A Sustainable Agenda?


21 December 2016

At the opening of its 12th edition, Design Miami announced a new sustainability initiative, Building Legacy. Organised in partnership with the United Nations (UN), the scheme aims to offer a platform for green infrastructure across architecture, design, development and manufacturing, in line with the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The programme was manifested in a series of events and talks across the five-day fair.

“Design Miami is interested in how we can leverage our platform,” said Rodman Primack, the fair's executive director. “It has always had an impact beyond the marketplace, and we were thinking we could tell both a sustainability story and a resource story.” Design Miami provides a significant platform for launching such ideas: this year, it drew nearly 40,000 visitors from across the world. It provides exhibition space for major design galleries, including Carpenter’s Workshop, Galerie Kreo and Victor Hunt.

The 2016 fair featured several projects with an eco-conscious slant. The most visible was Flotsam & Jetsam, a pavilion at the site's entrance. Created by the New York-based practice SHoP Architects, it used 3D printed elements made from biodegradable bamboo, woven in a lattice-like pattern that allowed natural light to penetrate through. It was assembled to celebrate SHoP’s award for Design Visionary, a prize previously won by Yves Behar and Peter Marino; the citation on the fair's website praises the practice's contribution to "sustainable development."

Inside the fair itself sat the Talks Theatre, designed by the American architecture firm DDG, where the festival’s events programme took place. The spruce plywood structure took its inspiration from ancient amphitheaters. Its spruce was sourced from Admont in Austria, where the forests are highly managed and any waste material is reused to heat the town. It was thus formed from a sustainable material, albeit one whose core component was transported across half a continent and the Atlantic Ocean.

Galleries showcased designers with sustainable focuses, whether in material or methodology. Mercado Moderno’s booth featured the work of Brazilian designer Hugo Franca, whose series of sculptural chairs and benches were made using reclaimed wood derived from fallen Pequi trees near his home in rural Bahia, northeastern Brazil. Champagne house Perrier-Jouët collaborated with American artist Andrew Kudless on Strand Garden, a large-scale installation exploring digital craftsmanship consisting of a cluster of oak veneer booths. At the centre of the installation stood a 3D-printed bioplastic stand with a 3D-printed ice bucket, which Kudless 3D-printed using Chardonnay grape skin taken from the residue in the winemaking process. “All the skins and seeds are left behind in the press,” explained Kudless, “and often it’s composted and put back into the vineyard, but you can also take it and bake it and grind it into a powder, which you can use to 3D print.”

The methodology of design practice, however, is only one way to approach sustainability. A larger question is how Design Miami itself – which features a temporary structure that requires excess energy to operate, and runs a food hub with disposable containers and cutlery – contributes to a lighter footprint. The fair attracted 37,900 visitors this year. If each visitor drank one cup of coffee, there would be an equal number of cups being thrown away; add the culinary paraphernalia, and the mound of waste begins to pile up. What, then, is the role of sustainability in a design fair whose own choices don’t necessarily reflect the green initiatives it’s endorsing?

According to Mitchell Toomey, the director of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Campaign, the concept of sustainability is less about the physical space and more about the design ideas and strategies coming out of Design Miami. “The sustainability that comes out of here and what we want to participate in isn’t the physical aspect – it’s the ideas,” Toomey explains. “The temporary presence of the building shouldn’t be confused with the message and the community that it represents. Design Miami has been running for over 10 years and that’s a sustainable community even though the episodes are short-term, the community that’s being developed and the ideas that are perpetuated are long-term.”

It could be argued that, in order to commit to Building Legacy, Design Miami’s own infrastructural choices should tie in its attitudes towards green ideas. These choices have the opportunity to enable more sustainable behaviour from visitors on a smaller but equally important scale. Design Miami has, however, aimed to recycle and repurpose many of its fair materials. It has also built relationships with local organisations to rehouse projects from the fair. Flotsam & Jetsam will find its way to the Miami Design District where it will host outdoor cultural activities, while the Talks Theatre will be donated to the Greater Miami Health Education and Training Centre to support trainee doctors.

These are encouraging signs. Toomey says that while he doesn’t want to jump to any quick conclusions about the best way to stimulate the design community to embrace sustainability, the UN and Design Miami will continue to integrate these ideas in Basel next summer, where the next iteration of the fair will be held. Basel will attract a different set of designers and collectors, who, like their Miami counterparts, will be able to introduce Building Legacy to a European stage.

“We have 14 years to get this right and we want to design it well,” says Toomey. “What we want to do is use the challenge model to stimulate people around the world to be participants in this. The idea is to use these kinds of platforms to recognise and incentivise people who have good ideas.”