Liane Rossler on Supercycling and the future of design

Liane Rossler

Liane Rossler is most well known as a co-founder of iconic Australian design company, Dinosaur Designs (with Louise Olsen and Stephen Ormandy). Last year Rossler left the company she had spent 25 years with and is now working across a very long list of diverse projects, all with design and sustainability at their core.

One of her most recent projects, Supercyclers, with fellow environment advocate and designer, Sarah King, engages a group of designers who reinvent new products from existing materials.

Rossler, 46, speaks with Joan-Maree Hargreaves about Supercyclers, design heroes and the future of design.

You’re a central figure in the arts and design community and one of your latest ventures, Supercyclers, sees you working with designer Sarah King on a project that will be shown at the Milan Design Week in April. Tell me about the project?

Sarah and I launched Supercyclers last year. It’s a project about reuse and it follows on from ‘The Other Hemisphere’ exhibition and our Plastic Fantastic project that was shown in Milan last year that showcased a selection of Australian designers. This year the project is called SOS: supercycle our souls. Working with different designers, the exhibition looks at things that are usually perceived as ugly, like waste, and turns something that is ugly into something beautiful. The exhibition features six Australian designers and two international designers, including myself and Sarah K (Supercyclers). This year we’re turning transparent plastic bags into new creations. Other designers include Mark Vaarwerk who makes objects out of all kinds of things including cigarette butts and polystyrene boxes, Tamara Maynes who has made templates for homebuilt cardboard lights, Henry Wilson who has ‘hacked’ or reinvented design classics, Andrew Simpson, an inventive problem solver and has made vessels from solar panels, Ontwerplabel ViJ5 who make Newspaper Wood out of compacted, compressed paper that is carved and has a grain like wood, Ett la Benn and Blakeborough and King.

So, this whole project has sort of taken off from last year, after we made these dishes out of plastic bags. The reaction has been just amazing. They were included in other exhibitions in Europe and were blogged about like crazy. I think what’s interesting is that people loved the simplicity. Personally I found it interesting, because I know from a design point of view, moulding and manufacturing can be quite hard and complex. It’s a really big process. Then something like we did, that is so simple an idea, and process, and then we say ‘go and do it yourself’. People really responded, and think ‘I won’t throw out my bags, I’ll make something with them’, and it makes people look at it things in a different way. It’s about design thinking and a different approach. Everyone knows about the plastic bag problem, so we are looking at whatever we can do to work out solutions for it.

For years people just used to design stuff. Now, there’s just so much stuff, we need to look at things differently rather than making more stuff for the sake of making more.

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How can this way of thinking be commercially sustainable for designers?

One of the things that has changed is that traditionally, we’d make something and sell it. Now, what’s really important is collaborative creativity. People used to express creatively through what they bought. Now people feel more of a desire to create things. Making things together, and you can make money in the exchange of ideas, not through only one single retail aspect. There is a real movement toward sharing design process. I think that you can see this with the whole Etsy thing, workshops that are happening. It’s grass roots creativity for women and for men. We need to encourage that sort of tinkering and pulling things apart that men traditionally used to do as a kid in the shed, and encourage that to continue that as adult. In many ways we’re seeing that through cooking, but there are so many ways of being creative. Ultimately creativity is a rewarding activity. It makes people feel good when they’re making something. In terms of commercially designing, I think what used to be valued was the raw material. I think now value is in the time that was spent on something. It’s not just the material itself that holds the value.

You’ve placed the latest Supercyclers project on the crowdfunding site, Pozible. Do you think this type of social collective fundraising is going to dramatically change the funding landscape for designers?

I do. Crowdfunding is a really liberating thing for somebody to be able to do. It’s really nice to invite people to be part of what you’re doing. Being part of it is the perk. People love being part of something and for just a small amount of money you can see things being done. There’s a real shift away from one dominant model to the collaborative way which moves across so many different elements. Creative people don’t really want to fill out endless forms. They just want to get things done. It’s really exciting and a much more equitable approach. People give a dollar and can be part of something, and all those little dollars make something bigger.

In your opinion, is the perception of Australian design changing around the world?

I think it’s a global community now. I heard Tim Flannery say that it is now the end of the tribal era. Now it’s about a global civilization ‘we’re all together’. With technology, you can work in your niche and speak with anybody around the world. It’s less a country specific thing and more a personal thing. The way things are moving, we see things so immediately on the internet. It’s not so much that’s there’s an Australian approach to design but that it’s global. I don’t think people are surprised to see Australian design exhibited because everything is as valid as everything else. We used to be considered foreign, now we’re all just ingredients thrown in together.

Tell me about some of your other recent projects.

Knitty Gritty and Loopy was a project a group of friends and I started in 2009, where we’d meet up every month and make things together. A highlight of that was when we made 350 baskets from plastic bags to highlight climate change that were exhibited at the 350 event at the Sydney Opera House. We’d meet at Centennial Park, and we sent out an open invitation inviting people to get involved in the project. We had a really good cross section of people who’d come along and make with us. We were then part of Sydney Design and an exhibition at Object Gallery called, We Craft This City, and we held workshops there too.

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Other smaller projects I’ve been involved in recently include Metalab’s Designer Sushi project where they gave a people a design challenge from found materials, Make It! at the Powerhouse Museum for the launch of Creative Innovation, and Interpretations for Sydney Design 2011.

So I like to be involved in a mixture of projects both small and large. I like to mix things up a bit. I think the common link between all of them is that I genuinely have passion for them.

