Supercyclers founder, Sarah K, is a force to be reckoned with. A design career spanning decades and disciplines, and an unwavering commitment to designing to make the world a better place, she’s an inspiration, a true pioneer in the waste-to-resource space and key collaborator of our Pressing Matters Floor Lounger.
We wanted to explore and share Sarah K’s design journey with you, including the launch of her latest project – the little black smart dress (aka the LBSD) that got the tick of approval from Vogue. So we interviewed Sarah to learn more.
Sarah K in her studio
"Every aspect of our world, every occupation, has an impact on the environment in some way. Change can happen in a sustainable direction from wherever you already are. You don’t need to become an expert in some other area. This by itself, is a powerful starting point for recognising how to take positive action, and not to be overwhelmed by it."
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and what do you do?
I’m a designer, design thinker and activist. And maybe even a design ‘actionist’ since what I tend to do is take action on environmental issues in the form of design resolution and demonstrating how we might live in our material world, sustainably. My focus is on formally well-resolved, sustainable design.
I grew up in Perth with a high design benchmark; in and around the modernist architecture and interiors my great uncle, architect Harold Krantz, had designed and built. Phyl, my grandmother, worked for his firm, Krantz and Sheldon (Iwan Iwanoff was also a principal) and the mid-century tone of our house (with my mother’s minimal interiors style), Phyl’s apartment, and their offices, were my world.
When I was 19, I moved to Melbourne where I trained as an architect and a filmmaker and started practicing design, making films and organising exhibitions, while still a student.
David Clark, editor of Vogue Living, once described me as a “design entrepreneur”.
I love the social aspect of designing – the opportunity for comeraderie that comes with working collaboratively with others on projects.
I see design as a broad discipline and in my 30-year career I’ve designed and produced almost everything: architecture, landscapes, interiors, furniture, products, exhibitions, films, events, retail ventures, initiatives and spaces, magazines, new materials and most recently, jewellery and fashion. You name it, I’ll design it. Designing is problem solving, so I’ll also give it a good go to solve any problem thrown my way.
What is supercyclers?
Supercyclers is the initiative I founded in 2010 to focus on sustainability in design.
When I returned to Sydney in 2009, I met Liane Rossler, my soul sister, like me, from a Jewish family of modern architects, same era (and same age), she was also passionate about our stupidly negative treatment of the environment. Our first bonding conversation was centred around why sustainability in design was not the modernist concern we thought it should be and this became the backbone of supercyclers.
I went on to curate a number of exhibitions internationally for supercyclers, which brought together interesting design ideas and form, anything that wasn’t the more rustic or shabby aesthetic that sustainability had somehow come to be represented by.
In 2012 I curated ‘SOS: supercycle Our Souls; Contemporary Approaches to Sustainability’, which was held in a gallery space at Ventura Lambrate during Milan Design Week.
SOS: supercycle Our Souls in Milan
It was the first major survey exhibition devoted to sustainability in design and marked an important turning point. We used materials constructed of found waste and offcuts from other designer’s builds for our exhibition design and put them together as beautiful pieces of furniture using Henry Wilson’s A-Joint system, which we'd brought along with us in our luggage.
We had about 70,000 visitors over the course of the week, which spurned a great deal of press and interest, and did just what I had hoped it would do; amplify the discourse around sustainability and design.
Supercyclers is a brand, it’s the the collaborative initiatives I take on, and the innovative material solutions that result from our explorations such as Marine Debris Bakelite (2014), created from ocean plastic waste with industrial designer Andrew Simpson, and Pressing Matters (2020), created from textile waste for the furniture industry with Seljak Brand!
Marine Debris Bakelite bento boxes, innovated and designed by Sarah K and Andrew Simpson
Every supercyclers project aims to break positive ground, to inspire others to do likewise and to exemplify sustainable solutions in the things we make for the world.
What are the key principles that underpin your work?
- A clear, rational process with the environment in mind.
- Earth is the new client
- An assessment before production of the product’s environmental impact in the past, present and future.
