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Heirloom Design
Adele Peters, 25 Mar 09

1505886723_0d5fa3a5a7.jpgCan we live sustainably while still enjoying our stuff? Buying better stuff (and less of it), and keeping it for longer is one realistic strategy for making that possible. But we know that won't work with most of the stuff we have now. Whether it's clothes, computers, appliances or even homes, throwaway culture in the developed world -- accompanied by throwaway design -- makes for stuff we not only don't want to keep, but that we often can't continue to use even if we try.

Enter a new meme: Heirloom Design. At Compostmodern, Saul Griffith proposed the concept, which he describes as design that is intended to last for generations. Griffith said he's planning to give his soon-to-be-born son a Rolex and Mont Blanc pen ... and then tell him that these would be the only watch and pen he could use for the next 100 years.

"It sounds like I'm a pretentious wanker when I say 'green' is a Rolex and a Mont Blanc pen, but what I really mean is, you have to design things and experiences that will last a very long time, that have been thoughtfully designed and are very beautiful," Griffith explained.

Durability is not a new concept for sustainability. In theory, if a product stays around longer, it means that a replacement product doesn't need to be manufactured and transported to the consumer, and the original product stays out of the landfill. But durability alone doesn't ensure that something won't be thrown away. Heirloom design introduces something more: our desire as consumers to keep an object because it has some meaning for us. What makes something worthy of passing down through generations?

Griffith's examples involve heavy initial investments, which can certainly motivate someone to care for and keep a product longer. But the power of price is relative to the consumer's disposable income, and it still isn't everything. The point is to not limit heirloom-quality goods to certain people, but to recover an ideal of making things for everyone that will last for generations. When I spoke with Griffith about this, he suggested that designers really need to figure out how to make something beautiful and well made that isn't expensive.

That goal may not be as pie-in-the-sky as it sounds. In a book called Antiques of the Future, product designer Lisa Roberts put forth a collection of mass-produced objects that she believes will be valuable in the future, once they are no longer in production. Many of the items are relatively inexpensive, but are well made and attractive: one of her primary criteria in selection was just that the objects have "a strong and immediate visual appeal." Among her selections were Michael Graves’ tea kettle and Karim Rashid’s Garbino trash can (now, she notes, the trash can is available in biodegradable corn-based plastic).

What other products being designed now have the best chance of becoming future heirlooms? Usefulness wasn't mentioned among Roberts' criteria, but could also be a reason something is kept. A classic multifunctional tool like the Swiss Army knife may be likely to be handed from one generation to the next. Sentimental appeal is another reason something may become an heirloom, and designers can aim to create products that inspire emotional responses.

Though Roberts' book demonstrates that heirloom design doesn't necessarily have to be expensive, her work doesn't focus on design that promotes sustainability specifically. Griffith's strategy of choosing investment pieces isn't necessarily foolproof in this regard, either: a report by the World Wildlife Fund gave the world's largest luxury companies abysmal sustainability ratings. Even if an item is durable and provides heirloom appeal, limited raw resources and a growing awareness of the impacts of waste mean manufacturers will need to consider lifecycle sustainability from the beginning. A few designers, however, are already using the concept of heirloom design as a way to consciously improve their sustainability, like the clothing company Howie's, in the UK, and Entermodal in Portland, Oregon.

It's worth noting that durability/heirloom quality isn't always the best solution for every product. In some cases, it might make sense to design something to adapt to a radically shorter lifespan, like packaging that instantly biodegrades. In other instances, if a particular product is currently harmful to the environment, a short lifespan would be useful so that the product can be replaced as soon as sustainable technology is available.

At the other end of the spectrum, in some types of products -- like rapidly changing technology -- the idea of heirloom design can be taken to creative new heights. It could take the form of long-lasting hardware that accepts software upgrades: perhaps, for example, a permanent computer or cell phone case, with replaceable insides (more on this topic in John Hockenberry's terrific article for Metropolis magazine). Taking that idea to its furthest extension is a future of closed-loop manufacturing, where you could purchase only the service an item provides, relying on the manufacturer to offer you both regular upgrade opportunities and a place to return physical materials to the industrial nutrient stream.

