Saturday, January 22, 2011

Designing my Epiphany

By Karen Starr
There is a design department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This is not recent news, as it has been a department since 1943, yet for some of us it has taken years to seamlessly move from VanGogh to Stickily. This for me is even the same within my own home, where I tend to nearly universally ignore design, while embracing art. I have contemporary art and Chagall, all on boring white walls, with a range of furniture bought from Ikea, Sears and Jennifer Convertibles. I don’t take pride in this, or even consider it a grand aesthetic choice. I like nice furniture, but for the price of that nice furniture I could buy a painting by a young artist that I admire. For me that choice has always been easy to make. When my long, long long time friend Karen Starr started her business, I began to change the way I thought. Suddenly it was possible for me to think about both design and art, without necessarily a compromise on either. I have done nothing about this, because I tend to over analyze the decision. Last week when I visited Hazel Tree, Karen's business, I had a bit of a catharsis in regards to design as not only an aesthetic choice, but also an environmental and sociological statement. Karen’s site explains this clearly so often that I must have been especially thick to not have recognized it’s point. I think though that it came, like so many things, from a convergence of momentary experiences.

I have worked for many years in industries that have questionable reputations. For instance I have worked with, and teach polymer technologies. That is plastics and rubber, which we all know have a detrimental impact on our environment. I have justified my involvement as I work on research and on instrumentation that can make these products better, and on educating students who can come up with newer and more sustainable ideas. At the same time I have rejected recycling as a useful solution for a world with too much plastic. I have said that small moves like recycling can do one of two things. They can make people feel like they are being productive, when they are really doing very little. This is not so terrible, but feels a bit like we as a society are lying to ourselves. The larger problem is when recycling actually does more harm than good, such as paper recycling in rural areas. The carbon footprint of the recycling process is larger than the that of using new paper. So knowing all of this, I have had to think of ways in which a future of polymer manufacturing, and new polymer products will result in a net gain for society, both in life style and environmentally.

After visiting Hazel Tree and after speaking extensively with Karen, I realized that our goals were not only similar in an abstract way, but even symbiotic. After all, furniture is made of materials, and the use of those materials is not insignificant. Karen has done something which is very different from recycling, which is reusing. I don't like antiques or old things in general, so I have not been attracted by them, even though they broadly fall into the category of reused. What Karen does is to re-imagine and revive while reusing. This is the type of system that benefits society and the environment and serves as an inspiration to me. Before long I will have a lab where we reuse old concepts and materials, and a house with redesigned,  and finally beautiful furniture.