Circular is the New Linear - Design and the Cyclic Conception of Resources

By Ida Kamilla Lie.

The Universal Recycling Symbol, designed by Gary Anderson in 1970

As the effects of global warming are becoming more visible and noticeable, the environmental challenges facing the world are addressed by researchers and practitioners within a growing number of fields. Increased awareness of the depletion of natural resources has led many researchers to abandon the linear approach to production associated with the modern age, in favour of a circular understanding of the utilization of resources. In design theory this circular mode of thought is most notably exemplified by Michael Braungart’s production philosophy Cradle to Cradle. It has also been of great importance for design practice through Design for Disassembly, Design for Repair, etc. and also for consumer culture through recycling organization.

This blog post will examine an early effort at shifting from a linear to a cyclic conception of resources as a way to improve the social significance of design. When the major Nordic design schools in 1973 planned a seminar on recycling as sustainable design strategy, it represented a radical effort to break with some of the fundamental tenets of these institutions’ own ideological heritage. Using the concept of circularity as a starting point, the blog post sets out to explore a peculiar example which shows that a cyclic conception of resources was highly present also among prominent figures at Nordic design schools in the 1970s. In a pan-Nordic seminar topics such as the reuse of products and materials and the use of biodegradable materials would be addressed in a cross disciplinary series of lectures, and discussed by design students and teachers, practicing designers, organizations and institutions within the design field.

My aim is to explore the motives for choosing recycling as a topic and what it entailed. How does this event map on to broader tendencies within Nordic politics and society in the 1960s and 70s? And how does it relate to the internal discussion within the design community of the time, on the way forward for Nordic design? What I wish to show is how the seminar on recycling is an example of a new way of thinking about both design education and the design process in general.

Making Waste

The word recycling has today come to mean “the act of processing used materials or abandoned materials into new products for further use.” [1] In itself this process is far from new, as the practice of reuse, repair and renovation has been fundamental in times when shortage has made it necessary to make scarce resources last longer. In the 1960s and 70s, however, recycling went from being a matter of economy to a matter of ecological concern. While people previously had reused and repaired out of necessity, increased wealth now made people able to replace old appliances with more modern alternatives, resulting in a growing waste problem. In addition, disposable packaging did to a large extent take over from reusable packaging. [2] As a response to this problem, interest organizations arranged campaigns which sought to raise public awareness on environmental issues. It also resulted in political answers, such as the United Nations first conference on the environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, and the founding of the world’s first Ministry of the Environment by the Norwegian government, also in 1972. This attention to waste problems and other environmental challenges, caused by increased prosperity and technological developments, made it clear that the issue of waste disposal needed to be addressed. Scandinavian recycling practices were now increasingly inspired by environmental motivations.

“Contemporary topical issues have always influenced design, but never so clearly as in the 60s,” writes the Swedish art historian Cilla Robach. [3] The focus on the negative sides of mass consumption and environmental pollution did also influence the design community. Directly contributing to the ‘carousel of consumption’ designers was an easy target for critique, and critique came, from voices both inside and outside the Nordic design community. Following the rise and fall of Scandinavian Design in the 1950s, the design community went through a period of reorganization and rethinking in the years around 1970. New technology brought on new tasks for the designer and general societal changes caused a call for redirection in the designer’s work. At the centre of the discussion was the increasingly complicated relationship between the applied arts community and industry, as well as the role and responsibility of the designer. The applied arts movement had played a key role in the Scandinavian design community much of the first half of the 20th century. In the post war period, however, the increased fragmentation of the design profession led to an ever growing polarization between the fields of applied arts and industrial design, which may be said to have reached its zenith around 1970. [4]

This discussion coincided with, and ran parallel to, the development of design education in the Nordic countries. It was especially the students who spoke up for new content and structure of the education, and the discussion must be seen in conjunction with the concurrent international student rebellion. [5] Criticizing the lack of social relevance, Nordic design students called for an education more in line with what they perceived to be society’s needs. The students at Konstfack, the design school in Stockholm, pointed out that “a governmentally funded school should engage in matters of public utility.” [6] At Konstfack’s counterpart in Oslo, the National College of Applied Art and Craft (SHKS), a young teacher in the metal department expressed a similar claim. The newly hired teacher Roar Høyland hung a poster saying “We have teacups enough!” referring to the applied arts movement’s focus on domestic objects. [7] Among the students’ concerns was design for neglected groups, such as children and people with physical disabilities, and a demand for a more global perspective in their education. Several seminars on these and other topics were organized by the student council at Konstfack in the last years of the 1960s. [8]