Overall, the idea that products should last -- and that consumers should want to keep them -- is an important part of designing a sustainable future. Where do you see opportunities for heirloom items that don't yet exist? Please answer in the comments!

Adele Peters is currently earning her Master's in Sustainability at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden.

Photo credit: flickr/Lid-Licker!, Creative Commons license.

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Ok, so this is a simple idea, but how about heirloom wrapping-fabric? That is, for gifts given within a family, using fabric instead of wrapping paper - which generates an enormous amount of waste - and hanging onto the fabric for re-use. This particular piece of cloth would build up significant sentimental value over time as it became associated with many happy memories. Who wouldn't want to receive a gift in the same wrapping (washed and appropriately maintained, of course) that grandad once used to wrap grandma's first wedding anniversary present? I'm not sure how much design opportunity there is for this kind of thing beyond all the fabrics that exist already, though presumably there would be different markets for different festive seasons. Timeless prints and durability would be essential features.

Posted by: Drew on 25 Mar 09

Regarding wrapping paper, I have sewn a few velvet bags, which have seen at least a decade of holiday uses. I also have a ribbon collection and am careful to give the best ones only to family members who will put them back in the collection, LOL.

Regarding Rolex watches and Mont Blanc pens, I think that is a meritorious concept. One should however, give them only at an age when the likelihood of losing them is low, and even then, insure them.

Posted by: Gina on 25 Mar 09

There's a question about how technological objects specifically, and even digital things (like digital images), might become heirlooms, in order to both get us out of the cycle of having to have the "latest gadget", as well as allowing us to persist our histories without having to rely on printing out everything as a way of helping guarantee its longevity.

For what it's worth I touch on some of this in a talk I recently gave in an event in London organized by PSFK.

Posted by: Richard Banks on 26 Mar 09

There is one more problem to be solved. If something is useful enough to be heirloom than it cannot be passed to next generation, because most people still continue using that product even at the point when their children would need it (for example Swiss knife).

Maybe the other way would be better, to encourage buying used stuff and make products easier to refurbish and more detached from their users so that people would return everything to the market as soon as they don't have any more use for it?

Posted by: Leo H on 26 Mar 09

Leo - You suggest buying used stuff, which is a great idea. If you no longer have use of an item, let someone else have the option of buying it. The problem right now though, is that the main market for that is either Thrift stores (Goodwill, Salvation Army, etc.), or Pawn shops. We will gladly shop at a thrift store, but won't step foot in a Pawn shop. There is a terrible image that a pawn shop is where you can "legally buy stolen goods". That needs to change, for re-selling of items becomes viable.

I see the ultimate challenge with this form of design is the decision of: what is important to try and use "forever", and hence make it an heirloom design, and what should be designed to be disposable (recyclable packaging, or biodegradable, etc.)? Technology can never be heirloom, because it changes far too quickly, and the older items are no longer usable (I had an old cell phone that I used until the network discontinued the 1G service). Try using a 10 year old computer...
Also as mentioned in the article, what would the price point be for these items, and how would it limit those of lower incomes from taking part?

Posted by: Jim M on 26 Mar 09

What about a focus on obtaining a full cycle of a product by designing it based on the eventual disassembly of that product. By ensuring every material used to create the product can be reused, having a planned beginning and end, the product doesn't necessarily have to become an heirloom. Of course this would work best for larger products, but it could still be practical for smaller ones. Secondly, if a producer kept track of all units produced; it could follow the whole life-cycle of the product and reuse the materials once the product is near the end of it's life-cycle. This could be done simply by product lease, where the terms require the item to be returned to the manufacturer. Another practical way would just be through incentive. Materials will always have value and could be bought back by the manufacturer or third party. Regardless, there are many ways for this life-cycle approach to be implemented. It seems the imbalance of production oriented business, without the concern or care of any practical reuse of all products, is an obvious irresponsible and illogical approach; where its own actions become externalities or costs passed onto unaffiliated parties.
Finally, we need realize that this life-cycle approach can be more economically feasible than constantly mining new raw materials. It seems that society sees recycling as a move against a natural current of economics, where it cost more for society as a whole to become responsible, but It seem more illogical to continue to mine new materials that are just being stored in landfills on the other end. More emphasis needs to be placed on full life-cycle planning of products where all costs are accounted, instead of a negligent, one-sided focus on sales figures only, which lacks full cycle purpose.

