Radhika Bhalla dreamed of empowering women in her native India by designing a bicycle cart made of inexpensive, easily obtained local materials.
LOS ANGELES — Radhika Bhalla dreamed of empowering women in her native India by designing a bicycle cart made of inexpensive, easily obtained local materials. At present, many rural Indian women must haul heavy loads of firewood and flour bags by hand, on foot.
Bhalla calculates that the new carts could save up to five hours of walking per day. That, in turn, could help win over husbands who traditionally don't like to see their womenfolk getting too mobile and independent.
"As long as there's monetary gain, men are interested," said Bhalla, 25, a student at Art Center College of Design, the nearly 80-year-old Pasadena school that's one of the world's foremost hothouses of art and design innovation.
Now, Art Center has a new goal embraced by students and faculty alike: to make the private college a global leader in stylish, consumer-seducing designs that leave small carbon footprints and don't end up rotting in landfills.
In the three years since the school adopted sustainability as a core value, students have responded with imaginative, bold projects.
Spencer Nikosey is fabricating a line of ruggedly attractive designer bags and totes made of Army tarpaulins and damaged fire hoses. He contracted with a Los Angeles company to manufacture the bags and accessorized them with numbered dog tags for a limited-edition exclusivity.
Sharon Levy invented an electric tea set to reduce the energy tea drinkers waste heating excess water.
"I decided that was a good opportunity to change the user behavior. It's supposed to encourage a sustainable lifestyle," said Levy, 31.
These projects reflect the new philosophy at Art Center, which was founded in 1930 at the onset of the Great Depression, a time, like our own, when designers were searching for new methods and models.
In recent years, the college — which has about 1,400 undergraduates and 150 graduate students, 22 percent of them from overseas — has reshuffled its curriculum by making sustainability a central tenet of everything students design and develop.
Design's dynamic duo of form and function have been replaced by the holy trinity of form, functionality and sustainability. Eco-consciousness is now a given, but leaders at Art Center think they are in the vanguard of using it as an organizing principle.
Many of these products not only are more environmentally friendly and durable, but are also better looking — if also, in some cases, slightly more expensive — than the energy-gorging, hard-to-recycle ones they aim to replace.
Nikolaus Hafermaas, acting chief academic officer, said that a combination of student demand and faculty awareness caused the school to make sustainability central to its mission, following recommendations by the faculty council and a white paper issued five years ago.
"My personal goal would be that the S-word is placed out in no time and we don't have any dedicated sustainability class anymore because it's so ingrained in everything we do here and it's a no-brainer," he said.
Of course, Art Center's endeavors won't amount to much if the students don't make things that consumers want to buy.
Hafermaas thinks designers must move beyond a false dichotomy between beauty and ecological correctness. In the past, Art Center instructors said, making a product environmentally friendly was treated as an afterthought. Now, before making preliminary sketches or models, students in the Design for Sustainability class must submit their projects to a "life-cycle analysis," breaking them down into components of "inputs" of energy and materials and "outputs" of emissions and waste. They also plot their product's projected lifeline, from resources, manufacture and point of sale to consumer use and beyond.
Students also are encouraged to design products whose individual parts can be replaced without having to trash the whole thing.
"Life-cycle analysis is the driver for the design; it's not something we do later," said Heidrun Mumper-Drumm, an adjunct associate professor who co-teaches Design for Sustainability.
In addition, all classroom activities must conform to "Positive Practice Protocols." A sort of Ten Commandments of eco-friendly classroom conduct, the protocols include such injunctions as "No coated paper" and "Put the laptop in sleep mode when leaving the room."
"It's a bit preachy, and I'm very careful not to go there, but the students seem to want this," Mumper-Drumm said.
Leslie Evans, 27, incorporated her school's new vision into her "Vespera Hairdryer." Hair dryers are hard to disassemble when parts need replacing, Evans said. Her prototype is easy to unscrew and its components can be readily replaced and recycled.
"A lot of people think about sustainability as something that's nice to do or the right thing to do, but actually it's becoming a financial imperative," she said.
Under the leadership of a student-faculty alliance, the school has set out to make the entire campus a case study in eco-friendly efficiency.
A main component of that effort is the Eco Council, a rotating group of 20 to 30 students who identify problems and promote solutions. This could be eliminating Styrofoam, converting to compostable food-ware in the campus cafeteria,implementing an on-campus bicycle tuneup program, or installing solar panels so students and faculty can power up laptops.
Faculty and administrators stress that they're really teaching "comprehensive design," giving their students a tool box that will help them orchestrate new approaches to solving social problems in concert with engineers, scientists, urban planners, artists and others.
In 2001, a campus-wide initiative, Designmatters, was launched to assist students in creating humanitarian design proposals. Projects have included portable shelters for homeless individuals and creating a community in Kenya for orphans and elderly people with AIDS.
"It's not about teaching stand-alone sustainability; it's really about truly responsible design," said David Mocarski, chairman of environmental design.
Several previous design revolutions, such as Britain's late 19th-century Arts and Crafts Movement and the German Bauhaus movement of the 1920s and '30s, were triggered by social upheavals and a perception that prevailing design and manufacturing practices were wasteful and outmoded.
Art Center students and faculty said that, rather than feeling restrictive, the school's imposition of sustainability mandates has spurred them to think more expansively.
And the ideas keep coming. A student team is developing a gray-water recycling kit that could become a standard bathroom fixture.
Kam Leang, 28, of Utah, discovered that residents of Tokyo annually discard 400,000 umbrellas. He came up with a streamlined umbrella made of recyclable materials that unfolds as gracefully as a piece of origami. He wants to stock them in vending machines so commuters and shoppers can buy and return them on a pay-per-use basis.
School officials are confident that, even in the current sour economic climate, its graduates will be employable.
Dice Yamaguchi, who led the Eco Council for three terms, now works for Applied Minds, a small Glendale company whose employees include artists, scientists and engineers. Among his designs are bamboo-stick frames that support laptop computers, iPods and other consumer electronics. He recently sold a batch of the laptop stands, which cost $15 apiece, to a Singapore store, and he has a waiting list.
But the school also recognizes that sustainability as a concept is in its infancy. Although more industries are starting to assimilate it, some see it mainly as a marketing opportunity and a way to pre-empt government regulation.
Changing behavior on campus is only the start of what Art Center's denizens know will be a much bigger, longer and harder task.
"We're at an amazing time for designers because they've seen the pitfalls of what Modernism did, and did not, do so well," Mocarski said. "We do have the one major mountain that more is still more. Bigger is still better, and shinier is still better, and it's going to be hard to change in this country."