The interest in the alteration of the education was echoed at other Nordic design schools, and in 1966 a group of students decided to join forces and establish a pan-Nordic cooperation. Acknowledging the value of Nordic cooperation established through the Scandinavian Design phase, the students did, however, oppose the previous generation’s quest for beauty in domestic objects. Seeing mutual contact as a way to stimulate the environment around design education and bringing it more in line with society’s needs, they gathered under the collective banner of the Scandinavian Design Students’ Organization (SDO). The SDO was meant to supplement the formal education provided by the schools. This was done through annual seminars that brought students from the Nordic countries together and jointly publishing a Scandinavian student periodical. Three summer seminars was organised by the SDO in total, in 1967, 1968 and 1969, with figures such as Victor Papanek and Richard Buckminster Fuller on the list of speakers. [9]

Recycling as strategy to heighten the status of the designer?

The possibility of a more institutionalized Nordic cooperation within the field of education had been a recurring topic also at the annual meetings between the rectors of the Nordic design schools in the 1960s and early 70s. [10] As part of these efforts, the schools drew up a proposal for a joint Nordic design seminar which was scheduled for three days in August 1973, in the Danish town Herning. According to the preliminary program passed at the annual meeting in 1972, a main purpose of the seminar was to “explore the possibilities of establishing joint Nordic courses and training activities.” [11]

This aim is interesting in the light of the previous seminars organized by the SDO. Even if the SDO cooperation sprung out of the design schools, the organization’s events had been arranged quite detached from the respective institutions. The considerable interest and support they had attracted among the students may, however, have signalled that such an approach was fruitful and inspired the schools’ administrations to follow the same path. Through the treatment of a specific topic of social nature, the initiators further wished to mark the designer’s important role in society and explore how this work could benefit from Nordic cooperation. This focus on the social role of the designer may be said to represent the general shift that had taken place in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the public environment became a more important field of work for Nordic designers. In design education this had led to an increased focus on interdisciplinarity, with subjects such as ergonomics, sociology, psychology and social studies. [12]

This was reflected in the plans for the Nordic seminar, which would provide lectures in the above-mentioned topics as well as technology, economy, and politics. [13] The main topic of the seminar, however, would be “Recycling / Packaging – Current problems illustrated from the view of designers”. This theme was chosen to give the seminar what the initiators called a “realistic content,” and in the preliminary program we can read that the initiators wished to focus on reuse and the total utilization of a limited amount of raw materials. The planned seminar would be directed towards students and teachers at the Nordic design schools, practicing designers, organizations and institutions within the design field and specially invited guests. Around 50 participants should work both individually and in groups, to develop products that could either be reused themselves or in materials that could be reused in production, or products in biodegradable materials. [14]

Due to a number of unsuccessful attempts to obtain funding, the Nordic seminar on recycling was never held. That does not, however, detract from its design historical value, and the choice of recycling as the seminar’s theme is worth further discussion. As mentioned in the introduction, it represented a radical effort to break with some of the fundamental tenets of the institutions’ own ideological heritage. To explain this, we need to keep in mind how a key feature within design for over half a century had been the urge to be modern. Throughout the 20th century an increasingly influential advertising industry had, through an ever-growing number of advertisement arenas, tried to influence people to buy the ‘latest news’. [15]

By the 1970s, however, more and more people had realized the limitation of the world’s resources. The new demands made to the designers, both from the designers themselves and from society, were no longer about chasing novelty – about being modern. It was rather a request to go easy on the world and its resources and to use the designer’s skills and creativity to solve the problems created by humans. The reuse of products or materials was one approach to answer this call. As the name suggests, recycling entails a cyclic, rather than a linear perception of the life of artefacts. The fact that the rectors of the Nordic design schools chose this as topic for the seminar, points to a conception of resources that broke with the teleological approach connected with modernism. Given the immense popularity Scandinavian Design had achieved in the 1950s, this break with the recipe for success may seem bold. It may also, however, be interpreted as part of a strategy in the ongoing struggle to raise the status of industrial design.

