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Rachael Crouch, Creative Content & PR Intern
Apr 06, 2023
Have you ever wondered how art exhibitions can become more sustainable? An art institution’s environmental consciousness can go past the works on the walls.
As technology evolves to accommodate the changing planet, there's been an emergence of different approaches to exhibition design. These include wall text application that skips the standard use of vinyl and gallery guides that are distributed digitally instead of in print.
In the case of Meditation Ocean, these practices expand to furniture upholstered with soft, sustainable fabric made specifically for this use by Designtex. Viewers have the unique opportunity to sit, meditate, and reflect atop materials made in part from ocean plastics, directly reflecting the show’s themes of environmental healing.
I recently sat down with Designtex Director of Applied Research Deidre Hoguet, who told me about the heritage company’s lengthy history with sustainability and their collaboration with Meditation Ocean on Seaqual, a new, innovative textile made of recycled ocean waste.
It’s great to be speaking with you! Tell me a little bit about Designtex and how the company began.
We are a New York City-based company that was founded in the 1960s. During that time, there had been all the modernist buildings going up in New York. Designtex was founded by these two men who were working with architects on different materials, including the Seagrams Building. It's a famous modernist building. It was all glass; the architect designed this facade that was different for the time. And then the occupants moved in and put up drapery. Every floor had different drapery, every window covering, as you can imagine. And the architect was going to lose his mind because that was not the facade he had planned.
The two gentlemen who founded Designtex offered a standard drapery that would work in those buildings and basically offered an array of standardized modernist drapery to solve that problem. They started selling those textiles, and then they started selling other textiles and products for commercial interiors—everything from hotels, hospitality, office buildings, office spaces, and beyond. We sell products that go in arenas and airports and healthcare, and materials for architects and designers that are working on any kind of public or non-residential space. These designers have to meet building codes, so the market is a little divided because residential codes are different from those for commercial spaces.
We have a digital printing facility that does a lot of interesting wall installations for large architectural projects. We also sell different kinds of glass films for both windows and interior glass conference rooms. We sell some interesting products that provide some frosted glass films and acoustical materials too. So a little bit of all kinds of softer furnishing materials you would find on an interior.
How did Designtex get involved with the environment and the creation of sustainable materials?
We have a long history in advocating for sustainability. Our efforts began in the ‘90s. There wasn’t a big conversation about sustainability back then; it wasn't this concept that we have now. Our design director read an article in The Wall Street Journal about William McDonough, who's a sustainable architect. It was before the wide use of the internet, so she looked him up in the phone book and called him and said, "I heard you're doing what's called sustainable design, and I want to make our product sustainable. Can you help us?" They started collaborating from there, and that planted the seed of a real practice of sustainability at Designtex around not just making things less bad, but really thinking about the whole product lifecycle.
If something's going to become waste, if you can make things that can be recycled, if you can use better materials at the beginning, then you can have a better product throughout its life. At the end of life, you could compost the furniture, textile, and upholstery. Those ideas set the stage for the work at Designtex.
When I came to work there in the 2000s, there was a second project happening with William McDonough to make an infinitely recyclable polyester product. Since then, we've done a lot of different things, including recycling our own product waste into new products and developing new sustainable materials.
I’ve seen so many efforts from clothing companies, mostly in fast fashion, to be more sustainable, but they have always seemed more like marketing ploys and less of actual action. What do you think of the recent trends in the textile industry, especially in fashion, to be more sustainable and environmentally conscious?
I definitely think that there are brands that are deeply embedded, and then there are brands that are focused on capturing the trend; you see the latter, especially, in apparel. I see so many brands advertising a recycled polyester windbreaker or something, and they’ll do one capsule collection.
In terms of really thinking about the resources and the materials used to make stuff, there are different levels, for sure. I've even gone to sustainable apparel conferences, even though we don't make apparel, just because of opportunities for collaboration, and there are also a lot of commonalities in our work. It's been interesting to see because when our industry was starting to work on sustainability, the world of mainstream apparel wasn't doing anything, and in recent years it’s exploded suddenly.
Tell me about the material used in the exhibition. What kind of recycled waste is it made from?
The material in the exhibition is called Seaqual, the “S-E-A” being in there for the oceans. It is made with marine plastic waste, which is captured out of the ocean and reconstituted into a form of polyester. There is also PET material, which you can get out of plastic water bottles – this is one of the more recyclable types of plastic out there. It can yield a durable new material. The material in the exhibition is not 100 percent marine plastic waste, but a portion of it is. The rest of it is recycled PET from post-consumer packaging and bottle waste.
Our team talks about capturing that waste before it gets to the oceans and then taking some of the waste that's already in the oceans and putting them together into a new yarn. The material is then woven out of that yarn. The team for that project worked with us and our custom mill team to create specific colors to match the exhibition space to the screens. The cool thing about this is that this material hasn’t been introduced to the public yet—this project is a sneak peek. I think it will be released at the end of the year.
I want to know a little bit more about the creative process and collaboration with Meditation Ocean and what that was like. How did it compare to what you've done in the past?
The current president of Designtex has a long history in sustainable design, and had a previous working relationship with Hope Ginsburg. Hope mentioned the Meditation Ocean project to her and explained what it was about, and we happened to be working on Seaqual.
Since this material is still unreleased, we did a custom preview project for Meditation Ocean, which is something we don’t normally do. And we don't usually have our textiles in exhibitions. It was a fun challenge.
The team [working on the exhibition] sent us a wide range of Pantone chips that they thought would work with the film and the interior of the gallery. And then the mill, which was based in Canada, dyed a variety of little swatches to match the Pantones that were sent to us. The exhibition team went back and forth a few times on the color, and then they landed on three colors that they liked. The mill then wove the textiles and custom-dyed them for the team’s approval.
These materials ended up being for the floor cushions, and then there were some seats that were wrapping around [columns in the gallery]. Meditation Ocean also went with a custom fabricator to sew and upholster the cushions. And then I saw the images, and it looked awesome.
I think it's quite remarkable that Designtex has been involved in the discussion of sustainability before it was en vogue to do so.
Yes! When I came to Designtex, I was just interested in design. I had always been an environmental person and started the recycling club at my high school and stuff like that. But I didn't really think about pursuing a career in it. When I came to Designtex and learned about what they were doing, I became really interested in it. It’s grown so much and there's much more attention on sustainable materials and the way things are made today, and there is much more awareness and initiatives going on in our industry to combat climate change and advocate for sustainability.
We’re involved in a lot of working groups and architecture and design groups that are passionate about sustainability, and one challenge we face are building codes. Since we make products that go in commercial buildings, they have to meet really strict building codes. It is a challenge to design sustainable materials that can stand up to all of that in addition to the elements. For instance, if you're designing a T-shirt, you want it to last, but it doesn't last 20 years. If you're making a piece of furniture, however, all of our textile products have a warranty of at least five years. We want them to last longer – five years is a minimum. Our textiles need to be able to more utilitarian and withstand more than a textile for clothing.
There's a performance-based and technical side to it that we have to balance the sustainability with, which is difficult. We’ve done some really good things in the last few years. When COVID came, our customers, especially in the healthcare field, had really strict needs – for instance, needing the ability to be able to throw bleach on products. A sustainable flax wool is not going to stand up to that very long. We have textiles made from silicone, which is a more sustainable type of coated plastic type product than vinyl.
We’ve found ways, but making things that are sustainable and very high performing is one of our biggest challenges. Not all of our products have to be high performing, but for the ones that do, that's where we have to work the hardest.
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