The furniture, interior decoration and design fair Habitare in Finland takes place September 12 to 16, and features ‘Responsibility’ as the theme focusing on different perspectives in responsible design. The exhibition design will be by the architects Saija Hollmén, Jenni Reuter and Helena Sandman.
The exhibition strives to spark discussion on the many dimensions of responsibility in design and its significance in everyday solutions. It is not just a question of recycling and reuse, as there are wider issues at stake, including consumers’ choices and persistent sustainable development. What can a consumer do to make our daily lives and future better? What is the responsibility of manufacturers and businesses? What lies within a designer’s power of decision? Can the media influence people’s decisions?
The Ahead! design area’s theme, ‘Responsibility’, has links to the World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 year, in which design is seen as being embedded in people’s everyday lives. The WDC Helsinki 2012 programme includes a total of 300 projects, many of which explore responsibility from various angles. The theme takes centre stage, for example, in Helinä Rautavaara’s series of exhibitions entitled Responsible Design; the Base of the Pyramid project, which explores emerging markets; the Club of Helsinki pilot project, which takes place in São Paulo; and the Smart Design, Smart Thinking, Smart Process conference.
“In Habitare’s Ahead! design area, the theme is most concretely shown in the exhibition architecture. It also shows in the products displayed in the special sections and in the event programme. The different aspects of responsibility also play a central role when the judges decide the results of competitions at Habitare,” revealed Programme Manager Päivi Kukkamäki, from the Finnish Fair Corporation, during the panel discussion.
As an example of responsibility, Kukkamäki mentioned the quality and environmental certificates awarded to the Finnish Fair Corporation, which requires that the entire staff of the Helsinki Exhibition and Convention Centre operate responsibly. The practices of big businesses and manufacturers set an example to others. Martela, one of the biggest furniture manufacturers in the Nordic countries, has a quality certificate and an environmental specialist who manages environmental issues at the company.
“Our most recent development project that is visible to consumers is a recycling-driven distribution concept. Our Outlet concept has proved its necessity already during its first year. It is a direct channel that we can use to extend the life cycle of products by selling used, repaired and surplus furniture, or to gather parts and raw materials for further processing. Yet only 15% of the Outlet customers buy our products for ethical reasons, said Design Director Petteri Kolinen from Martela.
When responsibility is integrated into a manufacturer’s corporate culture, it is easier for a designer to choose responsible solutions. According to Industrial Designer Sauli Suomela from Pentagon Design, a designer has a fair amount of influence at the early stage of product development. “The earlier you become involved in the planning, the more chances you have to influence the outcome. Is it going to be a knife after all, or a knife-sharpening service instead? In the later stages, the designer is increasingly reduced to an observer, while decision-making is transferred to the client, that is, the manufacturer.”
The expertise of the designer and the manufacturer and their cooperation ideally produce necessary and increasingly functional products and services. Suomela gave an example of responsible decisions when design takes place on an industrial scale: “You can make an individual product out of heavily processed materials without putting too much strain on the environment, whereas in mass products, manufactured by the hundreds of thousands, a reduction of just a couple of grams in the amount of raw material can make a huge difference. The more industrial a product, the more difference the design can actually make.”
Research Professor Mika Pantzar from the National Consumer Research Centre did not believe that certificates, symbols and number codes influence the buying decisions of consumers or make their decisions any easier. Often, it is impossible to trace the origins of products. According to Pantzar, the pressure for responsible design should be put on industry and designers. This would allow us to offer functional products to consumers without them having to feel guilty about buying them. “Consumers have a lot of information on and understanding of responsibility and environmental issues. How they act can be a totally different story, though. This is why the idea of transferring the responsibility to consumers seems frustrating and ineffective. In practice, it is wiser to put pressure on industry and the design process.”
The media have, in recent years, emphasised environmental sustainability and recycling as examples of responsible design. According to Päivi Kukkamäki and the Editor-in-Chief Anne Melart, singling out these issues makes for a concrete and understandable approach to a complex topic. Moreover, consumers are interested in recycling and making environmentally sound choices. People are more aware of the impact we have on the environment, and they intentionally follow new, more responsible solutions, for example, in interior design.
None of the panellists thought that responsibility would be just a short-lived fad fuelled by interior design magazines. To the contrary, it was expected to keep on growing in significance. Responsibility is part of the operations of many companies and designers, for example, in Finland: this may not be immediately visible on the outside or advertised much, but it is transparent and honest.
Mika Pantzar noted that the Finnish society has changed for the better in the past 150 years. “Responsibility has long been a basic characteristic of the Finnish society. For example, it is part of responsible parenting that children are bought healthy food and educated.” Pantzar’s comment was raised again at the end of the panel discussion in connection with unconventional uses of design. In addition to simplicity and clarity, Finnish design is often associated with the words usability and environmental sustainability. Many generations of designers have incorporated responsibility as part of their profession and at the same time as one of their values as consumers. When responsibility is integrated into structures and values, it is possible to develop courses of study such as the Aalto University’s new Creative Sustainability programme, in which students from different disciplines come together to find solutions to future challenges.
Design has a major role in building society. “Design is global endeavour, and therefore it has a huge impact. For example, some 13,000 designers are trained every year in Shanghai alone; it matters a great deal how they see their profession and what impact they have on the process,” argued Pekka Timonen, the Executive Director of the International Design Foundation.
Panellists included Industrial Designer Sauli Suomela (Pentagon Design), architect Saija Hollmén (Hollmén Reuter Sandman Architects), Design Director Petteri Kolinen (Martela), Research Professor Mika Pantzar (National Consumer Research Centre), Editor-in-Chief Anne Melart (Plaza Koti), Executive Director Pekka Timonen (International Design Foundation) and Programme Manager Päivi Kukkamäki (Finnish Fair Corporation). Moderator: Producer and editor Katja Lindroos (Idealist).