The Arts : Waste-Not School of Design
Take a stack of brightly colored wastepaper, add some clever twists and, presto, it’s a wastepaper basket. Erez Mulay’s ingenious bin, which integrates whimsy with a message about waste and conservation, is one of many products created by Israelis devoted to the principles of green design.
Naomi Gerstein, for example, collects plastic advertising posters that would otherwise choke the country’s landfills and turns them into fashionable handbags, makeup cases, wallets and book bags.
Hila Bar-nof Kitrey fastens together triangular ceramic tiles to form a dew-collecting quarter-dome that can supply almost a gallon of drinking water a day while providing shade.
In Israel, a tiny, crowded country that suffers from a chronic water shortage, overflowing landfills and almost no natural resources, sustainability is an obvious need. However, green design as a solution seems to be anything but obvious, according to Roni Lev, a lecturer at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.
We’re still learning and are far behind Europe, both in awareness and in performance,” she says.
Yet Israel’s designers make up for this lag with their infectious enthusiasm and innovative creations, some of which are already on the market.
For self-taught designer Guy Lougashi, using waste or found materials is a philosophy and way of life. He discovered that discarded paper could be woven and then lacquered to create attractive baskets, rivaling any made of wicker or straw.
Lougashi, 32, lives in Moshav Ofer, south of Haifa, where he is surrounded by like-minded sustainability devotees. He says he hardly ever buys materials. Instead, he spends days chasing down whatever catches his eye.
He stumbled on the idea of weaving paper into baskets when his landlord on the moshav gave him some large sheets of paper used for wrapping vegetables.
From a friend’s father who was a retired tailor he got a supply of shell buttons. He glued them to 20-inch globes of glass and plastic from old lighting fixtures to create lamps. For this purpose he has also tried buttons of varied colors and marbles he picked up at a garage sale, which he says produce beautiful light.
Like Lougashi, Ruth Kenan, 38, is self-taught. Her father was involved in developing solar energy, so she grew up in a green-thinking environment.
Kenan, who lives in Herzliya, became a carpenter and dreamed of building a cradle for her first child, but during her pregnancy she developed an allergy to dust and lacquer and had to stop working with wood. Then she realized she could make a cradle from a much humbler material—cardboard.
“It seemed perfectly suited to the short period of time it would be used,” she says. Thus was born the EcoCradle, which comes in white, blue and white or a pattern of colorful circles on a white background.
Today, Kenan’s company, Green Lullaby (www.green-lullaby.com), has a line of children’s furniture made from cardboard. It includes a bench that doubles as a toy chest and is strong enough to support an adult and a child, and a table that also has storage space. Her newest products are a doll’s cradle, which has a pink, white and gray floral motif, and a doll’s house with images of each room’s furniture printed on the walls, leaving plenty of room for dolls. The combination seat and storage box looks like a gigantic building block, with numbers, letters of the alphabet or images of animals on the sides.
Manufactured in Caesarea, all are lightweight and easy to assemble and take apart; they pack flat, have nontoxic fire retardants developed by Kenan’s company, are made largely of recycled material and are fully recyclable.
Turning waste into products begins with the fundamentals of design.
Designers must match form to function‹think not only about an object’s aesthetics, but also the shapes and materials best suited to the job. The sustainability revolution has added another huge element to the equation.
“The world is finite,” Lev says. “Natural ecosystems provide a limited range of material resources and processes.” Not only is it our responsibility to transmit this reserve to future generations, she adds, wealthy nations have no right to use it at the expense of poorer countries. One part of the solution, of course, is simply to consume less‹to shop less and own less, as proposed by the provocative and controversial brief film The Story of Stuff, which Lev likes to cite.
But for the products we do acquire, another important part of the solution is embodied in the concept of cradle to cradle (C2C), popularized by architect and designer William McDonough, the American guru of sustainability. McDonough postulated a new industrial revolution that would change how goods are made and how cities are built. The ideal in this system, Lev explains, is that all the materials used will return to the earth or be reused at the same level of production as in the original product.
