Nov 26, 2008


"The tools we use to change the world ought to be beautiful in
themselves... it's not just enough to survive."

-- Alex Steffen,

Image of green roof city from ecogeek

Click here to watch Alex Steffen's idea-packed Ted talk about sustainable design directives. It will cost you 17 minutes that you'll never miss, and I promise you'll be inspired to create change...

Nov 20, 2008


A-Nerve pleating sleeve, Bluetooth accessory for mobile phones, by CuteCircuit

I want my clothes to take care of themselves and me, and make life even more fun. Here are a few things on my wishlist* for future clothes (all sustainably/ecologically produced and used, of course...)

*Most, if not all, of these concepts are already in research or prototyping. Click the links and dream.
  • Mend themselves if torn or worn (i.e. self heal, like skin)

  • Repel dirt and stains, and totally Self-clean

  • Administer vitamins or medicines (insulin, say) transdermally

  • Or expose our bodies to light to counteract SADD

  • Regulate vital functions

  • Destroy germs and bacteria in our surroundings

  • Massage sore muscles

  • Stimulate muscle exercise and toning

  • Destroy cellulite

  • Moisturize or exfoliate our skin

  • Protect us from bullets or knives

  • Sample toxins in the environment and alert us

  • Store solar or kinetic energy for running PEDs

  • Provide light in the dark

  • Administer aromatherapy

  • Hug us

  • Deliver messages or images on integrated flexible screens

  • Talk to other people's clothes

  • Mimic our surroundings for camouflage (protection)

  • Or make us stand out from our surroundings (mating colors)

  • Change their surface “print” pattern, colors, and texture

  • Be usefully convertible (a puffy ski jacket that is also a carry-on suitcase... with wheels)

  • Change from breathable to waterproof, and back, as needed

  • Regulate our comfort and temperature (warm us, cool us)

  • Be fireproof, heat protective

  • Provide our GPS position to ourselves or others

  • Be wearable/washable “laptops," "iPods," "phones"

  • Iron themselves, or animate, via shape-memory or other technology

  • Be made of lab-grown, cruelty-free leather, fur, feathers
  • Be "nano-built" to have the actual color and iridescent properties of, say, beetles, butterflies, diatoms, and bird's feathers

  • Grow new pieces, parts or textural layers over time

  • Have pockets only where and when needed

  • Be grown or 3D printed to our exact dimensions, without sewing or seams
And when "smart textiles" are ubiquitous and economical, will there be a counter-market for passive, privacy respecting, "dumb textiles"? And a nostalgia for old-fashioned details like real sewn seams, and socks that rip or fray before we've finished with them? I wonder.

Nov 10, 2008


I am struck by the new collection of reconstructed t-shirts by Los Angeles designer Raquel Allegra. Though, to call them 't-shirts' simply cuts it short. Allegra's elegant pieces begin as used t-shirts salvaged from the LA County Jail's waste pile. The designer, who once worked for Issey Miyake, washes, dyes, cuts, re-constructs, and then savagely distresses the cloth to achieve lacey, filmy, gossamer shifts.

Raquel Allegra, Spring '09

While rescuing usable material from the waste-stream is a conscious motivation for Allegra, and a laudable end in itself, an added benefit is extraordinary softness. In her own words, years of wear by enzyme-sweating men produces an extraordinarily soft cloth, without the need for added chemical softening. Watch an interesting, short video on her design process, here. Allegra's celebrity clientele, and couture prices, attest that 'used' is no turn-off.

Raquel Allegra, Spring '09

Raquel Allegra's haute recycling reminds me of an old favorite in the de/reconstructed fashion business, Junky Styling. For more than a decade, Junky Styling has been transforming passé duds into club couture fashion, from their shop studio in London's East End. Junky even has a bespoke service for clients wishing to have a favorite old garment radically re-designed.

Junky Styling recycled business suit bomber jacket

Junky Styling recycled business suit skirt and wrap jacket

It occurs to me that besides recycling, these two fashion labels share another trait -- lots of asymmetrical styling, which also looks particularly fresh right now.

