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Monday, 07 May 2012 08:59

Design Matters Q&A: Tom Newhouse

Written by  Kym Reinstadler
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Design Matters Q&A: Tom Newhouse PHOTO: Adam Bird
Industrial designer Tom Newhouse has been committed to environmentally sensitive design for 40 years — long before the word “sustainability” was coined. Committed to “walking the talk,” Newhouse designed and constructed his own passive solar, earth-sheltered home and studio on Grand Rapids’ west side when he was only 28. He’s been driving hybrids since they came on the market, but is more proud of the fact that his commute to the office is 13 stairs. Newhouse is a frontrunner in West Michigan’s green movement in the areas of office furniture, LED lighting, kitchen cabinetry and appliances.


How do you describe what you do as an industrial designer?

I manipulate materials in conceptual and technical contexts to create beautiful, functional things that are also sustainable.

How has design become infused with sustainable practices?

I was a tree hugger by the time I graduated from the University of Michigan in 1972. In the ’80s I had to sneak in green design under the radar because most clients were naïve (or) neutral. They were reluctant to spend an extra dollar on something they considered irrelevant.

Sustainability kicked in as a terminology 15 years ago. It’s not a battle anymore and that’s a wonderful thing. A non-green product is an embarrassment these days. The question has become: How green is the product? There’s room for growth. Sustainability is a big focus for commercial products; residential products have to play catch up.

Given where technology is today, what products are left for designers to create?

The problem is that we’re now in a post-industrial society where the primary inventions — locomotive, automobile, airplane — have been done. It’s challenging to innovate in a mature world of products. The goal is refinement. We can make it greener. We can make it at a lower cost. I’m not sure how much smaller we can make it, considering all the stuff stored on my iPhone.

What’s the key to designing green?

Conceptualization. Eliminating waste is a cradle-to-cradle philosophy. The green aspect is utterly important at the fuzzy front end, where I work. You can really get it wrong right from the start. Designers bear a lot of weight in this, but I like the pressure. Every time I design a product, I try to make it a little greener than the previous one that was like it. Eliminating waste, not merely reducing waste, is elusive. I’m trying, but I haven’t done it yet.

How did the sustainability movement grow in West Michigan?

West Michigan is a pretty green place thanks to the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum. The forum was started about 20 years ago by Herman Miller, Haworth, Steelcase and five other companies. Many were competitors but they wanted to journey toward sustainability together. It’s grown to a heterogeneous mix of more than 100 companies. Their ideas picked up steam in municipal governments, thanks to Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, and in area colleges and universities. I think the driving force was D.J. DePree, founder of Herman Miller. (I worked at Herman Miller for six years and they’ve been clients ever since.) DePree infused the business with a philosophy of stewardship.

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