Sustainability is a much-used term today in the design community. Most often, we connect it to our hopes and effort to sustain the environment. Products and buildings are deemed sustainable when they don’t deplete or damage the world. We now gauge sustainability and greenness by numerical statistics. LEED ratings, eco-labels, green seals, life-cycle assessments all have their place in making us more aware of the dangers of our material world.
But I wonder if these ratings go far enough. I wonder if they take into account the larger issues of sustainability. If a product can be produced using renewable resources and can later be broken down easily, we give it high marks.Yes, these products are green. Yes, these products sustain our physical environment. But I wonder about the sustainability of our social or cultural environment. I think about sustainability in a broader sense. I think about the sustainability of creativity and manufacturing and craftsmanship. I think about the sustainability of culture.
These are more difficult to quantify, but no less important.Our books, our movies, our malls, our neighborhoods look more and more homogenous year by year. Even our products—objects of our affections—are becoming bland, seemingly stamped out of the same mold. We are told that craftsmanship is too expensive for our modern age, so we look outside America, where huge machines fabricate materials and low-paid workers assemble them.
Those who try to buck this trend face many obstacles. Bankers and auditors look at your bottom line with no concern about your artistry or philosophy. They want to know why you aren’t producing products cheaper and quicker. How do you explain that you believe in hiring people in your own community? It’s not the best way to seek a line of credit.
We are lucky to work with the nonprofit Southwest Creations Collaborative in producing our products. The cooperative is our next-door neighbor on Fourth Street in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For the past many years, eight to ten women from the collaborative help manufacture our tile, often setting each tiny background glass in place, working hand-in-hand with my own studio staff. The collaborative provides Spanish-speaking women with jobs and living wages. It charges 25 cents an hour for on-site childcare, offers GED and other classes, and makes it possible for employees to lead proud lives The women who work for Southwest Creations provide our firm and other companies an alternative for sending work to Mexico or overseas. They help us make products that are elegant, timeless and truly sustainable.
As the founder of Erin Adams Design, I create art for others. I never wanted to create art for myself. I make art because I have a need to express my love of color and my unquenchable devotion to design. I have a need to explore materials and a compulsion to share my discoveries. I have a longing to create by hand and a craving to look for the new.
Commercial art must sustain an audience. No longer directed inward, art for others must connect and evoke a response. Or else it remains personal—in search of a home. My art—tile mosaic walls and surfaces—must nourish my customers. When I’m successful, I create art that helps people reflect on color, on line, on their surroundings, perhaps even on life itself.
One of the reasons our products are so sought-after is that they are not perfect. Every piece of tile has fingerprints all over it because real hands make it. Our surfaces bespeak humanity. People buy our work because of the way it looks and because of the story behind it.
We also create public art projects because we understand the value of our work in sustaining culture. Working with Chicago artist David Csicsko, Erin Adams Design has produced six major public art pieces in the past six years. The first was for St. Ailbe’s Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side. We produced a glass-mosaic mural of St. Ailbe, a mythical saint who by legend takes on the image of the people who believe in him. On the night it was dedicated, churchwomen jostled us with joy as they saw themselves reflected in the mosaic. They told us that we helped preserve their community through art by making them proud of their faith and devotion. Here was a community-based group in New Mexico helping to save a community church in Chicago. It was one of my most satisfying moments.
Just this year, I completed a mosaic with David Csicsko at one of the busiest elevated train stations in Chicago. It’s really quite goofy—characters with huge smiling faces, shining eyes, all packed in an El train. The details of the face were put together at our studio and the backgrounds were made next door at the Southwest Creations. The details and background are merged together seamlessly with new technology. Commuters frequently pause in front of the mosaic on their way up the steps to their trains. They laugh, point out the tile faces, and even rub the characters’ eyes for luck. The art sustains them. Transit officials expect the mosaic to last for a century. That’s a lot of rubbing.
I also attempt to support the sustainability of creativity, which goes beyond geographic communities. We recently introduced a tile line called Luna, a collaboration between Mexican artist Pedro Hernandez, of Alumillenium, and myself. We have inset our glass tiles into a recycled material to create a tile with a remarkable look and texture.What attracted me first to his work was its handcrafted feel. Although Luna is made out of aluminum, it has a softness rarely seen in a metal. This marriage of two different materials is a first in the tile world and opens many doors to the future.
Last year, I collaborated with skateboarder Rich Moorhead, who cut up hundreds of abandoned skateboard decks to create a wooden kitchen backsplash for the Cherokee Studios in Hollywood. Working together at our New Mexico studio, we found an innovative way of joining his discarded Art of Board skateboard pieces to produce a new wall surface. We melded his skate-boarder community and my design community all the while creating a green product based on recycled materials.
I’ve been called an artist, a designer, even a scientist—all wonderful but somewhat pretentious terms. I see myself as a collaborator—someone who wants to keep art, design and science sustainable. My joy comes from bringing disparate designers, artists and manufacturers together to create unexpected new products. Our new ceramic tile Merge, more of a mosaic than a tile, combines my drawings and the talent, touch and insight of ceramic artist Michael Corney, my husband. Isn’t this sustainability as well?
Erin Adams Design Surfaces is a celebration of collaboration and the exploration of new design and material. I want to create relationships that can create new products that are sustainable on many levels and available to a large segment of the public. What most interests me is pushing materials where they have never been before—and I’ve learned that is best done through collaboration.
I believe the only way to keep the decorative arts and the arts alive is through these new collaborations. Art sustains me, but I am never satisfied knowing there is another material, another pattern, another challenge to conquer.
Where are you collaborating?
Erin Adams, founder and CEO of Erin Adams Design, ran a New York gallery and launched her first design company, A-Brand, in the 1980s. Renamed Erin Adams Design in 1998, the company is known for design standards that have distinguished Erin Adams Design as a powerful brand and Erin Adams as a design innovator.