Eco-designer Clare Cunningham answers questions
What work do you do?
I am an eco-designer. My specialty is in designs that are socially and environmentally responsible.
How does it relate to the environment?
“Products are the source of all environmental problems,” says Edwin Datschefski. Eco-design tries specifically to lead products and services away from overconsumption and environmental degradation, and toward a more sustainable future. I have tried to make designs that challenge old ways of thinking, giving the user a new perspective and innovating rather than following trends. For me, eco-design means designing with integrity, sensitivity, and compassion — making practical and meaningful designs.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have just graduated from university, so I am trying to establish myself in the eco-design world. I will be doing a bit of consulting work for a design company that wants to move in a more eco direction. I am constantly researching companies, sending off CVs, thinking about new projects, and looking for funding.
My last project was called “Reenchanting the City” and was concerned with designing for more beautiful and sustainable public spaces. I have always been interested in design for public spaces because it’s a way of really making a difference in people’s everyday lives, but it is an area of design that is often undervalued. I was inspired to look at the idea of “re-enchanting” the city after I read The Reenchantment of the World by Morris Berman.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the urban environment has increasingly become a place lacking in beauty, connectedness, or sensitivity. I feel that there is a real need for a nonpassive urban landscape where people can locate themselves within society, within their environment, and within themselves. Therefore, I designed with the specific intention of re-enchanting people with the urban setting. I decided to create a sort of alternative world — The Enchanted City — where abandoned shopping carts are oversized planters, walls are covered in beautiful moss graffiti, old sofas become grass-covered seats, and streetlamps have chandeliers hanging from them.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I did a foundation course specializing in fine art, but when I finished, I began a degree in sociology because I was interested in social issues and wanted to feel that I could make a difference in the world. However, I realized after a year of studying that I would not be happy unless I took a more creative path. I took a one-year course learning design programs. I then got on to my degree work at Goldsmiths College and after four years of study, graduated this year with a degree in eco-design.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Designers who feel threatened and alienated by the new eco-design movement, and so take a very negative view of it.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
People in companies or organizations who have no connection to the eco-design world but who are prepared to respond to my pleas for sponsorship or donations for some madcap project I have come up with. Recently, my local council allowed me to install a chandelier that I had designed for a streetlight as part of my “re-enchantment” project.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Southampton, England, and I am currently living in London.
Who is your environmental hero?
Sarah Smith, a good friend and fellow eco-designer. She is in the process of setting up a company called GreenKnickers specializing in environmentally friendly underwear. Fantastic!
Who is your environmental nightmare?
It has to be George Bush. I know he is an easy target because he is so clueless about environmental issues, but the combination of his ignorance and the amount of power he wields makes him any environmentalist’s nightmare.
For the pragmatic environmentalist, what should be the focus — political action designed to change policy, or individual action designed to change lifestyle?
In an ideal world, environmental issues would be enshrined in political legislation. However, there is plenty being done without government support. The fact is that many politicians will be apathetic about an issue until they realize that it is important to the electorate. As a designer, I would have to say that it is the cultural shift that has made the most difference in the eco-movement.
What’s your environmental vice?
I wash a lot. I like to be clean and wear clean clothes. I’m sure the amount I wash is unnecessary. I also like Braeburn apples, and they are shipped in to the U.K. all the way from New Zealand. I should really eat Cox’s Orange Pippin!
What are you reading these days?
This is going to so sound contrived, but I am reading Gaia by James Lovelock. I have been meaning to read it for ages and have only just got round to it. It is a fascinating book, and I really recommend it. Before that, I read High Fidelity by Nick Hornby — also a very good book.
What’s your favorite meal?
McDonald’s. Only joking! It is actually anything cooked by my mum, but especially her Salad Nicoise made with her own homegrown vegetables. Yum.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I have been described as an eco-worrier (as in, I worry a lot).
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Clothes. They are just beginning to get sexy.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Mandatory fair trade on all imports to the Western world. The current trade system costs poor countries $100 billion a year, and it keeps millions of people around the world trapped in poverty. So far, trade talks have been about the self-interest of rich countries, not at all about development. That really has to change.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
When I was 18, I was listening to The Clash. I was also listening to other uncool dance music that is best forgotten. Now? Well, at the moment, I am listening to Brazilian jazz. I am also enjoying listening to Jack Johnson and The White Stripes.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
There is so much rubbish on TV; I am not a huge fan. However, there was one great program on the BBC earlier in the year entitled Tribe where this lovely man called Bruce Parry spent a year living with lots of different remote tribes around the world. Each episode he would try to integrate himself as much as possible with the tribespeople over a month. Invariably, he would end up having to take part in an initiation ceremony involving some sort of local hallucinogen. He generally got quite ill, but managed to stay enthusiastic and lovely throughout. The best thing was that he always found lots of touch points with each different tribe, and — this is going to sound cheesy — it demonstrated how connections will always exist between all humans from every far-flung area of the globe.
What are you happy about right now?
It’s summer. Great!
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Well, if everyone were to send me a check … or make the decision to buy an eco product over a non-eco product. I think that it is easy to feel daunted by the challenge the environmental movement presents. However, doing something that seems very small, like buying eco-friendly detergent or fairly traded chocolate, is just as important as building a wind farm. It is important to remember that the earth’s systems are interconnected, so any small change in habit to be more eco-friendly or to scrap an eco-unfriendly habit will make a difference in some way at some level. Every action with the environment in mind is a positive contribution. What is important is to contribute.