Stefan Diez

Cards on the Table

"The transformation of our linear economic system into a circular economy is undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges for our generation: At the same time, designers today have an enormous influence on how products are planned, where, with what and how they are manufactured," says Stefan Diez. He has now set out what he considers to be the most important requirements for product development in the context of the circular economy system on the basis of ten rules. He explains the concept behind the Circular Design Guidelines to us in an interview.
by Anna Moldenhauer | 1/29/2021

Anna Moldenhauer: Stefan, why did you decide to formulate the Circular Design Guidelines?

Stefan Diez: Sometime a few years ago, I started writing down the principles that have become increasingly important to me in product development at our studio. My work at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna is also a factor, because what we teach there should be forward-looking and not contradict what happens in the Munich studio. This then almost necessarily means looking mainly at ideas that could still work in ten years’ time and beyond this. So, if you view the ecological, social and economic changes of recent years from this perspective, it becomes clear that in the long run consumer goods can only function in a circular economy. This means that both products and our economic system will have to change. The Circular Design Guidelines describe what we at the studio can now contribute to accelerating this remodeling process.

"AYNO" by Stefan Diez for Midgard

Do you see approaches by your students in this context that surprise you?

Stefan Diez: Our students in Vienna relate quite clearly to current events and are inspired by topics such as equality, digitization, additive manufacturing, robotics, the sharing economy, criticism of capitalism, climate change, environmental pollution or, as mentioned, thoughts on the circular economy. The formal aspect is no longer so relevant in the context of an understanding of design that takes a fundamentally holistic approach. Instead, what the topics addressed by this generation have in common is that they are complex or even contradictory. What is called for is sound research, a scientific approach to thinking and findings from related fields. As part of the current semester projects, for example, a biogas plant for the home is currently being designed, an idea by Paul Pfeifer. The methane gas collected is to be fed into the municipal gas networks and the solid remains pressed into briquettes for the garden. Or the fermentation vessels for pickling vegetables in Steven Dahlinger's communal cellar: To this end, experiments are underway with a ceramics expert, with whose help a mass is being developed that is permeable to gas, something we have already seen in Korean kimchi vessels. With the additional benefit that the new ceramic mass would also be suitable for industrial processing. Camilla Ruh designs algae farms and Juliane Fink produces dog food packaging from slaughterhouse waste. In Bettina Löger's robotics lab upholstery made of wool is being produced on three-dimensional surfaces. The students' product designs demonstrate the new, matter-of-course approach that they adopt to integrating sustainable solutions into everyday life. In April, some of the works will be on show at an exhibition at the MAKK.

In the faculty, we support such approaches by the students by bringing in experts from other fields. For example, we are currently cooperating with the Paris-based architecture firm CUTWORK, which specializes in the field of shared living. Or we ask experts like Harald Gründel to lecture, one of the EOOS founders who has done a lot of groundwork in recent years.

Sustainable product design is not a new subject for you; you have been researching in this field for many years and regularly put forward innovative approaches, together with your team. Such as the "AYNO" luminaire for Midgard, which just won the German Sustainability Award. Where does your commitment come from?

Stefan Diez: I think it has a lot to do with the experiences I had in my first years as a designer. At that time, there was very much a trend towards globalization and digitization. Technically, new possibilities arose because CAD software, with which complicated shapes can be precisely mapped, became affordable and easier to use. Rapid prototyping, i.e., 3D printing and manufacturing with computer-controlled machines, became affordable and standard. This made it much easier for designers to be involved in product development. With this in mind, at the end of the 2000s, in my role as art director – together with Christian Gärtner and Mirko Borsche – I wanted to change the range on offer from the Authentics brand, which was increasingly being manufactured cheaply in Asia. The travel bag "PAPIER" was to be the first step in this new direction. It consists of 130 grams of Tyvek, i.e., polyethylene, which could have been recycled together with plastic bags via the dedicated recycling bag. The bag was to be manufactured in Germany by a producer of paper goods. The people at Authentics didn’t want to support this new direction, so our collaboration quickly fell apart. "PAPIER" was then launched by Saskia Diez herself, on her own initiative.

At the same time, we worked with Wilkhahn on the "CHASSIS" chair. The frame made of deep-drawn sheet steel is constructed so that a seat made of pressed hemp or leather can been mounted on it. The approach was promising, but the technology was too new for Wilkhahn to take the risk. To come back to your question: I wanted to find out where my path lay between design and product development and how the new possibilities for designers could be used in the context of the developing debate on sustainability.

In your opinion, what was and is the reason for the reluctance to create more opportunities for sustainable product development?

