Single-use plastic cutlery will be banned in the EU as of 3 July. Can ecological transformation be forced by banning things, or can we hope for more success by informing and encouraging the acceptance of sustainable solutions? A conversation with Thomas A. Geisler, Director of the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Dresden and curator of the “Spoon Archaeology” exhibition at the London Design Biennale, and Lutz Dietzold, CEO of the German Design Council.
Interview by Thomas Wagner.
Plastic waste of all kinds and disposable products, including cutlery and takeaway cups in particular, are a global phenomenon. Beyond cups, there are also single-use spoons, stirrers, forks, knives, chopsticks, all kinds of sticks, straws and much more, and they are manufactured en masse, are low-cost and are easy to dispose of after use. Or were. An EU regulation is now going to ban single-use plastic products beginning on 3 July this year.
Mr Geisler, you have acquired experience in many fields. This is also not your first time curating a contribution for the London Design Biennale. How did you come across Peter Eckart and Kai Linke’s collection?
Thomas A. Geisler: I became familiar with Kai Linke and his work through a project at Werkraum Bregenzerwald, and we have been in dialogue ever since. The two designers presented their extensive collection of plastic cutlery to me. Digitally, of course, as the project came about during the pandemic. The EU’s ban on disposable plastic cutlery, due to start on 3 July, is a relevant link that was important from the outset as we developed the exhibition concept. At the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Dresden, we are constantly working on what we call rapid-response projects, which are agile responses to current circumstances of social, political or other nature. This begged the question: how could we establish a relationship between the collection and this date?
The Kunstgewerbemuseum’s extensive collection itself offers many artefacts linked to the issue, as does its permanent collection. For instance, Pillnitz Palace – in which our museum is based – has a historic dining hall that we constantly use for explorations of table culture at royal courts and in everyday life.
Did you have the start date for the ban in mind and think that it could go hand in hand?
Thomas A. Geisler: Yes, especially to establish a link to sustainable design. How will we, as a society and as designers, react to this ban? What are the alternatives? Then came the call from the London Design Biennale. I had previously curated two London Design Biennales for Austria, which is why they contacted me asking if I knew of any exciting projects. It entered my mind then to develop the idea for an exhibition project into a biennale contribution, with subject matter that was an outstanding match for the biennale’s main question, “Can we design a better world?”
Mr Dietzold, you likely already knew Peter Eckart, Kai Linke and their collection from Offenbach?
Lutz Dietzold: Yes, how long now actually? Peter Eckart and I have maintained a regular dialogue for a very long time now, and Kai Linke and I of course have known each other from all the design happenings in Hesse for what feels like forever. I myself am also an art historian, which is why I feel it is important in design to explore certain questions. What has existed already? How have things developed? The past and the present should always enter a dialogue with each other. If there is currently a big change in the works, you also have to reflect on the past. Of the things that have already existed, what helps you find solutions for the future?
Thomas A. Geisler: As the director of a museum with a large collection spanning all centuries and materials, I completely agree with Mr Dietzold. What do these objects tell us today? Making these histories accessible is of course a crucial part of our duty as a museum. How can we reactivate the things that were originally objects of study in the Kunstgewerbemuseum context?
Bearing in mind, Eckart and Linke have not built up their collection out of personal interest.
Thomas A. Geisler: The private collections that they have built up independently of each other were always collections for study, and they have both incorporated these collections into their teaching contexts. Firstly, disposable items of cutlery are perfectly developed industrial products, because they are designed for material efficiency and functionality while also generating dire consequences due to the materials used. There is an incredible amount to be learned for product design from these highly industrial products. On top of that, there is also a phenomenon that is bothering me at the moment whereby industrial design has gained a negative connotation ever since mass production started being viewed negatively. There are no longer many young designers who are interested in this field of design. Instead, they tend to look for alternatives. However, we in fact need brilliant minds who engage in a critical reflection on consumption in industry. Simultaneously, industrial design means not just designing products, but also systems. Disposable cutlery is also a systemic product which needs to be understood in all of its complexity, with the cultural dimension behind it and not just in terms of the production logistics.
What is the story behind the project’s “Spoon Archaeology” name? Was it created through dialogue?
Thomas A. Geisler: A joint project like this is always like ping-pong, and it turned out to be fantastic with Kai and Peter. The two of them are designers with an interest in cultural history, including in their other work and teaching. I think I suggested the name because I did not believe it was about just exhibiting a nice collection. Rather, it was about looking for alternatives to plastic cutlery. Using this collection, we also want to develop a methodical approach that references other everyday objects or issues in design. There is also the fact that these objects are going to become historical artefacts on 3 July 2021. They are a dying species in industrial design. That means it can be exciting to research what design DNA there is in them, or what an anthropological study of these eating utensils tells us about our dining culture and society … Many fields of knowledge complement and overlap each other here and can be used as sources, be they archaeology, sociology or methods for scientific study. The insect display cases used to exhibit the objects came about based on this cosmos and the museum perspective. In this sense, we see “Spoon Archaeology” very much as an interdisciplinary, methodical approach for studying objects, understanding their complexity and, based on this knowledge, developing alternatives or entirely different approaches.
