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Teaching sustainable design

July 25, 2008
By MIRIAM MOELLER, Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE - Beginning this fall, Northern Michigan University's School of Art and Design is sowing SEEDs of sustainability and environmental consciousness.

SEED, the acronym for Studio for Experimental and Eco-Design, is a new and "green" design program that focuses on creating products that are sustainable, recyclable and made from eco-friendly materials.

"(Americans) represent 5 percent of the world's population," said Michael Cinelli, director of NMU's School of Art and Design. "We consume 33 percent of its resources, and we produce 50 percent of toxic materials. If we're going to add more products to the planet, we have to make sure they can be recycled."

Article Photos

Pictured is the “Green U” — a shelter designed by Northern Michigan University art students — made out of sustainable materials that promotes a recycling center. (Photo courtesy of Peter Pless)

Peter Pless, NMU art professor, added that the program is based on eco-friendly architect and designer William McDonough's "cradle to cradle" concept, which calls for the creation of products that can be returned to where they came from.

An example Pless had on hand was a greeting card made from biodegradable paper, containing wildflower seeds. After its use, the card can be planted.

"What a product comes from, it returns to," he said.

SEED also has a service learning component that includes members of the community who are looking to have a product designed.

"SEEDs is an opportunity for people in the community who can go to Peter and work with him (and students) on prototypes," Cinelli said.

Although the program does not kick off officially until fall, Pless already had students work on a sustainable and eco-friendly project last school year.

"Students developed a concept for a green shelter," he said.

The shelter, shaped like a mushroom, is designed with sustainable and recyclable materials - with permanent bamboo clips for postings - and a recycling station. Benches, where students can seek shelter from the elements, are included with the shelter.

"I'm really happy with the concepts students are coming up with," Pless said, adding that students thrive on the whole sustainability idea. "There is a great interest and a concern from the generation."

Cinelli said interest in "green" designs emerged in the 1960s with the environmental and social change magazine Whole Earth Catalog and the ideas of transcendentalist Buckminster Fuller, but a real trend did not emerge until the world's energy crisis became imminent.

"The mind set was always, make it and throw it away," he said. "Now universities are saying this is not such a good idea. It's really an ethical concern."

Cinelli also said he hopes the program will make an impact locally and inspire community members to learn about "green" sustainability and at the same time help boost the local economy.

"I think that Americans are beginning to understand that they can't consume and dispose as they have," he said.

For more information call NMU's School of Art and Design at 227-2194 or contact Pless at



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