Fake-Eco Evaluation: Marjan van Aubel´s Solar Table
Furniture as an energy source
Four legs and a smooth wood surface are the new phone charger. 2014 Current Table project reimagines furniture as sustainable energy sources. Author Marjan van Aubel is a Dutch solar designer based in Amsterdam, whose practice encompasses sustainable design and technology.
The table´s surface is comprised of dye-sensitized solar cells -hence the vibrant orange-, which utilize the properties of color to generate an electrical current later canaled through an integrated USB port. This technique is inspired by the photosynthesis of plants.
Van Aubel´s project was the recipient of plenty of awards within the ecodesign community, such as the Climate Action Challenge by What Design Can Do and WIRED´s 2016 Innovation Award. Swaroski named van Auben “Designer of the Future 2017”, Swarovski named Marjan the Designer of the Future, and she was also chosen to be the Radicale Vernieuwer (Radical Pioneer) Netherlands by Neelie Kroes. In spite of the attention given to the piece, the effective impact of it was still to be measured. Was the solar table really just a terribly expensive charger?
This premise was also questioned by the author herself: “Now, you can power your phone with my products, which is nice, but also a bit gimmicky. I want to make more of an impact”. Thus, Current Table 2.0 was born, in collaboration with engineer Peter Krige. In this new version of the first piece of furniture capable of harvesting energy indoors, you can even monitor light intensity through an app. You can also opt for buying a phone charger at your nearest HEMA for as little as 4 euros. The cost of both Current Tables is unknown, but arguably they entail a larger investment.
The problematic remains: can we justify ecodesign pieces that entail greater cost than functionality? If we were to approach the issue through the lens design analysis, the questions become more straightforward: what problem does the product address, and does it solve it? How efficiently? Does it create a new problem? Are there any other (better) solutions? However, we must not forget the piece is also an artistic one, which is far less susceptible to a quantitative classification system.
In order to establish the impact of an artistic piece, we need contextual questions. To begin with, we can assume the artwork has sustainable intentions -it is decisively labeled as “eco” by its author. While there are works pertinent to ecology that are not classified or considered as such, they are certainly harder to grasp within the ecodiscourse. However, this is not the case. The scope of inquiry then becomes apparent: to nuance the piece. How, and when, does this artwork become effective as an act of sustainability?
Here we turn to the methodology of the author, what they intended and how they themselves evaluate the outcome of their project. This insider perspective into the piece is significant when assessing the impact of a piece. We must also consider the chronology of the piece: as per the Guardian, “the kitchen table has been the place where many new inventions and ideas have been sketched out, but rarely has it been the source of innovation itself.” Table and Table 2.0 might have been truly unsustainable, but they each prompted the development of a new, ameliorated version; or even a whole new project. They have also become the source of inspiration to other collectives in their solar cells research.
Now, van Aubel intends to integrate her solar structure into all kinds of materials, starting with her project Power Plant. This piece of urban botanical tech focuses on a solar-powered indoor greenhouse. What will be next? Ecodesign pieces provide an opportunity for imagining a more sustainable “future normal”, however, their ecological stance must also be closely inspected. In the context of present sustainability frameworks, ecodesign should critically reflect on when and how a project starts to make sense. Through it, we can trace a map of how (in)effective action navigates the realm of art. Be it through four wooden legs or a downloadable app.