Each month during the academic year, the MA in Sustainable Design program invites a special guest for our Town Hall series where students, faculty, and alumni get to meet and chat with a leader in the field of sustainability or sustainable design.
Who were your early inspirations in design?
As early as I can remember, I’ve loved making things. As the daughter of first-generation Mexican-Americans, my parents influenced my growing curiosity by exposing me and my siblings to many museums. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens near Pasadena, California was a favorite and we spent many Sunday afternoons roaming the gardens and galleries as a family. Later we enjoyed the Getty Villa and then the Getty Center after it was built. My mom so admired Rembrandt’s paintings, she could easily be moved to tears in the presence of one of his portraits, especially his self-portraits.
My dad was extremely inventive, an avid reader, a curious explorer and a Korean War veteran. He took on the challenge of reading the entire World Book Encyclopedia set he purchased for us in grade school. It took him several years to accomplish his goal.
He taught me how to use industrial tools and encouraged me to create from my own ideas. He also tried to teach me how to surf and skateboard so that I wouldn’t feel my gender was a barrier to what I could accomplish with my life. Although our attempts at such physical feats were disasters, we did laugh a lot in the process. He continuously shared ideas on how to make products and experiences better. Even a simple trip to the grocery store was an adventure in design. He posed questions to me such as, “how can a person in a wheelchair weigh their produce, when the scale is so out of reach?”
Later on, I met Milton Glaser at the Aspen Design Conference while I was still in college and became an avid reader of all he wrote and a fan of his design work. When I first read Victor Papanek’s seminal book, “Design for a Real World,” a “blueprint for sensible design,” I felt I had met a kindred spirit.
How did you become a sustainable designer?
First let me say that I never labeled myself a “sustainable designer” since I was practicing it before it was formally recognized — or appreciated — as such.
As I mentioned, I loved making things as a child, from whatever materials were available. When I saw a toy I especially liked I would ask my parents for it, and my dad would respond with, “Oh, you can make that.” So I was forever making my own versions of “store made” toys and all other manner of things.
I remember one day figuring out how to make a box out of paper. I showed it to my dad and he said, “That’s wonderful, but now make one without using tape and staples.” I went back to work and figured out how to do that, using tabs to hold the box together. When I showed the results to him once again, he said, “That’s wonderful, but what about the rest of the material, the stuff you didn’t use? I responded that I had tossed the leftover paper in the trash. He had me retrieve it and held up the tabbed box and the leftover paper and very clearly stated, “If you create this, (the tabbed box) then you are responsible for this (the scraps of paper) – now try to create a box without making any waste.” After many attempts, I couldn’t do it. That day, my dad taught me how to make a box without any waste, in essence it was a form of origami. I was thrilled and folded hundreds of boxes as a child – and through the years, for all kinds of uses!
What I learned early on was that when I wanted to make something, I had to design it to use no unnecessary materials and create no unnecessary waste. That’s sustainable design. I internalized this as a child not knowing there was a name for it.
What are you working on now?
I am volunteering with The BrandLab where I mentor young people during their professional internships. Young students keep me informed on what is important to them as they navigate their careers. We need more young and BIPOC people to be at the table, equipped to influence and make decisions.
I’m also on the Board of Trustees for The Minneapolis Foundation. In April, we announced $3,320,000 in grants to 84 local organizations that are doing innovative work to advance racial and economic justice.
I’m also collaborating with Los Angeles based photographer, Claudia Hirsch, on a book about trees, specifically mother trees.
You’ve practiced sustainable design since the beginning of your career. How did you convince your colleagues and bosses to make more sustainable decisions?
I never really asked for permission, I just tried to be intentional about the choices I made as a designer. I cultivated strong relationships with vendors, notably printers. I specified house stocks for projects, questioned ink recycling methods and kept to quantities ordered. I was able to bring projects in under or just under budget without compromising quality.
I also share stories. When I share my stories, other people find that aspects of my own lived experiences resonate with their own. When I shared my memories about making toys from found materials with Binh Le , my friend and fellow board member, he shared his own. As a child in Vietnam, he and his friends made kites from found materials. They derived great joy from being resourceful. For me, sharing stories is much more effective than telling people what I think they should know or do. For example, when asked to explain what I mean by sustainable design, I show people one of my paper boxes and share with them my memory of the remarkable day (of many) my dad challenged me to be innovative.
What makes you hopeful?
I have a profound respect for younger generations. I admire the students in your program and all they are learning about sustainable design practices; and I appreciate that they won’t tolerate the environmental and social injustices we are — and have been — experiencing. I trust our young students to be the environmental change makers we need now more than ever.
Thank you, Liz!