You were a co-founder of iconic Australian lifestyle brand, Dinosaur Designs. Since leaving in 2010, how has your relationship to design changed?

What I’ve enjoyed since leaving is the great diversity in design, and working on such a variety of different projects with different people is really interesting. I enjoy design thinking, the approach, and it’s given me the opportunity to be much broader. And also I love the interaction with not only designers but different industries. Design is at the core of everything I do, but then applying it to different projects you naturally do it. I love it when I work with people who don’t come from a design background, when you can come together and mess it up, exchange ideas, the result is really good. You see things in a different way. A scientist might see it one way while a designer thinks how they see it, putting lots of different approaches together is interesting. Design and art are fundamental in everything in life. People see it as separate but I see it as fundamental.

You’re also an advisor to businesses on sustainable design, creativity, and retail as well as a mentor to emerging designers. What is the best advice you have ever received and given?

The best advice my mother gave me was ‘seek and you shall find’ which I guess means ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’. So I think if you want to do something, you’ve got to find a way to achieve it. There’s always ways of doing it. You’ve got to be inventive and adaptable. In terms of giving advice, it’s so simple but just do it. Just do it. It’s a cliché but if you stick to what you believe in and follow your instinct, you’ll achieve it.

You’re a tireless supporter of non-profit organisations – you’re a supporter of animal-welfare advocacy group, Voiceless; one of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project presenters; an ambassador for 1 Million Women; and a judge for the Bombay Sapphire Design Discovery Awards. What drives you to be an advocate for change?

I guess being involved with people doing good things, giving my support to things I really believe in is really rewarding. I think apathy is not a good thing. If someone is doing something really good I want to support them. I guess because if we all did nothing it would be a bit sad. I love the feeling of potential, of an idea. That’s the most exciting thing. I believe many drops make an ocean.

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You launched Happy Talk last year at Art & About: an initiative that fosters collaboration in the design and arts communities. Is that an ongoing project for you?

That was something started together with Heidi Dokulil. For our first project, we built a pavilion in Hyde Park from local materials, that had an extensive program of events and interactive workshops. It was a multifaceted project that looked at resourcefulness, traditional skills with contemporary uses and the culture and crafts of our Pacific neighbours. It is an ongoing project, and we have exciting plans for 2012 and the future.

You’re married to Sam Marshall of Architect Marshall, the architect behind the new MCA wing. Have you collaborated on design projects in the past or do you have any future plans to work together?

Yes, we are lucky because we are extremely similar in our approach to things, and to design. If we go to a gallery we like the same painting. We have the same taste in houses. We laugh and say we don’t even have to talk because we are both thinking the same thing. In our general life we collaborate domestically and we are very much continuing and expanding on this together. Sam’s work on the MCA has been a 10-year project so I can hardly believe it’s about to finish. It’s going to be very exciting. I can’t wait to see it filled with art and people.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for designers in the 21 century?

I think what is really important, is the whole cradle to cradle philosophy of creating. It’s important to consider why you are designing something. We need to think about what effect making this work has. What benefits can it bring; we need to look at it in the big picture. And probably the way of selling a product is going to be different. We see retail going through a big shift and there’s going to be different ways of exchange. Now we look at things, and it’s about life, how we live, how we eat, where we sleep, your surrounds. People used to design things, make it and then chuck it away. Those days are definitely over because there is no ‘away’.

You went to art school at COFA in Sydney. Do you think students of today are any different to students when you were at art school?

I’d have to say I’m extremely impressed with students I’ve met. You have to get a very high mark to get into art school now, so you see lots of extremely smart, dedicated, knowledgeable, professional people coming through. When I went to art school you had to get an okay mark but it was based more on your portfolio. I think there was more freedom in those days. I think maybe it’s more focussed on an approach to a profession these days. In a way, I’d like to see everything loosen up a bit because the business approach to the world is just one approach, it’s not the only approach. In this culture it’s dominant. In different cultures, it’s not that way.  And when you look at some of happiest places, people are living simply with the environment around them. I’d like there to be a shift to what brings you to happiness, a shift to simpler things.

What do you think it means to be creative?

I think creativity can be applied to anything – cooking, dressing. It is about doing things in your own way. I think if you create something and do it your own way it makes everybody feel good. I’d love to see more of it and more of it encouraged. It is simple but very rewarding. When you look at kids, you can throw anything on table and they’ll just go for it, and that raw creativity, that’s a wonderful approach to life. I think they start to lose that once they get to school and they’re told, ‘you can’t draw now’ and that’s the end of that. I think also, there’s no denying that the world is changing so fast and we’re not even surprised at how fast anymore. I think having a more creative approach makes you adaptable. I think if you’re very set in your ways it is harder to adapt and you’ll be happier if you have an open mind and you can look at a range of possibilities.

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Who are some of you favourite creative people?

My heroes are Charles and Ray Eames. There were just so many facets to their studio. There was so much variety and their approach looked like so much fun. And it’s timeless. I also love simple things made by Japanese ceramicists, where you can see the hand of the person who made it. Another hero is David de Rothschild who created the Plastiki boat out of plastic bottles. He took a problem and made it a solution. And Yayoi Kusama who is in her eighties and still has bright red hair and still does things her own way. She seems to have a very creative approach to life.

What comes next for you?

At the moment it is a balance between physical creative projects and working with people and ideas sharing. I love the hands on creative process. I like a mixture of projects. This keeps it moving and keeps it interesting. I love the unexpected, I love the potential. The spark of ideas of is what I love.