Posted by: Tyson Baldassare on 26 Mar 09

haven't owned a watch since I was 14. (I am now 34). With clocks all over the place who needs one? Granted, a stop watch for competitive running/training is helpful, but I can't believe that one would ever be in need of knowing what time it is an NOT be within range of a wall clock, car clock, computer clock, cel phone clock, etc. Of course I would much rather have only a simple sun-dial (once you learn to use it, it lasts way longer than a Rolex) and never have to look at computer or cell phone again... Maybe we should shoot for that - look for what we need instead of what we *want*. Ask ourselves every time we feel the urdge to check the time "why am I checking the time?" Maybe we will realize something about our life. Maybe we can simplify and do *without* even those gadgets that last a long time.

Posted by: Chunky on 27 Mar 09

The problem that I see is getting manufacturers on board with this. While as consumers (and concerned citizens) we want to minimize the amount and frequency of our buying, the companies who are selling products want the exact opposite; they benefit precisely from "disposable" products with short lifespans that force us to buy more. I suspect this is one major reason that our disposable culture exists in the first place. I love the heirloom design concept, but how do you convince businesses to sell better products less often?

Posted by: Dan on 27 Mar 09

Another source for heirloom design is local craftspeople.

Sure, they may not fit into a money making mass-production model, but as with eating locally-produced food, it's great to buy beautifully and durably handmade dishware, furniture, etc. for your home and for gifts whenever possible.

Support you local craftspeople, the original makers of heirloom design!

Posted by: Amy Shaw on 27 Mar 09

I loved your article Adele! Just a quick comment: do we need to own bjects at all? Or should they be avaiable for use, which I believe would bring a higher "outcome per unit".
Miss you in Karlskrona!

Posted by: Eduardo Lima on 28 Mar 09

I think that we could create a dual-system. Heirloom design for all items using materials that can be recycled. This way a person can choose to hold onto something for a lifetime, or it could be cycled through use in a item-lending library. And ultimately once it is past use it can be recycled.

But here's our current challenge: I think the idea of style is so enmeshed in our culture that people have a very hard time stepping out of this. There is a kind of beauty that resides out of style. The architect Christopher Alexander wrote about this in The Timeless Way of Building many years ago. His approach has been to try and reach outside of the culture of the latest hip thing and make things that are so beautiful they feel completely outside of the realm of fad-design. Just think of the ancient cathedrals, or the old cities that grace the cover of every travel magazine. They were never faddish, and that's why they still move us. Sadly, the green movement keeps trying to make green cool and hip -- but the very notion of cool and hip are intimately linked with obsolescence. I am not advocating some kind of drab burlap world, but I think that the whole baby boom generation got so freaked out about growing old, that they lunged at the idea of staying youthful and current by being cool. These days our society is so drenched in the notion of hipness, it would take a very long detox to dry us all out. Let's grow up and reach for a much more lasting, authentic beauty in the things we make -- now THAT would be wise change.

Posted by: Fiona Theodoredis on 28 Mar 09

Very nice article, but (you knew there was going to be a but) ... why on Earth does Entermodal feel entitled to invade my space with automatic-on air-pudding music? I know you can't answer. But if they're watching, that there is a totally irrational reason why I won't buy anything from them.

Posted by: Jeremy on 29 Mar 09

how can you accept HP presence talking about heirloom design?
Is it a joke? Is like having Donald Rumsfeld talking about Peace!!!!!

Posted by: javier on 17 Oct 09

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