We rely on advertising revenue to support the creative content on our site. Please consider whitelisting our site in your settings, or pausing your adblocker while stopping by.

Get the Magazine

Green Design Comes Full Circle
A whole host of designers, manufacturers and entrepreneurs are making meaningful shifts toward circularity, from sourcing sustainable materials and minimizing waste in manufacturing to designing with a product’s end-of-life in mind. Thinking holistically, they are also challenging entrenched systems and long-held notions of what possesses real value: foregrounding the health and livelihoods of artisans, stakeholders and end users throughout the process of creating greener products and more resilient communities.
How Patricia Urquiola Pushes Brands to Be More Green
Obakki’s Not-For-Profit Approach to Supporting Artisans
On the 10th Anniversary of the Fogo Island Inn, Zita Cobb Is Still Building Community
Copenhagen’s Bonnie Hvillum Invents New Materials from Waste Streams
Indigenous Approaches to Place
Green Design Comes Full Circle

You could be forgiven, in this era of collective time dilation, for missing the fact that Studio Urquiola turned 20 years old in 2021. Or that Cassina, where Patricia Urquiola has been the creative director since 2015, is approaching its centenary in 2027. The stalwart Spanish industrial designer knows better than anyone that change is inevitable: “The time of resiliency is here, of adaptation, of more capacity for listening and dialoguing.” We spoke during Urquiola’s recent visit to San Francisco about sustainability and her approach to adaptive re-use:

On the Sengu Bold floor sofa (2022) for Cassina, which features replaceable upholstery and cushioning padded by blown recycled PET fibre:

“The interior is made from a regenerative material, much of it diverted from the oceans. Normally, inside of these pieces, we believe the quality must come from polyurethane foam or feathers. This fresh attitude and the research into these materials is asserting a new beauty. We’re enlarging the possibilities for many things to be done in a new way, with a new sensibility.”

On the Hilo collection (2022) for Japanese eyewear brand Jins, with frames made from a castor oil–based biomaterial:

“Jins is doing very interesting work with very interesting designers. But they were not on the page of using any new material. I told them, ‘If I’m going to do something like this, I’m going to push things.’ I have to show them a passion. I said, ‘I have time, perhaps you have time too, but you’re going to have to find this material you can produce in Japan.’ And they found their own way to the right material.”

Patricia Urquiola's eyewear for Jins

On the Soriana armchair, originally designed by Afra and Tobia Scarpa in 1969 and relaunched by Cassina in 2021:

“When we put this back in production, I decided we needed to replace the mould inside with little bags of biofoam microspheres and padding made of regenerative PET filling. We kept the form the same, but the way it’s produced has changed. And it’s more comfortable now. It doesn’t mean we can’t be very proud to use a piece of marble, properly signed and documented, in a table that’s going to be a jewel in your house. That’s the time to use that kind of material.”

Patricia Urquiola's update of the Soriana seating by Cassina

On the Lounge BIO (2021) for Andreu World, an expansion of Urquiola’s Nuez collection that employs a biodegradable thermopolymer produced by micro-organisms:

“We started the collection moving to recycled plastic, and when they wanted to add a lounge chair in the same family, I said, Let’s go to a bioplastic. To transition to bioplastic in those dimensions was complex. But they called me back and said they found a way. It requires a kind of passion and persistence. We have to…‘fight’ is a strong word, but they knew I really wanted it. And now it’s working. Now it’s good.”

Patricia Urquiola's Bio chair for Andreu World

Intro portrait of Patricia Urquiola by Valentina Sommariva

More Industry Benchmarks in Sustainability

Ripples across the designer furniture industry suggest a sea change. A number of furniture manufacturers, including Andreu World, Fritz Hansen and Vestre, have introduced repair and re-use programs, while such designer–makers as Part & Whole of Victoria, BC, are creating collections with refurbishment in mind from the start. Human health is also part of the circularity equation: To eliminate harmful chemicals in its textiles, Maharam announced that, as of January 2023, all of its products are PFAS-free.

Dutch architecture firm MVRDV designed a series of fixtures for Delta Light that re-uses the brand’s discarded metal profiles to striking effect.

Across the board, however, carbon-neutral status has been the ultimate goal, and brands including Interface and Keilhauer have made major strides in this realm. The global platforms for international design are also rethinking their scope: New at the Stockholm fair, The Nude Edition is a section with stands made of recycled materials; more significantly, the Salone del Mobile has embarked on the process toward ISO 20121 certification, seeking to reduce its footprint and counsel its exhibitors on how to do the same

Keilhauer has made major strides in carbon-neutral manufacturing. Its new Spinni bar stool, designed by Thom Fougere for Division Twelve, serves as a prime example.

