For the inaugural edition of Design 'n Drinks, I sat down with Providence designer, innovator, and entrepreneur Matt Grigsby. After graduating from RISD, Matt founded Ecolect, a sustainable materials consulting firm; co-founded ANCHOR, a designer incubator; and now is working on a city housing project, Vicinity, as well as teaching at RISD. Our conversation covered everything from his experiences to sustainability to car design. Here are some of the highlights:
We do mostly consulting work, but we also have a physical database with papers, plastics, inks and some industrial products too. We work mainly with product designers and a little bit with architects. We did a project for Hasbro where we took four of their products and did life cycle analyses. From that, we made design and material recommendations. We're really trying to help companies understand sustainability. About half of what we do is education and the other half is sourcing materials. We also have our Product NutritionLabel, which is a third party certification. Right now we're about to launch a high-quality, in-depth sustainable materials database [called Athenaeum].
On his favorite sustainable material:
Indiana's FlexForm Technologies makes a composite, like fiber glass, made entirely from hemp and other natural fibers specifically grown for the material. They mix it with a biodegradable resin or polypropylene, which can withstand extremely high temperatures. They also have a take-back program where they re-use all of the material to make more.
On education and materials:
There's a growing trend in the materials industry to work with students. Companies create these new materials but don't necessarily know how to apply them. So they're looking at universities now. For example, there was a class at RISD centered around working with FlexForm.
On teaching transportation design:
I want to teach how to design for what's needed, not for the normal style-driven design. How do people actually move around today? Cars have stayed the same, but people have changed. Add in the sustainability part at the very end, after the cars are already fully designed.
On making stuff and sustainability:
You can't make people make better stuff, but you can inspire them to make better stuff. Consumerism won't go away. You have to treat sustainability like any new technology—it's going to be more expensive at first. If you push sustainability, people will think it's of lesser quality. You have to use marketing, slowly phasing out the old stuff and presenting new options in a way not compromising quality. People and clients just don't know—at the end of the day, it's really the designer's responsibility. Change will be based on individuals.
On an anecdote about sustainability:
I have a friend who runs a store called Connect in Wicker Park in Chicago. A woman went into the store, didn't need any help picking things out, and went to check out with a pile of clothing. She had already paid for everything and commented that she was really excited about the fabric. The cashier responded that all of the fabric was 100% recycled plastic bottles, or something like that. The woman was furious and immediately demanded that she could return everything, which she did, and then stormed out.
You have to change people's perspectives about sustainability. The problem is, no one knows where their products are made. You're never going to go visit the factory, it just comes to your house. You never see how it's made. If you went to a factory and smelled all the toxic fumes, you wouldn't buy that product any more.
On whether sustainability is a trend or here to stay:
People are definitely capitalizing on it and making a lot of money off of it, I can't deny that. But it's definitely both [a trend and here to stay]. When computers first came out, they were new, expensive, and controversial. Now it's part of evolution and society, it's being integrated, computers and people are growing together. And now technology is starting to support advancements in sustainability. At Ecolect, we're trying to highlight examples of this to accelerate the curve.
On his next project, Vicinity:
Vicinity is an ID approach to buildings. They're four-story, single- and mixed-use buildings, in places like Portland and Providence, that increase walkability and useability. We're using materials from Ecolect's database to mass-customize houses. We'll have sustainable packages to choose from. It's like the VW website, where you build exactly the car your want, watch the price fluctuate, and decide if it's in your budget or not. These homes are in not-so-sexy environments. They're not the Dwell/Metropolis shack-in-the-wilderness. This is in-fill housing.
We're looking at pre-fab, but a lot of current designs (like Project Frog) can't be used on the East Coast. You can't just take the house and stick it in New England. And a lot of times firms will say they do pre-fab but never build it. They just do it to bring customers in the door. We did extensive research and made a 300-page audit of pre-fab homes. It's ready to be published, it just needs an editor.
On the new way to teach:
Teach "Do what you think is right and what you think is valuable—convince your clients." Not many schools are telling their students that. At RISD, there are not that many full-time faculty, but there are hundreds of visiting faculty. That's bringing in current, fresh knowledge—that's one of the keys to having a successful university. It's all about what you inspire people to do—that's what creates change.
On his fleet of cars and some last thoughts:
I drive a Honda Civic and I'm working on a 1976 CB 550 Honda motorcycle, three BMW E30's (1985, 1987, and 1988), and my girlfriend's BMW 2002 XI. My next move is either a Land Rover Defender or an old BMW 2002.
Here's coming full circle: why do I love the E30? Because BMW used their existing six cylinder engine and this was during the oil crisis—they're not going to use any crazy technology. They asked, how can we re-engineer the car but still give a really torque-y engine and save our customers money at the gas station? They made it cool and inspired people to do it. They just did it.
Dave Seliger is a Postgrad Fellow in Logistics and Ext Affairs at the NYC Office of Emergency Management. He has extensive experience helping firefighters, police officers, and disaster responders improve their services through design.