London: Waste Age @ the Design Museum

I’m afraid that this exhibition will have ended by the time this post goes live, but what can I say? Sometimes I’m lazy and don’t get around to visiting things until near the end of their run, especially if they’re things I wasn’t that bothered about seeing in the first place and only went to so I had an excuse to stop at the big Whole Foods and Arancina, which was definitely not the case here…


Anyway, Waste Age: What can design do? at the Design Museum was all about consumption, the waste it generates, and what design can do about it, so by its very nature, it was always going to be a little bit depressing. Nobody really wants to hear about how we’re destroying the planet, even if it’s something we need to hear. To really drive home the point, the exhibition opened with a series of photographs taken at dumps and other waste sites around the world, as well as graphs showing how much waste different countries and groups of people generate. Unsurprisingly, it is the middle and upper classes who are responsible for the most waste.

For me, one of the most interesting parts was a timeline illustrating the growth of consumer culture. I hadn’t realised that plastic bags weren’t invented until 1960! I knew a bit about the concept of planned obsolescence (being a weird anarcho-punk as a teenager will do that to you), but also didn’t realise that the Phoebus Cartel, which controlled the lifespan of light bulbs, was set up so early as 1925. The cartel artificially limited the lifespan of light bulbs to 1000 hours, even though early lightbulbs were designed to last for 2500 hours, and many could go for even longer than that. The exhibition had a photo of the oldest continually operating lightbulb, which has been burning in a fire station in California since 1901 and has provided over a million hours of light. Really goes to show how corporations have been screwing the world over for a very long time indeed.

The next section was a bit more positive, as it showcased ways designers are recycling materials that would otherwise be wasted. I was excited to spot the chairs we have in our café at work, which are made from waste from plastic factories and lumber yards. Although I think our chairs are reasonably attractive (they’re the ones stacked at the back of the photo above left), the design of some of the objects here left a lot to be desired. It’s all very well creating sustainable furniture, but if it looks like melted candle wax mixed with poo, like one of the chairs here did, who is going to buy it? Same goes for the rope made of human hair, which is an interesting concept, but I think I would barf if I had to touch it, unless it was my own hair.


Also intriguing, if a bit unsettling, was the display about a manky old cottage that some designers had preserved instead of knocking it down and building something new. Whilst I love old houses, and I’m all for preservation, their method was definitely strange, in that they decided to preserve the dust and dead bats inside the house. I love bats, but having dead ones laying around frankly feels like a health hazard, and as someone with dust allergies, I’m pretty sure walking into that place would kill me. Shame, as the fireplace with creepy faces in it is awesome!

Throughout the exhibition, there were examples of these concepts at work, with walls of the different exhibition spaces made of various recycled materials, which again, is all fine and dandy, but one of those walls absolutely stunk; I think it was the one I’m standing in front of in the photo above. It was made of sugar, and I find that sometimes sugar stinks when you open the bag, so I guess it was that smell concentrated, but damn! I could smell it through my mask, and I made Marcus smell it to confirm it wasn’t just me. It was kind of like that episode of One Foot in the Grave where there’s a bad smell by their sideboard.

After walking through a couple other rooms of conceptual products of varying degrees of attractiveness (yes to the dress, no to that stool with all the holes, which is triggering my trypophobia, and I really don’t think that “Bin Burger”, where all the burgers are made from food waste, is likely to take off), we finally reached a cool interactive nature wall that lit up as you walked past it. Not really sure what it had to do with the exhibition, except maybe to show what the world could be if we stop destroying it with waste.

As you might expect from somewhere called the Design Museum, this was very design orientated, and some of it was just too high concept for me, but other products did seem to have a practical use, particularly the ones that were for sale in the gift shop. However, I think a good place to begin, before we start eating garbage burgers and using hair rope, would be to do away with planned obsolescence and increase the lifespan of the normal objects we all use, like computers and small appliances (and to be fair, there were prototypes of laptops and phones in here that could easily be disassembled to install newer hardware as it comes out and thus prolong the life of the device). It gave me some food for thought about the ways we’re destroying the world (though according to the green checklist they had in there, I’m already doing pretty well by not owning a car, recycling, and not eating meat), but as someone who prefers history to futuristic design, this type of exhibition was never going to be my favourite, though obviously I knew that going in, so I don’t really know what I’m complaining about. 3/5.


  1. I’ve always been disgusted by the planned obsolescence thing. I keep stuff around more than most, I suspect. I do understand that middle- and upper-classes are likely to buy and discard (or more likely sell or donate) more things, when it comes actual garbage, I must say it astonished me the volume produced at our homeless camp. Not only do they regularly overflow the dumpster, but much of it never gets there – just piles up everywhere.

    I hardly think that human hair is a serious environmental issue that requires recycling! Ick.

    1. I think I tend to keep things longer than most people too – definitely the pack rat genes I’ve inherited from my grandpa! But I’m always confused when people talk about “disposable” clothing, as in things that only last for a season or two. I don’t tend to buy things from high street shops anymore, but when I was younger, H&M was all I could afford, so I was a regular shopper, and pretty much everything I’ve bought from there has held up just fine, even though some of it is now well over a decade old. I don’t understand what these people are doing to their clothes to make them fall apart so quickly!

  2. This actually sounds kind of interesting but also horrifying. I’m with you; I’m all about recycling but I’d rather not eat recycled food or use a rope made of someone else’s hair.

  3. I had to look up trypophobia! I quite like that stool, so I don’t seem to have it. One of john’s gifts from China was an embroidery made from human hair. It lives in his office at work – I’m dreading him bringing it home when he retires.

    1. I actually like Victorian hair jewellery, but just to look at, not to touch. I could see having a ring or something made with braided hair inside though, as long as it was from someone I knew and it wasn’t touching my skin directly. I weirdly quite like unclogging my shower drain though, because I know it’s all my own hair.

  4. It was a rather challenging and confusing exhibition. I got the underlying message, but like you, saw some of the exhibits as no more than deliberate “Shock” pieces to excite discussion, but on the whole it was worth visiting

  5. Must admit that the stuff in some (most?all?) of these future design exhibits often seems so silly – hair ropes? Doesn’t hair compost readily? While other things that would make such a huge difference like recycling (can’t we figure out how to get the rare metals out of rechargeable batteries?) or eliminating planned obsolescence gets little focus. Of course, much of that stuff is political and not much fun in a visual exhibit, but still…. Didn’t realize that plastic bags were such a recent invention. On a totally unrelated note… I saw my first Wally birds in person. SO COOL!!!!

    1. Totally agree, and at least this exhibition did talk some about eliminating planned obsolescence with things like laptops and mobile phones, but the hair ropes were definitely a hair too far. And glad you liked the Wally birds! Where did you see them?

      1. The Delaware Art Museum. They have a section on the British Pre-Raphaelites, who apparently liked/collected Wally Birds. They had 3. So great!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.