But there are various levels of sustainable design‹all of which are better than no attempt at all. We achieve one level, Lev says, “if we use our waste and don’t bury it”; that is, if we make products from materials that have already been in use. “The more advanced stage is to make products that won’t [ever] become waste,” she adds.
Two types of clothing exemplify these different levels. Bagir (www.bagir.com), a veteran Israel-based clothing company, makes its line of EcoGir Recycled suits from fabric produced from discarded plastic bottles.
About 30 bottles are used to make each of these machine-washable suits, marketed in the United States under Sears’ Covington label.
The concept and design are Israeli, although the materials come from Japan and the suits are sewn in China, says the company’s marketing director Moshe Gadot. According to Gadot, using recycled materials reduces the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere during manufacture, and the suits’ washability obviates the need for the toxic chemicals used in dry cleaning.
At another level of sustainability, Cotton (www.cottonet.co.il), an Israeli chain established in 1992, uses organic cotton as well as nonorganic cotton and other fabrics, some of which are made of recycled materials, to create cheerful, comfortable and locally manufactured clothes. Using recycled fabrics reduces waste, and the cotton fabrics are biodegradable.
Self-taught designer and coowner Galit Broude, 40, points out that one must be aware of the environmental impact at every stage of manufacturing. Often, she says, organic cotton undergoes processes, such as stonewashing, that are not eco-friendly.
“If I’m printing something on a T-shirt, I will always choose the print materials that are least damaging to the environment,” says Broude, whose company recently won first prize, from among some 200 green businesses in Israel, awarded jointly by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense and two commercial enterprises.
Israel has been late in climbing aboard Europe’s sustainability bandwagon‹the notable exception being the rooftop solar water heaters for homes, which have been mandated by law on new homes since 1980.
According to Mulay, however, sustainable design is perfectly matched to the Israeli approach to design, characterized by humor and improvisation. And it probably has its roots in the austerity period following the War of Independence. “It’s connected to the discourse of making something from nothing,” Mulay says.
The “nothing” from which Gerstein makes handbags, wallets, book bags and other items consists of huge advertising banners from Tel Aviv buildings.
Gerstein, 33, has enlisted the cooperation of Baram, a public relations company, which delivers the materials to her Tel Aviv workshop, Abu Yoyo (piggyback in Hebrew; www.abuyoyo.co.il). Gerstein can create 60 handbags from one banner, and each has a unique pattern‹some in bright colors and others more subdued.
But even making something from nothing, or recycling waste materials, has various levels of sustainability, says Mulay, who lives in Petah Tikva.
Different processes require different levels of energy. His wastepaper basket was inspired by the idea of creating a new product from waste materials using a minimum of energy. Reusing the paper in a different form would have required various energy-guzzling chemical processes, he explains.
“I take the material, and I don’t change it,” he says. Paste is used to glue together magazine pages, which are rolled into tightly wound “sticks” and then held together with wire. All the materials can be reused.
Sometimes, a green design is also just good business practice. Doron Sar-Shalom, who is perhaps best known for his lamps made of found kitchen items, such as spatulas, cheese graters and strainers, also designs objects made from new materials, and in creating these he tries to avoid waste.
Thus, he has created whimsical red metal “bookworm” bookends in which the main section of each bookend is the “negative” of the other, so that both can be cut from a metal rectangle with no waste at all.
Sar-Shalom, whose designs are available online from www.artlook-store.com, is employing economic common sense that has been used for decades, for example, by cutters in the garment industry who learn to lay out patterns so fabric waste is minimized.
