View largeDownload slide View largeDownload slide The material ecologies of our world of objects have become a matter of concern, also for historians of design. Until recently, historical scholarship on the substances that go into design has focused chiefly on their cultural identities and social significance.1 Now, however, there is a growing interest also in the intricate infrastructures of their sourcing, logistics, production, distribution, consumption, disposal, reuse, and recycling—especially with a view to the environmental ramifications of these complex processes.2 With Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective, environmental historian and professor of sustainability studies at Pratt Institute, Carl A. Zimring, provides a substantial and timely addition to the emerging literature on this topic. The book is structured in two parts, each comprised of three chapters. The first part traces the history of aluminium as an industrial material, focusing on the massive growth in its production, application and consumption during and after the Second World War. As Zimring explains in the introduction: ‘To understand how and when aluminum came to be upcycled, one must understand how and when aluminum became a material of mass production and a material associated with sustainable production’ (p. 13). The second part of the book then goes on to examine examples of how products have been designed using upcycled aluminium. The case studies are taken from the recent history of US design, ranging from early post-war projects to contemporary ones. This structure makes for a compelling and concise reading experience, which the student audience, in particular, will greatly appreciate. Although this clearly is a deliberate choice and a sound strategy for making the book accessible to a broad range of readers, a corollary is that it leaves less room for dwelling on the many nuances, comparisons and alternatives that this rich material also invites. Industrial-scale production of aluminium was made possible by the discovery of the so-called Hall–Héroult process in 1886, but only in the interwar years did the industry manage to create a viable market for commercial applications. Chapter 1 outlines this narrative ‘from scarcity to abundance’ (p. 17), but moves quickly through this relatively well-known terrain to focus on the vast expansion of aluminium manufacturing in the run-up to, during, and after the Second World War. Already here does Zimring introduce the ecological perspective, reminding the reader of the significant environmental costs of aluminium production on this enormous scale, from the bauxite mining to the massive energy consumption—but also of the significant potential for more sustainable design and manufacturing processes afforded by the material’s unique, high-grade recyclability. This perspective is expanded in Chapter 2 that explains how aluminium, through the widespread strategy of design for disposability, contributed to the exponential growth in waste generated by the newfound affluence and convenience of consumer society in the 1950s and 1960s. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that recycling arose as an answer to this problem, but—as Zimring has detailed in his previous work—the recycling of scrap metal, including aluminium, significantly predates modern environmentalism.3 Chapter 3 thus charts the interesting story of how the recycling of aluminium went from being a practice driven by economic incentives to one motivated more and more by environmental concerns from the 1970s onwards. We learn that about two-thirds of all aluminium ever produced is still in use, and that the proportion of scrap in its production has increased steadily from one-third in the 1950s to more than 60% today. So, although—as Zimring also emphasises—even recycling creates environmental problems, the remarkable success that the circular material flows in aluminium production have become can be attributed to the alignment of interests between economy and ecology. Whereas the first half of the book is characteristic of Zimring the environmental historian, the second half is flavoured more by Zimring the design educator. This is where he, in a highly pedagogical mode, shows how aluminium has been upcycled through industrial design practice. Transport design was an early adopter of aluminium, making the most of its impressive strength-to-weight ratio, and Chapter 4 is thus logically devoted to this field, discussing aircraft, bicycles and cars—ending with a case study of the Ford F-150 pick-up truck redesigned in 2015 shifting from steel to aluminium body. For most design historians, though, it is Chapter 5 that offers the most familiar material. Here, Zimring examines the Herman Miller Aluminum Group furniture range designed by Ray and Charles Eames’ office from its inception in 1957 and the original deliberations on aluminium as a material of modern design to its manufacture today following Cradle-to-Cradle principles in a dedicated facility known as the Greenhouse planned and designed by William McDonough + Partners. From a staple of design history such as Eames furniture, Chapter 6 moves on to an object category far less commonly discussed in design history: guitars. Still, the surprisingly long and rather esoteric history of aluminium guitars works well as an exploration of the more niche and craft-based uses of the quintessentially industrial material. Summarising his environmental history of aluminium and the ensuing case studies of upcycling, Zimring poignantly observes that ‘Design plays a large role in determining whether material is wasted or recycled’ (p. 159). His conclusion ends on a more sombre note, though. Even if upcycling waste into covetable, lasting products in itself can be seen as a good strategy toward a more sustainable design practice, it is not necessarily so if it results in increased production and consumption. The inevitable, yet frustrating conclusion is, then, that ‘Aluminum reuse within the same large technological system that developed the voracious appetite for aluminum cannot be sustainable’ (p. 165). Still, with all the evangelical rhetoric dominating the discourse on sustainable design, Zimring’s sobering reminder is a welcome one—because it demonstrates the fruitfulness of combining design history and environmental history. The main feat of Aluminum Upcycled, though, is that it untangles the very complex nature of design and sustainability in an engaging and educative manner, refreshingly devoid of moralism and quick-fixes. Notes 1 See e.g.: J. L. Meikle, American Plastics: A Cultural History (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997); A. J. Clarke, Tupperware: The Promise of Plastics in 1950s America (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999); E. Rubin, Synthetic Socialism: Plastics and Dictatorship in the German Democratic Republic (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008); N. P. Maffei, ‘Selling Gleam: Making Steel Modern in Post-war America’, Journal of Design History, Vol. 26, No. 3 (2013), pp. 304–320; J. T. Schnapp, ‘The Romance of Caffeine and Aluminum’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 1 (2001), pp. 244–269; S. Nichols (ed.), Aluminum by Design (Pittsburgh/New York: Carnegie Museum of Art/Harry N. Abrams, 2000); E. Schatzberg, ‘Symbolic Culture and Technological Change: The Cultural History of Aluminum as an Industrial Material’, Enterprise & Technology, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2003), pp. 226–271. 2 See e.g.: M. Evenden, ‘Aluminum, Commodity Chains, and the Environmental History of the Second World War’, Environmental History, vol. 16, no. 1, 2011, pp. 69–93; J. Martinez-Reyes, ‘Mahogany intertwined: Enviromateriality between Mexico, Fiji, and the Gibson Les Paul’, Journal of Material Culture, vol. 20, no. 3, 2015, pp. 313–329; A. Willis and T. Fry, Steel: A Design, Cultural and Ecological History (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015); L. Rezende, ‘Manufacturing the Raw in Design Pageantries: the Commodification and Gendering of Brazilian Tropical Nature at the 1867 Exposition Universelle’, Journal of Design History, Vol. 30, No. 2 (2017), pp. 122–138. 3 C. Zimring, Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005). © The Author(s) . Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Design History Society. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of Design History – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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