The next big step in sustainable design

Elogico, a new initiative, seeks to incorporate eco consciousness from blueprints to finished buildings

By Violet Law

Traditionally, the “Made in Italy” label has evoked style and craftsmanship. But now, the country is also striving for recognition for its commitment to sustainability and ecological awareness.

Last week groups from the United States and Italy launched a sustainable design initiative called Elogico, short for Ecological Thinking, a joint venture between Italian design branding firm Brandit, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Over the next half-decade, the group’s goal is to raise environmental consciousness in the design of products and buildings, redefining sustainability as the fundamental and central feature, rather than an afterthought.

“We really want to integrate more ecological thinking into our curriculum because this might impact the way we design things,” says Hennie Reynders, the head of SAIC’s department of interior architecture and design object who was instrumental in organizing the Chicago-Venice project.

The initiative kicked off Sunday with a roundtable discussion involving designers from both sides of the Atlantic. During the discussion at the Art Institute of Chicago, Venice International University design researcher Marco Bettiol shared his observations on the changing design culture in Italy: “We have a new generation of firms,” he says, “a group of designers who puts sustainability at the heart of what they’re doing.”

According to Bettiol, this culture change was driven in part by consumers, who now purchase with new ideals in mind like environmental sustainability and ethical production. “They are looking for more than just sound functionality,” he says. “The design has to combine aesthetics with the new values.”

And these values must be embedded not only in accessories, but also in seemingly mundane fixtures like kitchen units. With that in mind, Marco Steinberg, associate professor of architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design, conducted a case study of the Italian kitchen designer Valcucine. He investigated how the brand’s designer works with craftsmen, manufacturers, and even researchers across Italy to tirelessly refine the company’s recipe for a kitchen unit that lasts for generations.

To be sustainable, the Valcucine unit is made of recyclable materials like glass and aluminum. The components are honed to durability through a stringent quality control process. However, Valcucine designers also aim to deliver the same function using as little material as possible, hewing to what they call the principle of dematerialization.

And they’re good at what they do. Working with manufacturers as committed to this principle as they are, the designers produced the thinnest glass cabinet door ever –less than one-tenth of an inch thick.

Valcucine is also concerned about toxic emissions in the kitchen, particularly from chemical varnishes applied on the wooden counter. And that’s where the rigorous research comes in, says the company’s marketing manger Daniele Prosdocimo. After two years of testing, the line came up with a natural, water-soluble varnish that reduces emissions by 90 percent. Ongoing research also seeks to reduce emissions of formaldehyde, a common component of glues and a chemical that contributes to smog. Valcucine innovators are currently exploring ways to incorporate a spice and vegetable garden into the kitchen to establish a more localized food cycle.

Other Italian businesses that are driving forces behind Elogico include Artemide, a lighting design firm that is a household name in the country; Moroso, a furniture maker that combines ecological production process with the handiwork of the world’s leading designers; and Parri, a Tuscan firm whose top-of-the-line wood doesn’t harm the environment. At Parri, raw materials are drawn from tree plantations rather than forests in order to avoid timber depletion. The craftsmen have fine-tuned a multiple-laminating process that produces wooden furniture that is nearly identical to that made of high-quality wood harvested from the wilderness.

After the kick-off discussion and exhibition, the SAIC and its Italian partners plan to host workshops, discussions, and exchanges over the next five years.

Reynders hopes that his students and the design community at large will follow the Italians’ lead, incorporating environmentally friendly practices into their designs. That means understanding the life-cycle of whatever they create – from the extraction of raw materials to manufacturing, distribution, consumption, and disposal of a product.

“Our culture deals with production cycle in a large scale, a scale that designers cannot control, says Reynders. “But that is changing. We need to rethink the relationship between the manufacturer and the designer, and the many factors affecting [a product’s] sustainability. The Europeans are ahead of us, but we’re catching up.”


When is someone going to deal with all the excess and existing home and building stock we alfready have that is inappropriate and wasteful for living in the coming years? Dealing with new buildings to solve our problems will take the better part of this century, and we don't have the time. I agree its fune to talk about the new stuff, but its not going to help very much.