The Design of Things

human endeavor + the natural world

Category: Introduction

dirt is the new Champagne


Champagne, once the color of tastefully wealthy, has now been replaced by a dirt brown in most car lineups these days. Brown cars are turning up in Volkswagens to Volvos, Toyota and Honda SUVs, even BMWs. It’s not a seventies brown, more cocoa than orange. It seems reserved for the higher end and/or stylish models. This is now the color of the tastefully earthy – and earthy may be a safer way to feel wealthy post- post-recession.

Real dirt, meanwhile, is the new gold, though we’re not valuing it that way just yet. We need earth. We need it rich and filled with microbial life and sequestering carbon, just outside our back door and in our farm fields and along our rivers. But around the world and in our own backyards, we’re letting soil go. We’re scooping it with bulldozers to widen highways, scraping it out to build subdivisions near rivers where they will eventually flood, and growing lawns that have no root life, fertilizing the hell out of them for good measure.

Contaminated soil in China will eventually affect food production there. American industrial farming continues to pour excess nitrogen into the soil to boost crop production – most recently evidenced by the toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie, fouling Toledo’s drinking water. (This after a story in Modern Farmer several years ago about farming operations around the lake coordinating to reduce their fertilizer use.) And our suburbs and cities are becoming sterile environments, devoid of the soil-based microbial life that keeps us healthy.

I think the new brown cars are meant to show a kind of Great Recession humility. No more Champagne uncorked — at least not on the highway. I think they’re kind of pretty. But they can’t replace the real thing. We still shouldn’t pave over, dig up, and “fertilize” the best soils in the world, and then park on top of them.


Color in doses, in Martinique



Color is love, isn’t it? We use it to create a mood, to be welcoming, to refer to an era we love, to express joy and comfort. My husband Kevin and I were just in the West Indies (You’ll be hearing about that through several more blogs!) so of course we have been enjoying color for ten days. But because we were in Martinique, which is really France – vraiment — the use of color there was subtle, gorgeous, true to nature, and that much more arresting.

Everywhere we went, the predominant materials in the interiors were natural: Wood, dried palms and banana leaves, stone. The “island of flowers” appeared mostly green, with bursts of cardinal red in a spiky tropical bloom, the flash of metallic blue-bottle green on the wings of an almost black hummingbird, a glimpse of the yellow breast of the tiny Bananaquit, or Sucrier, a busy, buzzing bird in the trees overhead.

The use of color in our hotels, in restaurants, and outside was the same. Colorful houses were washed in pale pastels. Wooden boats painted in jewel-toned stripes floated in the dark blue waters of the harbors. A simple café might have tables dressed in oilcloths with flowers or the native madras plaid pattern in yellow, orange, and green.

The effect was elegant, celebratory, and gentle – leaving plenty of room to absorb the natural beauty all around.



“They’re not buildings that take possession of the land. They fly on the land. They welcome people. You look for lightness, and you get transparency.”

Renzo Piano, architect, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, new wing.

by Design

Design evokes images of furniture and gardens, logos and architecture, or people with funky glasses and a great sense of color. We know the Danish are good at it. It lives in the provinces of money and pleasure: fashion runways, shelter magazines and good restaurants. It’s about pretty, right? So what does it have to do with anything that really matters?

Design lies at the intersection of human endeavor and the natural world. Whether we devour or conserve is by design. Whether we connect – with nature, with our bodies, with our work, with each other – can be helped or hurt by design. The design of products and stores, of homes and workplaces, of cities and public spaces, of corporate supply chains and of campaigns for change all contribute either to living more joyously and lightly or to disconnected consuming.

We can think of design as beauty, as function, or as active planning with intention. A design that works well, from a product to a home to a cityscape or even a production line, is often beautiful to behold in efficiency, play, even color and light. Good design has imagined the outcomes, invites real engagement, helps us do more with less, and satisfies.

Just when we face so many devastating threats to our world and ourselves, it’s time to explore where we are succeeding and where we are failing– by design.

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