Raquel Allegra, Spring '09 t-shirt dress

Junky Styling, re-styled men's suit jacket and shirt

Nov 3, 2008


Throughout human history, luxury has meant fine, expensive, or rare stuff. But "stuff" has become abundantly, overwhelmingly, common, while other things, such as time, personal space, and real nature, have become rare. In the near future, luxury will be defined less by the stuff we have, and more by the leisure we have, our access to pristine nature, the purity of our personal environment, our health and well-being, and our access to information. These, in my opinion, are the emerging definitions of luxury.

Which is more rare and precious -- the diamond or the cat?

What's desirable in this picture -- his clothes or his "landed," leisure-class lifestyle?

In our toxic, late-industrial lives we yearn for the natural... not the actual natural of wilderness (in which setting, we humans, like other animals, are mostly engaged in basic survival), but the apparent natural of sustainably cultivated nature.

Yearning for natural things is nostalgia for an intact world, when humans were just one component striving on a seemingly much larger, and still healthy, Earth. But our yearning could also be an emotional expression of a biologic and psychologic need – like when you've been eating Cheez Doodles all day, and suddenly a plate of steamed kale seems like the most delicious food possible.

As a designer, if I want to make a good and meaningful contribution at this stage in the human story, I must address the open-ended problem of how to make things that are life-enhancing and pleasing, and which support the integrity of the environment and the well-being of all people, not just the wealthy.

If, as architect William McDonough has said, a tree is the most perfect design there is – a 'machine' that makes oxygen, eats carbon dioxide, ionizes the air, makes food, supports micro-eco-systems, self-replicates, etc. – the more that man-made designs (from the macro- down to the nano-scale) behave like and resemble trees, the more advanced our technology and the more perfect the design.

A perfect design. Photo: Jen Buley

Another analogy: it is still said that the human brain is the most advanced, sophisticated computer that exists... yet it is soft (inside a hard shell), and integrated into something (a human) with myriad, flexible functions. The human brain also has two distinctly different ways of working – one analytical, skeptical and linear (left brain); the other intuitive and sensual (right brain). Thusly, in their evolution, computers are also becoming soft and flexible, adept in analysis and 'intuition', and integrated into objects with multiple functions.
Is it an infant onesie or a vital signs monitor (and skin moisturizer and transdermal vitamin doser)?

The funny thing is that futurists have traditionally embraced tropes of machined metal, hard forms, smooth-shiny, cold, mechanical, etc, as symbols for hi-tech. But, I think that Philip K. Dick, who wrote the book on which the film Blade Runner is based, had a more accurate idea. The most advanced technologies of the future will look and feel totally natural -- and if we get really good as designers and engineers, they will be indistinguishable from natural things. (I should add that, hopefully, our future will differ from Dick's creation, and we will save the Earth from total degradation before the 'real animals' are extinct and the ecology is dead.)

Instead, the technology trends point toward natural, soft, flexible, and biological:
  • Technologies and computers becoming so integrated and/or miniscule that they are, for all purposes, “invisible”
  • Incorporation of “smart" technologies into previously inert objects (clothing that analyzes body function and self-cleans; walls or roofs that store energy, clean air, and grow food)

  • Smart objects that multi-task (consider laptops today, which are typewriter, calculator, world-class library, record player, telephone, television, photo lab, drawing pad, social facilitator, shopping mall, etc, all in one). The days of appliances and objects that do one thing are over... and 3D printing also points to the end of manufacturing machines that do only one thing.

  • Softness – incorporating flexibility and the ability to morph into different forms for different circumstances (changeable textures, colors and forms, camouflaging)
  • Sensing objects that detect changes in their environment and in their user (in terms of health, state, and emotion)

  • Natural forms and natural feels

We will be getting somewhere when technology “disappears.” I'm not talking about living like cavemen and women... I'm talking about really hi-tech... hi-tech that makes our current hi-tech look like the Flintstones. The most hi-tech things will either be invisible to the naked eye, or will look totally natural. For example, man-made water and air filtration that looks and feels like – and therefore IS -- a grassy field, a forest, a mountain stream.

Mountain stream or grey water waste treatment facility? Photo: Jen Buley

Biotechnology and biomimetics, research that learns from nature, and builds or synthesizes needed man-made things in the images of nature -- in terms of function (photosynthesis, CO2 capture, metamorphosis, camouflage, tissue re-generation, and self-healing), aesthetics (softness, flexibility, color, fragrance, individuality), and total biodegradability -- will be key, if we are to design an equitable future worth living.