“Using this collection, we also want to develop a methodical approach that references other everyday objects or issues in design. There is also the fact that these objects are going to become historical artefacts on 3 July 2021.”
— Thomas A. Geisler
Lutz Dietzold: That is what makes this exhibition special. The objects are looked at from more than one perspective. As for their presentation, I cannot help but think of the Natural History Museum in Vienna, where insects and other animals are displayed on spikes in cases like these. They almost make dead animals look like a naive product, too. Everything has an air of transience or represents a time when it was possible to concentrate solely on an object’s being. The objects in “Spoon Archaeology” almost seem like they are divorced from reality, which makes them seem very benign, while also having something endlessly naive about them. I think that people approach them in a very emotional way, but can still also recognise that this world is in the past. The name and the presentation express this very precisely.
Thomas A. Geisler: “The world of yesterday”, so to speak, to quote Stefan Zweig. We have deliberately employed antiquated, museum-like presentation to reinforce this impression. This also includes graphics that examine the objects in a manually sketched out way, reminiscent of illustrations of plants, animals and insects. This precise study is enormously important and used to be part of education and a foundation for gaining knowledge. These days we become satisfied with photographs far too quickly and think that we have recorded objects when we make images of them. When you draw a highly technical object, you explore it much more intensively. How is it bent? Where are there edges? How thick are the materials? Kai and Peter took up this idea and tried it out with students in Offenbach. It first demands finding someone who can sketch and examine objects in this way. Looking through all these perspectives together then brings us to the point that Mr Dietzold addressed, and shows us the naivete of previous design beliefs.
Can critical propositions raised by figures such as Victor Papanek or those found in the museum help with this?
Thomas A. Geisler: Of course it helps to learn from history. It also helps that we are more technologically and socially advanced in many ways today. However, technology is not a magic bullet, which is why it makes sense to take a look deep into history. Something I find enormously helpful is the “Spoon Complexity Map” which Kai Linke and Peter Eckart developed with their students. I can use it to retrace tens of thousands of years of history and look at how our dining culture has developed. Where in this history have people potentially taken a wrong turn?
Lutz Dietzold: For me, it is a cultural question first and foremost. It is exemplary how the change here is not the result of cultural transformation, but rather regulatory and legislative intervention, which has very explicit impacts on design. Then there is also the question of the role that design will play. The exhibition connects both these questions in an exemplary way. If you look at how topics such as sustainability are debated in politics, you often see this belief that we can change everything by passing laws and banning things. However, we also need to ensure the widest possible acceptance. People need to want to change their behaviours. That is exactly what I like about the London Design Biennale, which also puts different approaches on show – it shows how to reach a wide audience. Acceptance is not only achieved in the mind, but also through an emotional experience that people cannot withdraw from. Spoon Archaeology lets people experience design in all its naivete and then think about how they can change their cultural behaviours – and what parts of design need to become different. Both are important. This is also why we at the German Design Council also take special care to see how something can be made applicable and accepted.
“We need to ensure the widest possible acceptance of sustainability. People need to want to change their behaviours. That is exactly what I like about the London Design Biennale.“
— Lutz Dietzold
Banning or informing, regulating or convincing – alternatives like these will likely keep us busy over the coming years. Peter Eckart says that when consumers accept the existing disposable products, they become embedded in a complete and, in certain respects, efficient system. Can efficiency and sustainability be combined?
Thomas A. Geisler: I think that it can be done. There is also a connection that can be made between this problematic approach to efficiency and habit or (laughs) a certain degree of apathy or laziness. Throwaway mentality has developed with last century’s understanding of consumption, so a change in behaviour needs to take place. This only works when consumers gain a better understanding of the systems that are behind an object like a plastic spoon. A plastic spoon is not like a medicine, it does not come with a warning on the label. I believe this can be achieved with a younger generation of designers, as some of them have a more critical stance towards things in design.
Are you optimistic in that regard?
Thomas A. Geisler: It is a simple exercise that should come at the beginning of a design curriculum. The way this complexity map was created is something I can do for anything else. Indeed, I myself have a design education. I never did anything remotely like this in the 1990s, asking myself what impacts does this object or product have? What in all honesty really goes on behind it?
The question at the centre of the London Design Biennale is “Can we design a better world?” It is high time that things are changed, so what can be done to accelerate the transformation? What could a successful mixture of bans, emotional communication and argumentation look like?
