Trying to foresee the future of design is a colossal task. According to Jaime Salm, founder and creative director of MIO, the design of tomorrow must be sustainable and functional, two requirements he's well versed in meeting via the eco-friendly furnishings and accessories his company has produced since its founding in 2001 by Salm and his brother, Isaac. Interior Design's sister brand Material ConneXion sat down with Salm to learn about "Green Desire" and why sustainability is the key to a good business model.
MCX: What inspired you to base your company on sustainable design?
JS: Basically I did not have a choice. True sustainability is integrated into better business and design practices. It should be a holistic approach to problem solving, and to creating value for companies and customers alike. We also believe sustainability can be approached incrementally or radically, depending on the project, the client and the customers. Changing behaviors and attitudes takes good design, exciting customer experiences and forward-looking business strategies.
I believe that good design is inherently more sustainable, more human-centered and, in the end, more profitable. Knowing that this was the case, we decided this should be a fundamental principle in our business. I like to say that one day sustainability as an integrated part of any business will no longer even be a competitive advantage.
MCX: Are there challenges in creating sustainable products?
JS: There are challenges in creating any good product, as any designer can attest. The most important thing is to ask the right questions and to edit everything to its simplest solution. In the end we don’t need much to be happy, but the things we surround ourselves with should provide utility and pleasure distilling the essential components of any design can achieve this. I believe this applies to aesthetics and functional decisions, as well as to material, manufacturing, distribution and business decisions.
MCX: What are the ingredients that make a product sustainable?
JS: It all starts with clarity of purpose (intent). Once it is understood what a design is for, whom it’s for, why it should exist and the time frame it will exist for, then decisions about the experience of the product, the materials, the manufacturing and afterlife of the product can be evaluated and integrated into a solution that addresses as many of the negative impacts as possible given the technical, financial and cultural constraints.
MCX: In your opinion, what is the role of materials in sustainable products?
JS: Materials are a critical element in the process. For example, once it is determined that something will last, let's say a month, then there is no reason to select a material that will last 100 years in a particular state. In ways similar to this, materials end up playing a starring role defining projects, re-inventing categories and pushing function and experience to new heights. Materials can inform the design process or be the starting point for a brief. We have, in our own collection of products, started many times with a material and process that has environmental or social advantages, and leveraged those to create a unique design that challenges pre-conceptions or educates customers. Materials also provide a tactile appeal that is just as important as the story and ideas behind a product. Materials can alter perceived value greatly, increase durability, improve recyclability, and, in most cases, dramatically alter a design brief for the better.
MCX: What are the most efficient sustainable materials you work with?
JS: Most materials are not inherently unsustainable, but some applications of materials have environmental and social implications that make their use unsustainable. This is extremely important to think about during the material selection process. The final use of the product or material should guide material decisions. We love working with what appear to be very simple materials like felt, aluminum, cork and with paper—in all its forms and in a range of applications. We love finding new ways of using these materials to achieve innovative functionality while maintaining the sustainable attributes.
For instance, we like solutions that are single material solutions, enabling recycling with existing recycling infrastructure.
JS: When connecting with consumers, how relevant is the sustainable component?
MCX: It is very important to educate the customers, but not at the expense of beauty or functionality. We decided from the very beginning that positive re- enforcement was more powerful than fear or guilt. The way to get customers to commit their dollars to a better future is to make the sustainable options that much more appealing. We do believe every sustainable story has a silver lining, a teachable moment of sorts that can actually enhance the product's aesthetic and functional attributes.
For example, our Bendant Lamp ships flat, which means customers get to decide how it will look in the end. The assembly is tool-free, which again is part of that creative positive re-enforcement.
MCX: You talk about Green Desire, when consumers crave products that are sustainable and responsible. Do you feel consumers are knowledgeable about sustainability?
JS: Environmental and social responsibility is a tough topic for the general public, but I believe companies underestimate customers. People today are more aware than at any other time in history about the environmental, social and health consequences of their built environments, food products and consumer products. Product labeling and new standards, the media’s attention to these issues and industry and advocacy efforts that have evolved over decades make it so that these issues are front and center.
The difference is that the angle is usually one of fear and guilt. We believe it is important to co-opt the language of desire to change society. People need to be lusting after the latest sustainable gadget, not fearing the consequences. We need to equate sustainability with the most advanced and beautiful option. This is how you change customers' minds.
MCX: What do consumers look for when they shop for sustainable products?
JS: Customers have learned to look for products that are local, made from responsibly sourced materials, made by workers who are of age under acceptable industrial standards, made from renewable and certified sources and from recycled and easily-recycled materials, among many other considerations. There are now a variety of subcategories of customers within the LOHAS market segment. Many are looking for a vegan lifestyle, many are simply looking to keep their families healthy and others view their purchasing decisions as part of a political and economic incentive for corporations to do well by doing good. It is really wonderful to see the next generation sometimes forcing their parents to make better choices and questioning the status quo.
MCX: How do you think sustainability is evolving in the design world?
JS: I believe any process of evolution takes a long time. The integration of sustainability into every human activity will be a gradual, and, in some cases, seamless process. Some concepts of sustainability are part of many universities' curriculum now, and certainly part of the tool kit at many design consultancies and corporations, but the integration of these strategies into everyday design activities is in many cases peripheral.
There are more exceptions today than ever, but it is still a challenge to have internal groups within a company coalesce around a vision of sustainability that touches all aspects of a company. I am an optimist about progress because I know that there is tremendous value for all stakeholders, ready to be unleashed and measured in a triple bottom line.
MCX: What are the next steps you would like to see and would like to achieve in this field?
JS: Our goal is to keep showing customers and other businesses that sustainability is attainable for most on some level. What I would like to see is a shift in how sustainability is addressed for mass-market products and how those products are presented and sold to everyone. We would like to work with companies that believe in our commitment to beautiful, affordable and sustainable design on a global scale. MIO strives to showcase this commitment in our own designs, testing ideas for the future. We want to advance the practice of sustainability beyond materials and processes by integrating other measures of performance. This will ultimately result in a shift where sustainability becomes a competitive strategy and a market-shaping opportunity.