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Design in the era of 'Peak Stuff'

"The city of Leonia refashions itself every day: every morning the people wake between fresh sheets, wash with just-unwrapped cakes of soap, wear brand-new clothing, take from the latest model refrigerator still unopened tins, listening to the last-minute jingles from the most up-to-date radio."

From 'Invisible Cities', Italo Calvino, 1972

Plastics, glass and paper. We’ve been recycling for years, but only recently have retailers begun to enthuse about the true potential of a fully circular economy, with global chainstores like H&M buying back old clothes, and IKEA branches around Europe piloting a ‘second life’ scheme for old Billy bookcases.

With tragic videos of plastic-clogged oceans filling our news feeds, it’s never been more apparent that we need to stop consuming so much, and to think more carefully about what will happen to the belongings we already have.

It was 2016 when IKEA executive Steve Howard announced at a company event that the West had reached ‘Peak stuff’ – a somewhat incongruous statement from one of the world’s leading purveyors of plastic beakers and cheap throw rugs.

So, how do we design with this in mind? Designers have to think beyond minimal impact in terms of materials – although of course this is important. We have to go beyond greenwashing to create spaces that will truly endure without damage.

If we adhere to biophilic design principles, making nature not just a ‘stakeholder’ in our design process, but part of its central philosophy, we should be able to develop spaces that are not only constructed in a way that mirrors the circular economy – reusing, recycling, remanufacturing – but that work in harmony with their environment in the long term. A building that is filled with recycled knick knacks and potted cacti is lovely; a home that was built with a low-emission construction process is great. But a building that has a rainwater conversion tank in its sedum grass roof, that works with the flow of light, or provides its inhabitants with a wellbeing-boosting view of the natural world, has something so much more than loveliness. It has longevity.

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