To Kim Stanek, sustainability isn’t just about recasting existing materials in a new form. It’s about making new objects that people will feel attached to and want to restore rather than discard – compare a cheap flat-packed table or chair, for instance, with vintage furniture that gets passed along to the next generation.
That was on the 25-year-old Sydney designer’s mind while completing his standout entry in the 2018 Mercedes-Benz Design Award. Using repurposed scrap glass to pay loving tribute to the Sydney coastline’s sandstone erosion patterns, his Celebration of Sand collection of glass plates was one of the most interesting responses to the award brief’s sustainability call out.
“I like involving myself in different design projects and then learning and teaching myself what’s required for each of them,” says Stanek. “I enjoy the challenge of bending what I have learnt into a different context.”
This year the Mercedes-Benz Design Award sought innovative designs for the living space with a strong sustainability element. Sustainability is fundamental to Mercedes-Benz, whose new EQ brand of electric vehicles introduces the company’s transition to an electric future. The sustainability challenge of the award made it all the more enticing for Stanek.
“I think there’s always a bit of a conflict when you’re making new products,” says Stanek, who graduated with honours from UTS in Integrated Product Design and is now a designer at forward-looking design firm Axolotl.” You don’t want to be contributing to a wasteful society.” He was able to use the kiln and other facilities after hours at Axolotl to realise his Mercedes-Benz Design Award entry, which originated from his honours project. Working with Dutch glass artist Hans DeKeyser, he secured scrap glass left over from other Axolotl projects and recast them for this close-to-his-heart project.
Beyond their sustainable origins, Stanek’s glass plates are stunningly beautiful. Even more striking, they complete a conversation directly with the sand from which glass itself originates and hark back to the rocky beaches Stanek relished while growing up in Avalon – including those rounded, cell-like erosion patterns in the sandstone landscape.
“That resonated me with my whole life. They’re really beautiful, organic patterns,” he says. “[The project] became this celebration of sand, with glass being made out of silicone, or sand, in the first place. And the kiln is [like] the sand bed, so you place the [glass] mould into that.” Even after the glass’s initial time in the kiln, Stanek sandblasts it to make it less “shiny and new” and more naturally soft and worn smooth. “So it always came back to sand. The form and the process were working together – it made sense for the story.”
Making the most of DeKeyser’s expertise, Stanek explored the point at which heated glass softens and becomes elastic. There was definitely a learning curve, since Stanek’s own design background is more in wood-based furniture and objects. But by being so new to glass, he was free to experiment and let the happy process of trial-and-error inform the results.
“I really started to think of glass not as a flat plane or a blown thing, but something you can manipulate in different ways,” he says.
The process was time-consuming, but by putting the glass into the kiln after work hours, he could let it heat and then cool overnight so he could excitedly greet the results the next morning. Patience was key – the glass will break if it’s not heated carefully and incrementally. “There’s a lot of working by feel,” Stanek adds, “and changing the temperature by a few degrees to change the outcome.”
Again, it all comes back to sustainability, which for Stanek means looking at alternative materials that can be used to achieve even better results. Versatile organic materials like coconut husks and bamboo are becoming more commonplace for exactly that reason, and initiatives like the Mercedes-Benz Design Award help make sustainable design processes both visible and viable. By singling out and rewarding Australian talent, the award also keeps local designers from heading overseas in search of the recognition they deserve.
“Having a platform for young designers to submit work like this is critically important for Australian design culture,” Stanek says. Like his own entry, the award brings sustainability full circle while highlighting the fruitful intersection of functionality and ingenuity.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Mercedes-Benz.