- First question – do we need it? If not, don’t make it. The world has reached a saturation point with stuff and we can do without 99% of it. No need to add to the problem.
Just as we should consume less, we should make less stuff. Actually, this has evolved for me more recently to be: only make it if it has circularity. The End.
If you’re not willing to take responsibility into the future for what you create, don’t create!
So many of our material behaviours simply don’t make sense in light of their impact on the environment, so it’s important to think a design problem through.
The online course, the sustainablist masterclass I recently created, goes into more detail on how to do this. The course lays out step-by-step what should inform and how to action a new sustainable design paradigm, simply and easily.
You developed the sustainabilist masterclass in 2020 (in your 10th year of running supercyclers!) – an online course to help people embed sustainability into their lives and work. What does the course cover, who is it for and what do you hope it achieves?
Originally I created the course for my peers, designers, and makers, as I watched (and watch) as they continue to create work that doesn’t address this issue of sustainability effectively. It’s so easy to be seduced by newness and formal beauty, as we always have been. It’s common to participate in an exhibition with an experimental idea for a sustainable product one minute, and go back to less mindful design with no innovation needed that is easier to make and sell, the next.
I don’t see it as a concern or a choice to create mindfully anymore, it’s an obligation.
Consulting with brands who want to embrace this idea over the past few years, I also realised it’s not effective to tell people what’s wrong with their sustainable idea, or how it could become more sustainable, but better to provide guidelines for people to apply to their own ideas and products as a means to self-check the sustainable nature of their own work.
The course doesn’t provide all the answers, it provides the means to find the answers for yourself. It’s really a mindset-shift in thinking about our material relationship with the environment. And I’ve found that this philosophy can be applied to the creation of all the material world – which stretches far outside the bounds of design. You don’t need to look further than your own field or sphere of influence to be a change-maker.
Every aspect of our world, every occupation, has an impact on the environment in some way. Change can happen in a sustainable direction from wherever you already are. You don’t need to become an expert in some other area. This by itself, is a powerful starting point for recognising how to take positive action, and not to be overwhelmed by it.
Tell us about your latest project, the sustainabilist line, and your product the Little Black Smart Dress (LBSD)?
The sustainablist line is a circular fashion brand with just one smart article of clothing: The Little Black Smart Dress.
Model Rika wearing the Little Black Smart Dress
Our LBSD is a classic, modern interpretation of the ubiquitous little black dress which is designed to make you the star of your own life film. As part of the process of purchasing the LBSD we ask you to enter into a pact with us to commit to being responsible for its future impact on the environment, to follow it through to the end of this stage of its lifecycle, where we will collect it from you for re-manufacture. We’re assigning your dress to you, which literally reads (when scanned) "this dress belongs to…".
Responsibility is written into the ownership of the garment in this way, with the purpose to keep it out of landfill or from being incinerated.
At the same time as making these changes, we also wanted to do our best to create a well-designed and modern garment. I worked with the super clever Sydney Dance Co costume designer Aleisa Jelbart, and we designed the LBSD directly on the body, to optimise movement in an active working day. We wanted the dress to have activewear feels, with that European ‘something’ that means it easily dresses up with heels for an evening. There’s care taken in detail, construction and finish for longevity. Being a luxurious, heavy weight cotton feel (recycled) eco-stretch means it adapts to all kinds of bodies and is still flattering.
The sustainablist line is a small, local and ethical label that’s manufactured in Sydney, and the dresses are created on demand or in small batches. The price of the dress includes shipping to the customer and back to us, and the cost of the future re-manufacture, alongside a percentage towards planting trees and paying the rent to the Traditional Owners of the land we live on.
Imagine being able to look fine and change the world at the same time.
Seljak Brand co-founders Karina and Sam Seljak wearing their Little Black Smart Dresses
Sarah K's approach to design is ambitious and pioneering, which is why we teamed up with her to help solve the issue of hard-to-recycle textiles waste from mattresses. You can read more about supercyclers’ and Seljak Brand’s collaborative project, the Pressing Matters Floor Lounger here.
We hope you find Sarah's approach to design as inspirational as we do!