Lutz Dietzold: Altogether, it remains a complex issue. We all have our behaviour shaped by patterns that we keep repeating in day-to-day life. I wake up of a morning, brush my teeth, put on some coffee – when these patterns are not disrupted, they stay the same. I buy a takeaway coffee and throw away the cup when I have finished drinking it. So, the question is this: how can these patterns be overwritten? That also means: are plastic forks even perceived as plastic forks in the first place? There certainly must be interventions in the form of regulations; however, these patterns can only be changed by creating positive offerings. The complexity of a product needs to be so discreet that people can still enjoy it. Designers today can be just as minimally naive as a product can be naive. You have to look at supply chains, look at things in relation to yourself – you even have to look at the car you drive in relation to your behaviour. With all of this in mind, the market needs supply – and it is an excellent time for design because much needs to be redesigned. Designers have a perspective that makes them well-suited to taking on a more important role within companies.
What role does pricing play, for example when we are looking to establish a circular economy? How is it possible to convince people with sustainability instead of a low-price mentality?Lutz Dietzold: Of course you can invest a large amount in products and operate locally and sustainably, but if the message does not get across to the people intended to use the product, you will fail. Convincing people about this is a major task for society. If the users have not learned to judge quality, approaches like these will fail. That is why it is a mammoth educational task. Simultaneously, it is also a fascinating task, and it is a fantastic challenge to say, “Give the people the power and the ability to judge the quality of a product.”
The exhibition is now drawing to a close. How have the responses been so far?
Thomas A. Geisler: The feedback and comments that we have received tell us that the presentation was realised very successfully, as the objects and the way that they have been displayed causes viewers to think about the complex topic and the entire system. For some people, an object might be a simple plastic spoon, while for others it might be a disposable product that they have never contemplated to this extent. A number of people seem to be stirred not only by the material aspect of these artefacts, but also the question of what is going to happen next after 3 July. The complex questions that these seemingly simple objects can trigger is something I find truly impressive.
Lutz Dietzold: The question of where it goes from here bothers me, too. We are currently launching a joint project with the German Federal Foreign Office which brings together German and Kenyan designers to look in both directions, not just one. Where do things go from here? What developments are there? Where should we openly turn our attention to other cultures so that we can learn from them? In an engineer-dominated country like Germany, this is not very easy.
When will “Spoon Archaeology” come to Dresden?
Thomas A. Geisler: This year we are opening the Design Campus (www.designcampus.org) with a summer school and laboratory projects. We will be converting part of our permanent collection into a research and development department for it. We will exhibit the biennale contribution in these spaces starting in September. I can also imagine showing the exhibition at other museums that belong to Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden such as the Ethnographische Sammlungen, which are currently studying their collections to investigate sustainable solutions in indigenous societies. “Banana Leaf”, the film by Ray and Charles Eames shown in the exhibition, is in fact a documentary which asks questions from the field of cultural anthropology.
Special commendation for Spoon Archaeology
Chile, Venezuela, the Pavilion of the African Diaspora and Israel received this year’s London Design Biennale medals at a ceremony at Somerset House for the third edition of the London Design Biennale, with Germany receiving a special commendation.
Further background information, facts and films about the London Design Biennale 2021, “Spoon Archaeology” and the exhibition’s designers can be found on the Offenbach University of Art and Design website.
The Kunstgewerbemuseum, part of Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD), is participating in this year’s London Design Biennale 2021 with a consumption-critical project called “Spoon Archaeology”. With British artist and stage designer Es Devlin as Artistic Director, the third biennale is responding to the dramatic consequences of the pandemic by asking a question: can we design a better world?
Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden website.
The German pavilion is curated by Thomas A. Geisler, Director of the Kunstgewerbemuseum, and designed by Kai Linke and Peter Eckart. The show is taking place at Somerset House in London from 1 to 27 June 2021. The installations are accompanied by an extensive online programme that is dedicated to addressing the issues from a global perspective. Geisler: “Design is a compliant tool in the realisation of what we see as a natural way of life. The climate crisis is teaching us to change our habits, listen to our intuition more and gain empathy so that we can move in synchrony with our environment. Design can help us with this.”
Lutz Dietzold has been Chief Executive Officer of the German Design Council since 2002. Prior to that, he worked freelance in design communication and headed Design Zentrum Hessen, where he oversaw a strategic realignment of its promotion of design. He is also working to increase the German Design Council’s international focus and grow its global network of leading companies in industry and commerce. This includes setting up a subsidiary in China. Lutz Dietzold publishes articles on a regular basis and lectures on a variety of topics nationally and internationally. He is also a member of numerous committees and juries and sits on the project advisory board for the German Federal Ecodesign Award given by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.
The London Design Biennale was established by Sir John Sorrell CBE and Ben Evans CBE in 2016 to promote international cooperation and the global role of design with exhibitions and installations. This year’s motto is “Resonance”, examining the consequences of design and production.
More about the London Design Biennale
The exhibition “Spoon Archaeology” deals with this topic at the London Design Biennale. The exhibition curators Peter Eckart and Kai Linke talk about their collection and the necessary change in an interview with Thomas Wagner:
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