ispo and the Volvo Design Conference

Perhaps a few of you read Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times and noted that just a couple of years ago she complained about an e-mail out-of-office messages made popular by Lotus Notes and now an option for anyone with an email account. Particularly she chose to attack an employee at adidas who put a reply on his e-mail that said: “Thank you for your e-mail. adidas has a clear vision: passion. And it has a clear mission to be the leading sports brand in the world. ‘During the year…: we will bring this mission to life with numerous exciting product and marketing initiatives. To work on this, I am out of the office until January 26.”

Lucy wrote “It is hard to know which is worse: the lack of irony, and cloying keenness, the phoniness or the downright irrelevance of the message,” wrote Ms Kellaway about this poor employee’s message. “Turning a factual piece of information (that this person is not at his desk) into an advertisement for himself and the company is so awful that I fear it will catch on.”

For companies like adidas January has always been a bad month with shows like ispo, Outdoor Retailer, and the PGA to go to. They really do keep you out of the office for weeks at a time. In 2008 you have to add WSA at the end of February and Chennai (India is important to adidas) as well. For a few tanners the Ethiopian show was also a must. This year I have only gone to one – ispo. I like it as it is cheap to do and quite inspirational, and it has the added advantage of the Volvo Design Conference attached. This year I had a good look at the new XC70 and had the good fortune to be sat inside the new XC70 while Volvo Program Chief Designer, Jonathan Disley, talked through the inspirations that lead to the interior design of Volvos. Nature, Scandinavia, the Space shuttle all combining with so many other things to create the details of how the top of the dashboard overhangs just a little like the snow over the edge of the roof on a house. This is a natural world where leather has a comfortable place, especially since we have the technical base in the fibre structure to meet the scientific needs as well as the aesthetic and subliminal ones. You can really learn to appreciate a product when someone like Jonathan Disney explains the reasoning behind what you are interacting with – be it a seat a steering wheel or a traffic information system.

Fish Skins, Coconuts and bark textile

So right now I am actually writing this in Munich where I have just completed a design workshop at the Volvo Design Conference with a small company called Material ConneXion Cologne. This company is a resource centre for innovative new sustainable materials.

Our little ad hoc team had a limited (short) team to dream up a product using coconut wood, coconut fibre, and bark-tex (an African textile type material made from bark) and fish skins from Scandinavia. It is impressive how creative these intense group projects can be. At the end we were given two A2 boards for our ideas and 60 seconds to present them. We designed a combined window blind and light fitting using the translucency of the skins and bark-tex with the coconut pieces to provide structural stability and adornment. We came proudly second and I have a (another) little cow to sit upon the sideboard. The idea that fish skin leather should come into a sustainable design setting is the thing we must remember. As a beleaguered industry we are always in trouble for using kangaroo skins, sealskins, or hides from India and it has always annoyed me that the trade never fights back. Young designers come away with the feeling that leather is a risky product area to develop. Listen to the interior designers from Volvo and you can feel the passion for natural material and that inherent delight for leather if it is presently honestly and without misgivings. This is the time to get positive.

At the same time sustainable design shows how important it is for scientists and designers to come together. What is really possible with new materials? How can a product be adapted to meet the real needs of consumers? What can you actually do with fish leathers? Looking for applications or adjusting to fit applications is something we have heard about from the chemical companies, but not much discussed in the tanning sector. As design changes and leather options multiply we need to get the technicians – the Corium club members – out there thinking of more creative ways leather can be used and what adaptations are needed. Designers need more help than ever as they have to consider the environmental aspects of origins, of use, and of end of life in everything they do. Tanners need to be part of that debate.

Mike Redwood

Wednesday, 30 January 2008