It might be based in Vancouver, but Obakki has been sending its founder, Treana Peake, on adventures around the world, physically and virtually, for more than 15 years now. In Uganda, she’s met with a group of women who make paper with elephant dung; in Mexico, there are potters creating one-of-a-kind bowls; in Italy, the glass-blowers of Milan brand R+D Lab have Zoomed her in to discuss the gorgeous borosilicate vessels they’re crafting for the brand.

Murano glassware by R&D Studio for Obakki
R&D Lab’s elegant glassware for Obakki.

What makes Obakki’s business model work is a two-pronged approach. Half of the business is focused on design wholesale. For instance, the brand recently partnered with Mexican designer Andrés Gutiérrez to bring his new white oak furniture series, the Thirteen Heavens collection, to the world. Based on Aztec folklore, the pieces include cabinets and tables with spirited details. Sales of Gutiérrez’s and other designers’ collections help support the other half of Obakki, which comprises purpose-driven collaborations with artisans who reap 100 per cent of the profit from sales of their wares.

Mexican designer Andrés Gutiérrez’s furniture series for Obakki (here and top of article) abounds with Aztec symbolism.

It all started as an offshoot of the luxury fashion brand that predates the homewares line: Peake had been making runway collections and feeling the relentless pressure to meet ever-shrinking deadlines due to ever-proliferating fashion seasons. Yet, at the same time, she had been doing work in the international development area — digging wells across Africa, contributing to agricultural projects and bolstering livelihood initiatives — and encountering on her journeys craftspeople who she felt could use her connections to the West. That’s when, in 2007, she launched the Obakki Foundation.

Obakki's Caralarga line of wall tapestries
Part of the Caralarga collection of woven art, this wall piece is handwoven in Querétaro, Mexico by a collective of female artisans working to preserve knowledge about ancient textile techniques while caring for and respecting the environment.

“Now that you have a well, how do we get the economy going?” is how Peake characterizes the convergence of her two not-for-profit paths. “If I think I can reach an international market, Obakki buys the product from artisans and reinvests into community.”

A woven bowl for Obakki
Weavers in Kasese, Uganda, create graphic bowls from palm and banana leaves; Obakki sells them and helps artisans pay for their kids’ education.

She purchases small-batch homewares and textiles at the local price, she explains, so that they remain locally affordable. “Otherwise, they’d rely only on the international market and the local market will suffer.” It’s a new way of collaborating with artisans where they reap the full benefit of their painstaking work — and get proper billing as creative talents.

Back in 2005, well before she would bring the Fogo Island Inn to her hometown in Newfoundland, Zita Cobb was staying in nearby Stag Harbour. There was no Internet, but her New York Times subscription went a long way, as it was passed along to neighbour after neighbour. Soon, the Sunday edition reached Amos, who was captivated by the inside front page advertisement for designer purses. “Can you explain to me why I can’t get 49 cents for a pound of wild codfish and people are paying $5,000 for a handbag? Do we have to turn fish into a positional good?” Cobb recalls Amos asking. “That’s exactly what we have to do,” Cobb answered.

What Amos the fisherman was essentially asking was, Why is a fish just something you eat while a purse is a status symbol worth so much more? And while it’s a reaction to a condition that shouldn’t exist — an upside-down global economy where the price of goods is disconnected from the people and places whence they come — Amos’s question was translated into the ethos of the Shorefast foundation and every endeavour under its umbrella, from the establishment of the Fogo Island Inn and the revival of the local fishery to the rebirth of its quilting heritage.

Redefining value as intrinsic to relationships — among people in a community and between the community and the place that sustains it — is the basis of yet another Shorefast invention: the Economic Nutrition Label. It serves as both a practical device (letting people who stay at the inn or purchase any of its goods know what they’re paying for) and as a microcosm of how the foundation operates. When she and Cobb came up with the idea, Shorefast’s CFO, Diane Hodgins, began with a similarly incisive question: “How do we make it obvious at the moment of purchase where the money goes?”

Zita Cobb and Shorefast's Economic Nutrition Label
A breakdown of the costs of a nightly stay at the Fogo Island Inn is represented in this Economic Nutrition Label.

“Most people are seduced by the idea that economic development is something that the government or big business does,” says Cobb. “But how do we build an economy that’s ours? A functioning community economy makes life in a place possible.” The inn, she says, has done that. “The fishery is the most important thing. Together, the fishing co-op and the inn are the island’s two main employers. The co-op drives our understanding of our relationship with the sea; the inn drives our understanding of how we belong to the world.”

