The designer’s paradox: To make or not to make when the future of craft is at stake

Anya Cooklin-Lofting | 04 Jan 2022


In a new exhibition that tackles the most pressing dilemma facing contemporary designers, Mia Karlova Galerie spotlights some of the leading designers who hold the key to the future of conscious creation.

There is something fundamental about the problems laid at our feet by Mia Karlova, the founder of the eponymous sculpture and furniture gallery on Prinsengracht, Amsterdam. Her new exhibition, Design Dilemma, which opened with Amsterdam’s annual design fair GLUE on 16th September, attempts to get to the core of what sustainability means to the modern-day designer in its purest form.

Mia Karlova Galerie - Design Dilemma exhibition

In an industry so fuelled by newness, sustainability is a grassroots issue in the design community. How can sustainable practices actually manifest and affect change when the guiding principles for the survival of the industry contradict them so brazenly? For designers working today, there is a paradox to be confronted. Designing and making something new can still damage the environment in ways often unaccounted for, even if the materials it uses are considered ‘sustainable.’ Water overuse, the involvement of harmful chemicals in the design process and emissions caused by transportation represent just a fraction of the unsustainable secrets of furniture manufacturing.

With Design Dilemma, the Mia Karlova Galerie poses the question of what creativity and product generation can look like without the collateral damage to the environment that even some of the most eco-aware production causes. “The first answer to our design dilemma is simple and controversial,” begins Karlova, “don’t design new things.” But where does that really leave our designers, who may hold the key to the future of conscious creation? Karlova’s second answer is much more exciting: “We must radically change our approach to design while the temptation to create new works still exists.”

Mia Karlova Galerie - Design Dilemma exhibition

“The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on climate change reports unprecedented changes to the global climate,” Karlova tells me, advising that many of these changes are irreversible. “Heat waves, flash floods, wood fires and thousands of victims are all results of human influence leading to an exponentially warming climate.” For Karlova, “the only way to prevent the worst scenarios is to start acting now in the most decisive way.” This, she believes, is down to innovators, artists and designers.

With this objective in mind, Karlova has begun to build an army of creatives who share certain philosophical and ethical nuances in their artistic processes. “Of course, I look for originality, emotion and passion in my artists, and want to feel chemistry with those I work with,” she says, “but the most important part of the search for artists is looking for those who create art that is driven not only by aesthetics but by thought-provoking concepts.” For Design Dilemma, Karlova has sourced four international designers whose work not only broaches but answers the paradox posed by the gallery’s brief. To neutralise the tensions between the urge to create and the damage creation causes, these designers present pieces made with waste products in the traditional sense, demonstrating the value and resource of materials we usually discard unthinkingly.

Mia Karlova Galerie - Femke van Gemert, Triptych - Vadim Kibardin, Totem stools

Vadim Kibardin is a master and pioneer of circular design, a ‘closed loop’ framework of manufacture whereby materials are continuously repurposed. One of the four designers sourced by Karlova, Kibardin is based in Prague, Czech Republic, and considers himself an inventor, scientist and artisan. Design Dilemma will showcase his Totem Stools, made using paper and cardboard waste as a sculptural medium, and the new, sole edition of his Lolly chair, composed of discarded packaging and designed exclusively for the gallery.

Mia Karlova Galerie - Vadim Kibardin, Yellow Lolly chair

The second exhibitor is a self-proclaimed Waste Textiles Artist based in Amsterdam, Femke van Gemert, who has unveiled four new works at Design Dilemma. Her work, which spans sculpture and installation, encourages viewers to consider neglectful and profligate consumption at the hands of humankind. Her work is highly decorative, driven by colour and texture.

Mia Karlova Galerie - Femke van Gemert, Land & Water II

By contrast, the work of Design Academy Eindhoven graduate, Teun Zwets, prioritises functionality over refinement or aesthetics to create pieces of furniture that command in his viewers the urge to question throwaway culture.

Mia Karlova Galerie - Teun Zwets, Beam cabinet

To the designers and their work, Karlova assigns two poignant adjectives, saying, “it is all beautiful, it is all important.” And I agree -  these artists have responded thoughtfully and intelligently to a hugely challenging and introspective brief. “The four artists we have been lucky enough to work with on this project understand that the design community needs a new approach that will allow us never to have to compromise on sustainability, function or aesthetics,” she says. “It is about the future of consumption. We need new techniques, and Design Dilemma presents just some of our options.”

The Mia Karlova Galerie is a conduit for the messages and concepts behind the work of the artists, designed in part to spotlight new voices, and also “to tell stories and accumulate new audiences.” Karlova explains to be that she feels a personal responsibility to pioneer this kind of work; pieces laden with messages like fables and displayed beautifully to garner the attention they deserve. “I want to show that artistic minds can be sensitive,” she says.

Portrait of Mia Karlova

Karlova’s vision is to spotlight the work of these artists to offer guidance to the mainstream on resourcefulness and reuse. “We should be thinking of everyday waste as a source of handy materials,” she says. “There is a whole possibility of human life that we haven’t yet grasped in the public domain, and that’s DIY,” she continues. For Karlova, there are many forms of material reuse that we don’t yet exploit, from cardboard to crisp packets. “We need to extend this vision into everyday life,” she tells me, and it’s true; this kind of work should not be the preserve of specialist innovators and artists. We all need to be more involved and more conscious. 

In a closing statement that feels at once poignant and lightly comic, Karlova quips, “innovation is not only in galleries but also in the bin.”