Stefan Diez: How one positions oneself in the circular economy is a fundamental decision. When we were working on the "COSTUME" sofa for Magis, I became aware of this. The very fact that a sofa can be completely dismantled by the customer for the first time, that each part can be replaced individually, has set a new standard for us in the studio. A piece of upholstered furniture made in the traditional way would no longer be feasible for us. We will have to apply our self-imposed rules more and more consistently with every new project: With this in mind, the "AYNO" luminaire was launched at the end of last year, where easy dismantling and separation of materials by type is a relevant aspect. "FUNDA" for Viccarbe will be launched at the beginning of this year. It is an upholstered chair where, like "COSTUME", all parts can be replaced by the customer. The cover will be able to be cleaned separately or even replaced if necessary, thus considerably extending the chair's life. Viccarbe also has been working for some time with the Ecoalf Foundation, which produces, amongst other things, fabrics from the plastic waste that fishermen retrieve from the sea.

"COSTUME" by Stefan Diez for Magis

That sounds like quite consistent action.

Stefan Diez: You can't have two approaches when it comes to issues like this. Once you have shown as a manufacturer or designer that you can produce in the sense of the circular economy, it becomes difficult to justify the old part of the portfolio. There is almost only the run forward left.

"We would have a great influence if we did what we should," you said at the German Sustainability Award Design ceremony. Do we need more will to change in the discussion about sustainable design?

Stefan Diez: I didn't want to be pessimistic at all, I just wanted to point out that designers do have a great influence on product development and that this could be better used in the context of the circular economy or the context of a future generation: We not only come up with the ideas for and design products at our studios, we can also suggest which materials should be used and sometimes even who might manufacture the components and where they could be made. So, we have long since not only being designing a shape but also directly or indirectly determining how a product is made.

Moreover, our field of action no longer ends with the finished product. Instead, our responsibility goes all the way to its disposal or rather recycling, after all technologies are now available to separate out and recycle all kinds of materials from our waste. The energy for this is increasingly coming from solar and wind power plants. And there is a political movement among a very young generation that is no longer being ignored by the politicians in office. I think the will is there and the possibilities of doing something really moving with it are getting better and better.

"PAPIER" by Saskia and Stefan Diez

Is there a specific aspect of sustainable design that you are currently interested in?

Stefan Diez: Almost every current project is new territory for us at some point: often the material used is a new challenge, both in production and in the subsequent recycling process. Sometimes, however, it is also a new approach to product use - the uncomplicated replacement of parts with a shorter lifespan or a simple conversion for further use in a new home. In addition, local production and the optimisation of transport processes play an important role. In cooperation with Viccarbe and the Ecoalf Foundation, for example, we are currently trying to find out whether plastic waste pulled from the sea can be processed into seat shells. Ecoalf has so far only used the PET bottles from the rubbish collected by fishermen to make yarns for textiles. Now we want to try to make chairs out of the fished polypropylene.

With HAY we are working on conference tables made of aluminium. The material used comes from Norwegian recycling plants that generate their electrical energy from hydroelectric power. The table frames also get by with low material thicknesses, which makes them extremely light and saves material. The new "MOD" LED spotlights for Sammode are designed so that they can be manufactured locally in the company's own factory in Lorraine. In contrast to production in China, for example, this means that on the one hand the transport distances are very short, and on the other hand production under fair, democratic conditions is guaranteed. But then there are also projects that are more complex than initially thought and therefore require more development work: For burgbad, we have been working for several years on the "RGB" bathroom furniture system, in which all parts can be easily assembled, converted and replaced by the user. Moreover, due to the materials used, it is completely waterproof and thus more durable than conventional bathroom furniture made of wood materials. During the development process, we realised that it is not always the best way to change too many familiar processes too early in the collaboration with the client.

Perhaps our most ambitious project at the moment is the D2 furniture system for Wagner. D2 is not to be sold as a finished piece of furniture, Wagner will only offer the connectors for it and provide assistance in planning. On the one hand, we are developing a fitting made of nylon that connects honeycomb panels made of cardboard or aluminium to each other in a wide variety of constellations; on the other hand, we are working on an infrastructure that will bring local craftsmen, architects and customers into contact with each other. The idea is to optimise transport and storage costs by having D2 produced exclusively locally. But the local craftsmen will later also take over the service and maintenance of the furniture. In the end, the idea is to have local businesses recycle the components. By the way, D2 is being developed in cooperation with the architectural firm Gonzalez Haase from Berlin.

"D2" by Gonzalez Haase und Stefan Diez for Wagner

In recent years, it has become obvious in the retail sector how quickly a growing demand can change the availability of sustainable products. Should consumers become more aware of their power?