When it opened in 2013, its stilt-supported form by Todd Saunders elevating the salt-box vernacular of the tiny Newfoundland community, the story that emerged around the Fogo Island Inn felt primarily like one about heroic architecture: a Bilbao-effect narrative about a community putting its face on the map of culture-based tourism. But as it celebrates its 10th anniversary, its overarching meaning is about circular design: the intentional consideration of a whole ecosystem when it comes to the regeneration of a place. As is now legend, Cobb returned to the island after making a tidy fortune in fibre optics. She wanted to invest in the place her family was forced to leave after industrialized fishing had virtually depleted the oceans, leaving community-based fishers like her father unable to feed their families or make a living.

Then there was the moratorium on fishing altogether. “How would you feel if you woke up one morning and everything that you know is no longer relevant? Suddenly all that knowledge that’s lived and felt and embodied is no good for anything.”

That embodied knowledge is where Cobb began, and it’s where, a decade later, the inn is a resounding success for locals. “People from around the world come to us. They stay at the inn, but they are hosted by the island. It’s cast us into a bunch of relationships. For Fogo Islanders, our understanding of ourselves has shifted. Our belief in the future…I don’t want to say it was restored — that would imply it was lost, which it wasn’t — but it was certainly injured.”

The rebuilding of a prosperous future happens on many levels. Take the area’s quilting heritage. Along with local-made furniture, the inn employed islanders to produce hundreds of quilts for its 29 rooms. While these heirloom pieces were still being passed from generation to generation, Mickey Mouse patterns and polyester blends had made their way into the fabric swatches. “They had fallen out of relationship with the quilts from the past. That relationship was broken by the arrival of consumer culture. So we said, ‘Let’s talk to the older women.’ ” Vintage quilts were hauled out of cupboards, their patterns vivid and random. “And we thought, ‘Holy Jesus, what have we lost?’ ” says Cobb.

So began this renewed relationship with the quilters of the past: The inn revived six to eight heritage patterns and created a new market for them in the wider world. Cobb says that there are now at least a dozen quiltmakers with access to retail outlets on the island, and dozens more producing them.

Zita Cobb and Shorefast's philanthropy model
Modelled after a quilt, the Shorefast way of doing things shows how surplus from businesses provides for its charitable programs.

If quilting and fishing are assets specific to Fogo Island (Fogo Island Fish now ships, to select cities across Canada, 10-pound orders of wild snow crab and 14-pound “punt boxes” of cod, shrimp and crab for $450 and $300, respectively — real-value prices that Amos might approve of), Shorefast’s ongoing community economies project helps other places recognize their own assets and resources.

The foundation has partnered with four places to strengthen their economies: South Vancouver Island in BC and the Ontario locales of Hamilton, London and Prince Edward County. It’s an initiative that Cobb envisions growing into a broader program for the country. “We’re creating a network that contains good and best practices around building strong community economies. Because until we address the hollowing out of the community pillar, nothing can be achieved.” If Fogo Island’s circular approach becomes the benchmark, other small communities around the world will learn big lessons about the small details that make them unique, continuing a legacy a decade in the making.

When most people think of interaction design, they might conjure in their mind’s eye an augmented reality app, a retail touchscreen, even an entire metaverse. When Bonnie Hvillum studied interaction design at Aarhus University, she was instead drawn to the most analog of experiences: the way in which we respond to tactile materials and how their textures and smells evoke powerful feelings and memories within us. This is especially true of biomaterials, new varieties of which she has been inventing in her Natural Material Studio since she founded it in 2019.

If Hvillum sees her work as part of a larger paradigm shift — “a move towards co-living and co-creating within systems and systemic wholes” — it’s because, alongside her keen interest in how people relate to them, she’s just as interested in the afterlife of her products. “It’s not just about replacing materials, but rethinking the linear mind-shift of growth and consumerism.”

Bonnie Hvillum in her Natural Material Studio
The Danish designer sees her work as part of a larger trend toward systems-based thinking in design

One of her creations is the leather-like Pinel, which salvages the pine needles of misshapen — and thus chopped-down and tossed — Christmas trees, one of Denmark’s largest exports. Here, her twin interests in sensorial experience and ecological benefits converge. “The smells of the essential oils in pine needles are very calm sensors of being in the woods. It has a good effect on people,” she explains. “And that very unconscious first encounter is crucial — it’s what’s going to make the material succeed or not.”

Since it takes years for the third-party Danish Technological Institute to complete standardized testing on her materials for practical uses like upholstery or panelling, Hvillum’s three-person enterprise uses that in-between time to create installations and embark on collaborations with designers on small-scale projects.

Bonnie Hvillum's Natural Material Studio invented Pinel, a material derived from pine needles
The Pinel textile makes use of discarded Christmas trees – and their fragrant needles.