“Green is not necessarily new ideas,” Lev says. “Sometimes we learn from the past. Sometimes we learn from how things were done when there wasn’t an abundance of materials. And one of the criteria of green is no waste of material.” Safeguarding natural resources such as clean water is another aspect of green design especially important in Israel. Yair Perry created a bath screen that, besides keeping shower water from splashing outside the tub, serves as a tank for collecting water from shower or bath for reuse in flushing the toilet. In designing the device, called Flushdown, Perry took into account that over 40 percent of the freshwater used in Israeli households goes for flushing toilets. The white screen has a bubble pattern in shades of blue and green or orange and brown. It is easily installed, requires no change in plumbing and holds about 20 gallons (the water from 2 showers), enough for 8 full flushes.
Bar-nof Kitrey’s white ceramic shade “creates” freshwater by collecting dew and is ideally suited to arid regions, such as Israel’s Negev Desert. In 2007, it won the Meisler Prize for Outstanding Design, awarded at Bezalel, where Bar-nof Kitrey and Perry studied. Both are hopeful they will find backers so that their designs can go into production.
Among the principles of sustainable design is an important social aspect: empowering weak or disadvantaged groups. Lougashi says his connection to people with special needs was shaped by having a younger brother with cerebral palsy.
His baskets are woven, using traditional patterns, in a workshop in the Arab town Baka al-Garbiye, under the auspices of Shekulo Tov (www.s-tov.org.il, in Hebrew), an organization dedicated to rehabilitating people suffering from mental illnesses. The baskets come in earth colors, and some have a two-color checkerboard pattern. Shekulo Tov’s workshops produce a variety of items, including some that are eco-friendly, such as wallets and bags made from comic books. The Baka al-Garbiye workshop, the first of its kind serving Israel’s Arab population, also employs Jewish residents of Hadera with mental disabilities.
Mulay works only with sheltered workshops, run by nonprofit organizations to provide workplaces for people with disabilities. “It’s a matter of ideology,” he says. “I chose to create a quality product with people who usually do jobs nobody else wants to do,” Mulay says. “Their identification with the process boosts their self-image.”
This social aspect of sustainability is linked to the pricing of green products. Many of the items are not cheap and, especially in a time of global financial crisis, a consumer might ask, “Why buy a more expensive green product if I can buy something similar for a lower price?”
“A very low price involves the exploitation of people, sometimes child labor,” and thus is counter to a basic tenet of sustainability, Lev says. Fair wages inevitably boost the cost.
Another consideration, Bar-nof Kitrey points out, is durability. A product that is more expensive because it is more durable is better for the environment in the long run because it reduces the eventual amount of waste.
Even so, how can sustainable products become more affordable? Part of the cost can be cut if some of the processes are mechanized, Mulay says. In the case of his wastebasket and a lamp made from magazines with a similar technique, the labor-intensive pasting and rolling of paper could be mechanized.
Kenan says she thinks constantly about how to lower the price of her furniture. The factors in the current price include the high cost of developing the nontoxic fire retardant, the amount of manual labor and the relatively high cost per item of manufacturing small quantities. Larger production runs will eventually lower the price, she says: “That is our dream.”
The cost of some items can be cut by manufacturing them locally, and this also reduces the amount of fossil fuels that would otherwise be needed to transport them. As an example, Lev mentions a device designed by Bezalel students for making mud bricks, which are used in construction in poorer parts of the world. Instead of making the bricks in one place and then transporting them to another, the device itself is moved from site to site.
Lougashi believes in manufacturing and selling his baskets locally, to use local wastepaper and to involve the community.
Of course, there is true sustainability and there are gimmicks dressed in “green.” Putting a PVC sculpture of the planet Earth on a city street to raise consciousness is a gimmick, because eventually the sculpture will end up in a landfill, Lev says: “There are other ways to raise consciousness.” Meanwhile, the idealistic designers are hoping to drive a real change.
Lougashi aims to combine tradition and sustainability so as “to live with nature and still find new ways to express love and beauty.” For Kenan, the dream is tempered by the realization that people will prefer green items only if they are useful. “It is very important to me that [each item] have added value,” for example, the storage space in the bench, she says. “This is the thought that guides me. These are real things, so that green will become part of a way of life.” H