Stefan Diez: There are a large number of start-ups pursuing interesting concepts and they are meeting with growing interest among customers. The recycling industry has come on a great deal, particularly since China has stopped taking our plastic waste. In my opinion, the established companies are often skeptical about whether their customers would accept a higher price for recyclable products as long as products from the linear economy are in competition with them in parallel. As long as it is cheaper to use new materials than used ones, as long as it makes no difference in price whether a product really is recyclable, how long it lasts or whether it is produced under fair conditions, companies and designers will only have the responsible consumer as their partners. The latter needs to finance the additional expenses which will ultimately benefit everyone. It is pioneers, good examples and environmentally-conscious consumers who advance the public debate by pointing out which rules we as a society will be operating by. This discourse is incredibly important because we are not only talking about isolated areas of the economy such as agriculture, forestry, sewage, waste management etc. but, ultimately, about all areas of the economy and society. Everything is inextricably linked in cycles, which is why it need reliable framework conditions put in place by our political establishment.

A certain amount has already been achieved here in recent years. In many sectors there are already binding recycling quotas and as of this year we have had a CO2 tax, the European Green Deal, a statutory reporting requirement for companies, a regulation on packaging and much more besides. Perhaps all these are only small steps but a start has been made. For the politicians it is no easy task to keep the competition fair and what’s more, on a global scale. However, here too, supply chain legislation will soon be in force. This will contribute to the fact that our product responsibility does not only start at the factory gate but in the places where we purchase our raw materials and products.

"CHASSIS" by Stefan Diez for Wilkhahn
"CHASSIS"-Seat made of pressed hemp

Do you get the impression that manufacturers are beginning to rethink their practices?

Stefan Diez: Apart from really groundbreaking concepts, many of the products currently billed as sustainable do not fulfil their promises. The market is full of greenwashing and both products and concepts that sound good, that play with the emotional memory of consumers, that are made of purportedly recycled materials, or of some kind of renewable raw material. How these products are meant eventually to find their way back into the cycle, whether they really are compostable and what could be a meaningful usage pattern, is still rarely explained. That's what annoys me about the subject at the moment: A lack of honesty, credulity and half-heartedness. It would be important for manufacturers and designers to put all their cards on the table and not exploit the current uncertainty for dubious marketing purposes.

In 1976, Dieter Rams also formulated his convictions on what constitutes good design in ten theses that are considered timeless. How do you see your statements in this context?

Stefan Diez: Although Dieter's rules still apply today, I think it's fair to ask how one would formulate ten theses on design from today's viewpoint. Dieter's theses were written at a completely different time, in a different context. Back then, people didn't have a clue about the possibilities that are on the table today. In which products, for example, are shared with others via app, in which it is taken for granted that you don't have to own a product to use it.

At a time when it was a challenge to program a video recorder, his focus was on the stylistic vocabulary and visual environmental pollution which, he believed, had to be prevented. Almost 50 years ago, Dieter's rules revolved around products in the context of the emerging throwaway society, at a time when discarded items were simply put on the street to be buried in landfills. At the time, resources were supposed to be used sparingly in the interests of environmental protection more than anything else. In the context of a circular economy, on the other hand, it is not so much about saving resources, but mainly about ensuring that they are not lost. There is a completely different logic concerning how to operate behind this.

"MOD" by Stefan Diez for Sammode

Circular Design Guidelines by Stefan Diez

1. A good product remains useful for a long time.

Design it in such a way that it can adapt to changing requirements and thus remain relevant for longer.

2. A good product is repairable.

Use the kind of materials where signs of wear do not diminish the product’s value. Construct it in such a way that components with a shorter life cycle can be replaced by the customers themselves.

3. Can the product be designed as a system?

Then, system modules or assemblies can be continually advanced and optimized by the manufacturer in line with technical progress. A good product can be updated and remains on the market for a long time.

4. Use materials that originate from a material cycle or that are renewable.

The materials used should not evaporate or rub off during use and should in general not be toxic. The materials used should be self-explanatory and easily separable from one another. A recycling point should be easily accessible to the last user.

5. As little energy as possible should be used in the manufacture, use and recycling of the product.

Consider the consumption of energy and resources over the entire lifecycle of the product. In the case of products for everyday use, a high level of effort in production can be more than offset by daily savings. Keep the energy input for recycling in focus.

6. Design the product so that it can be transported in a space-saving way.

It can be packed in a compact fashion during production, for transport to the customer, for moving, for repair, and for recycling. The packaging provides reliable protection for the product against damage. Transport should generally be kept as short as possible.

7. A good product is innovative and fascinating.

It may be complex, but never complicated. And it rewards its user with a real benefit. Products should be coherent and honest throughout, speak for themselves, and enable a resonant relationship with their users.

8. A good product is used by many.

It can potentially be rented, shared and returned. Could the product, or a substantial part of it, remain the property of the manufacturer, who sells only its use? Maintenance and repair would then be part of the manufacturer's promise.

9. The production, maintenance and recycling processes employ people in a fulfilling and demanding way.

Good products are made in countries that ensure equal treatment for minorities and guarantee freedom of speech. The health of workers is protected. Workers are employed according to their skills and receive fair pay.

10. A good product is as little product as possible.

It consists of as little material as necessary or has even been replaced by a (digital) service.

Stefan Diez