Last year, Calvin Klein approached Natural Material Studio to envision a reusable, recyclable and natural holiday gift pouch for its Copenhagen store. A couple years back, the studio partnered with Toronto fashion house Moskal on a gritty leather alternative for a runway collection inspired by coal mines.

Even more impressive is the studio’s consultancy work, where it teams up with a brand to better exploit a waste stream in its production process. For Dinesen, which makes wood floor planks, that meant capturing the sawdust that is usually incinerated and turning it into an integral part of the product. The studio’s mission statement says it best: “By approaching waste as a resource, new value chains are created.”

Top image: One of Hvillum’s projects, Shellware, involved the creation of a new type of clay based on leftover Nordic seashells.

“Our job as architects is really about placekeeping,” Wanda Dalla Costa explains. “You really need to sit in and align yourself with that place to do this work.” Two projects, one by her firm and the other by Brook McIlroy, are bright beacons.

PHOTO: Riley Snelling

In a gleaming office tower high above the streets of downtown Toronto, there is a space whose memory spans thousands of years. Opening out to the city with a carved ceiling and a spirit of welcome, CIBC Square’s Legacy Room channels Indigenous heritage into Canada’s economic core.

Led by the Indigenous Design Studio — a speciality practice within Brook McIlroy — the design was developed in partnership with CIBC and the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, as well as Indigenous stakeholders. Anchored by its sculptural cladding in oak and wood veneer and bookended by stately limestone walls, the interior evokes the heritage of Anishinaabek teaching lodges and the longhouses of Haudenosaunee and Huron-Wendat communities.

To foster a more communal, participatory counterpoint to corporate boardrooms, the long oval table at the heart of the space draws inspiration from the practice of Indigenous sharing circles. That sense of communality and comfort translates seamlessly across cultures. For visitors and employees, the aim was to create “a safe place, and a place where people feel embraced,” says Brook McIlroy principal and Indigenous Design Studio leader Ryan Gorrie.

For Gorrie, who is a member of Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek (Sand Point First Nation on Lake Nipigon), the project was also an opportunity to encourage Indigenous artisans, fabricators, suppliers and distributors to participate in every step of the process. The eye-catching drum stools, for instance, feature fabric by Indigo Arrows, a Winnipeg studio led by Anishinaabe interior designer Destiny Seymour; the rich limestone that bookends the room was sourced from Manitoulin Island’s Odawa Stone quarry, which is managed by Sheshegwaning First Nation.

High above downtown Toronto, these stone walls forge a connection to the cultural and geological histories of Turtle Island. “Stone has the longest memory,” Gorrie explains, “and many cultures refer to stones as grandmothers and grandfathers, because they are the oldest beings we know.”

PHOTO: Steven Anderson

As the saying goes, the greenest building is the one that is already built. The newly inaugurated Wampum Learning Lodge at Western University in London, Ontario, is a prime example. Toronto and London firm Architects Tillmann Ruth Robinson (ATRR) and Phoenix-based Tawaw Architecture Collective have transformed the Faculty of Education’s former library into an Indigenous learning centre. The retrofitted building now houses classrooms, gathering spaces, offices and a media centre that support and celebrate Indigenous ways of knowing. Selected by a council of elders, its name, Wampum, means “white string of shell beads,” the kind that have long been used to record history, create treaties and tell stories.

Following engagement with administrators, students, parents and faculty (which explored everything from student needs to aesthetic preferences and ceremonial protocols), the architects set out to reimagine the space. The existing structure’s circular form resonated with Tawaw for its symbolism in Indigenous culture. “It represents the circle of life, continuity, lack of hierarchy, egalitarianism,” explains Wanda Dalla Costa, Tawaw’s principal and Canada’s first female Indigenous architect.

Connection to nature was also a driver; the architects punched windows into the previously dark 1970s building to honour the solstice and equinox. A newly terraced landscape boasts a medicine garden on the lower level (species were selected in consultation with local knowledge-keepers), complete with a thoughtfully designed arbour and sacred firepit.

Inside, Tawaw sought to create a home away from home for Indigenous students — a place that felt like “auntie’s cabin.” The students wanted a hub to socialize, cook and eat together on campus. A storytelling circle and kitchen now serve as key gathering spaces. In the basement, a cavernous meditation room with a water feature and soft furnishings offers respite from student life (given historic under-representation in universities, campus buildings can be uncomfortable for first-generation Indigenous students).

In each design element, Tawaw sought to uplift ancestral worldviews. “In the Indigenous way of looking at the world, we look back in order to look forward. That multi-generational perspective is critical,” explains Dalla Costa. Though circular design is often regarded as a singularly environmental concern, is there anything more circular than that?