts fail and need replacing, Evans said. Her prototype is easy to unscrew and its internal components can be readily accessed and replaced and/or recycled. “A lot of people think about sustainability as something that’s nice to do or the right thing to do, but actually it’s becoming a financial imperative,” she said.

Sustainable design isn’t merely an ivory-tower exercise at Art Center. Under the leadership of a student-faculty alliance, the school has set out to make the entire campus a case study in eco-friendly efficiency.

A main component of that effort is the Eco Council, a rotating group of 20 to 30 students who identify and analyze problems and promote solutions. This could be eliminating Styrofoam and converting to compostable food-ware in the campus cafeteria, implementing an on-campus bike tuneup program to encourage more students to pedal to class or installing solar panels so students and faculty can power up laptops while soaking up sun.

‘Responsible design’

Faculty and administrators stress that what they’re really teaching is “comprehensive design,” giving their students a tool box that will help them orchestrate new approaches to solving social problems in concert with engineers, scientists, urban planners, artists and others. In 2001, a campus-wide initiative, Designmatters, was launched to assist students in creating humanitarian design proposals. Projects have included portable shelters for homeless individuals and collaborating in creating a community in Kenya for orphans and elderly people with AIDS.

“It’s not about teaching stand-alone sustainability, it’s really about truly responsible design,” said David Mocarski, chairman of environmental design.

Several previous design revolutions, such as Britain’s late 19th century Arts and Crafts Movement and the German Bauhaus of the 1920s and ‘30s, were triggered by social upheavals and a perception that then-prevailing design and manufacturing practices were wasteful and outmoded. Art Center students and faculty said that, rather than feeling restrictive, the school’s imposition of sustainability mandates has spurred them to think more expansively.

And the ideas keep coming. A student team is developing a gray-water recycling kit that someday could become as much of a standard bathroom fixture as a shower curtain. Kam Leang, a 28-year-old from Utah, discovered during research that residents of Tokyo annually discard 400,000 umbrellas. So he came up with a streamlined umbrella made of recyclable materials that unfolds as gracefully and sculpturally as a piece of origami. He’s proposing to stock them in vending machines so that commuters and shoppers can buy and return them on a pay-per-use basis.

School officials are confident that, even in the current sour economic climate, its graduates will be highly employable. Dice Yamaguchi, who led the Eco Council for three terms, now works for Applied Minds, a small Glendale company whose employees include artists, scientists and engineers. Among his designs are lightweight, bamboo-stick frames that can be used to support laptop computers, iPods and other consumer electronics. He recently sold a batch of the laptop stands, which cost $15 apiece, to a Singapore store, and he has a waiting list.

But the school also recognizes that sustainability as a concept is still in its infancy. Although more industries are starting to assimilate it, some likely see it mainly as a marketing opportunity and a way to preempt stricter government regulation.

Changing behavior on an idyllic college campus is only the start of what Art Center’s denizens know will be a much bigger, longer and harder task. “We’re at an amazing time for designers because they’ve seen the pitfalls of what Modernism did, and did not, do so well,” Mocarski said. “We do have the one major mountain that more is still more. Bigger is still better and shinier is still better, and it’s going to be hard to change in this country.”