The design world has traditionally focused on commercial revenue and aesthetic ideals above all else, but this focus is finally starting to shift in favor of larger, more social concerns.
Alternative practices are emerging with a shifting emphasis on spatial engagement, and more and more designers are working to bring about positive societal change. Designers are appropriating spaces in the cities they live and posing questions about the role of the designer in contemporary society, and even about our social conventions themselves.
If that sounds like self-serious social justice stuff, it’s not, really: these designers are taking a fun, inclusive and witty approach to improving the world around them through design.
We’ve rounded up some of our favorite designers who are using design to do good in the world, however they define it.
The Berlin-based design collective ON/OFF decided that “sometimes you have to make a disco, stock up some beers and hustle the streets to make a buck,” and the “Disco Späti” was born. The idea is pretty simple: provide the people with what they want – music and beer – and make some money in the meantime.
It’s a great example of urban appropriation of public space, and an ingenious way to make the Späti, or convenience store, a social, mobile event.
The Disco Späti is an example of “design as event,” and it shows how public spaces can be used to stimulate new economic activity through grassroots initiatives. It’s also just a super fun idea, and we’d love to see more of these things popping up in cities everywhere.
Homelessness is a pretty terrible problem the world over, and it can be a daunting problem to address for politicians and NGOs, let alone for designers.
For Biancoshock, a local Artist in Milan, improving the everyday situation of those suffering from homelessness at a simple and immediate level is a feat in itself, and it also helps to raise awareness and confront reality. His philosophy is that “If some problems cannot be avoided, make them comfortable.”
To do this, Biancoshock transformed a series of manholes in Milan’s Loci district into rooms: a shower, a kitchenette and a hallway. His street art installations are too small to be useable, and are therefore an eye-catching call to action rather than a physical solution.
Drawing attention to the appalling number of homeless people living underground – in particular, the 600 people who are estimated to live in the sewers of Bucharest – this series forces us to question what we are doing to find and enact a solution, or, at the very least, humanize the horror.
Biancoshock’s genius is to do this in an aesthetically-pleasing, witty way that’s as engaging and delightful as it is confronting.
Skid Robot: The Living Art Project
The LA-based Skid Robot brings us The Living Art Project, an artistic movement that also seeks to address the issue of homelessness through the power of art and design.
Utilizing street art to raise awareness and funds for prefabricated container housing solutions, the housing units will be painted with murals by artists from all over the world, turning each container into a work of art.
The Living Art Project humanizes the living conditions behind the homelessness crisis of Skid Row, a 54-block area in Los Angeles that comprises the largest population of homeless people in the United States.
Anyone who has spent time in Berlin will be aware of the “Pfand” institution: a bottle deposit cost can be recovered when the bottles are returned. For many, the trouble of returning the bottles isn’t worth the small amount of money it nets them, so they would rather hand them over to the city’s bottle collectors, who have a greater need for the small income.
However, more often than not, the bottles end up in the trash can and have to be fished out by those collecting them. Paul Ketz offers a more practical, less degrading solution: the “Pfandring,” a holder that presents the bottles like little gifts for those who need them most.
Ketz envisages the Pfandring operating in all cities that have bottle-deposit schemes.
We love this laundromat-come-bar in Ghent: it turns everyday chores into a social activity, while also addressing the redundancy in how we divide up our spaces.
Valuable space and resources can be saved by combining these two different programs or functions, and there is so much room for other designers to take a leaf out of this book, and combine formally-disparate activities into new, social spaces.
Anything that makes our household chores more exciting is a plus for us.
Nowhere has felt the impact of informal initiatives quite like Athens has over the past several years. Heralded as “the new Berlin,” Athens is at a difficult socio-political juncture.
The economic crisis and subsequent austerity measures have, however, revealed the resilience and ingenuity of its people, and community initiatives are offering new readings of urban life.
Souzy Tros is one such initiative. It may look like a dystopian scene from afar, but the collaborative project, envisaged by artist Maria Papadimitriou, provides a space for the diverse inhabitants of Athens to come together and share in their commonalities and differences through art-based projects, events and workshops, including design.
Rooted in the everyday, the initiative elevates the act of sharing, whether it’s food, shelter, knowledge, support or performance. It’s a space for people to rethink and reboot, and maybe to re-imagine, too.
These are just a few of our favorite examples of designers who are using their craft to improve the spaces around them and confront social issues. As we’ve mentioned, this is a burgeoning trend, so keep your eyes peeled for local examples.
On the topic of design, check out our round up of 10 fashion designers influenced by architecture.
- Words: Melissa Harrison
- Main image: Souzy Tros