In a speech to the annual meeting between the rectors of the Nordic design schools in 1978, rector of Bergen design school, Runar Børresen, shared his reflections on the development of Nordic design education in the 20th century. Describing the years 1965-1970, Børresen called attention to the negative consequences of the industrial and economic growth following the end of World War 2:

“In the Nordic welfare state one became embarrassingly aware that in the effort aiming at recovery and wealth, there were groups in society that were forgotten. The social aspects had to be addressed. For the designers this meant a broader field of work. – One further became embarrassingly aware all forms of environmental pollution – also here demands were made to the designers. Finally, one became seriously aware that it was time to address problems regarding consumption and ecology.” [16]

According to Børresen, these problems could not be solved only through broader education and new disciplines – The complex demands of society required a new team based design methodology. If the designer should get support for his or her views in such a cross-disciplinary team, Børresen further argued, the designer’s status should be raised and the education equal to that of university trained practitioners: “With team partners whose various specialties requires education from a university or technological university, the designer will be in danger of not gaining sympathy for the important field he or she covers.” [17] Judging from the initiatives made by the SDO, the Nordic design students did not think the school’s administration was active enough in this regard in the late 60s. What is interesting in this respect, however, is how Børresen connected the ongoing debate on whether design schools should get university status or not, to the challenges raised by pollution and environmental protection. This points to an acknowledgement, both of the environmental problems the world was facing, and to the designer’s responsibility and potential in trying to solve them.


The practice of reuse, repair and renovation is not new, neither today or in the 1970s. But for a long time it has been pushed into the background due to both the Western world’s wealth and lacking will to take the environmental challenges seriously. This blog post has explored how the motivations for recycling in the 20th century changed from being a result of economical need, to that of ecological need. Raised awareness on environmental issues through exhibitions, campaigns and other initiatives led to a broader ecological consciousness in society as a whole in the 1970s. As shown, this necessitated a change in priorities also in the design world. The discussed seminar is an example of an attempted institutional response to the environmental challenges which became evident in the years around 1970. Even if it wasn’t realized, it gives an interesting insight into the Nordic design discourse at the time and may serve as important documentation on how design educators in the 1970s viewed design education in an ecological perspective.


  1. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/recycling, accessed 24.05.2016

  2. Finn Arne Jørgensen, “Green citizenship at the recycling junction: consumers and infrastructures for the recycling of packaging in twentieth-century Norway”, Contemporary European History 22, no. 3(2013) 507-508

  3. Cilla Robach, ”Poppigt, saklig, politiskt” i Poppigt, saklig, politisk: 1960-talets konsthandverk och design på Nationalmuseum, 5

  4. Kjetil Fallan, ”How an Excavator Got Aestethic Pretensions – Negotiating Design in 1960s’ Norway” i Journal of Design History 20, nr. 1 (2007)

  5. Ida Kamilla Lie, «”Vardagsvaror” for den virkelige verden» Master thesis, University of Oslo, 2014, 25

  6. NN, «Konstfackseminaret: Gör oss samhällsnyttiga», Dagens Nyheter 3.8.1968, cited in Cilla Robach, Formens frigörelse, (Stockholm: Arvinius Förlag, 2010), 263

  7. Kjetil Fallan,““The ‘Designer’ – the 11th Plague”: Design Discourse from Consumer Activism to Environmentalism in 1960s Norway.” Design Issues 27, nr. 4  (2011): 38

  8. NN, «Elevkårernas utbildningsforsök», Form 64, no. 5 (1968) 322

  9. Ida Kamilla Lie, “’Make Us More Useful to Society!’: The Scandinavian Design Students’ Organization (SDO) and Socially Responsible Design, 1967–1973” in Design and Culture, DOI: 10.1080/17547075.2016.1223363

  10. Statsarkivet i Oslo, A-10583 Statens Håndverks- og Kunstindustriskole, 02/Da - 0177

  11. «Program för Design-seminarium i Herning augusti 1973», preliminary program passed at the annual rectors’ meeting in 1972. Statsarkivet i Oslo, A-10583 Statens Håndverks- og Kunstindustriskole, 02/Da - 0177

  12. This was expressed to an even greater extent at the SDO seminars, and according to Kerstin Wickman, the strong student opinion did to a great extent influence the Swedish governmental report on Konstfack’s education, which was instituted in 1967. Wickman, ”Industridesign” 287-290.

  13. «Program för Design-seminarium i Herning augusti 1973», preliminary program passed at the annual rectors’ meeting in 1972. Statsarkivet i Oslo, A-10583 Statens Håndverks- og Kunstindustriskole, 02/Da - 0177

  14. Ibid.

  15. Jonathan M. Woodham, Twentieth Century Design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) 65-66

  16. Runar Børresen, «De nordiske kunsthåndverk- og kunstindustriskolers felles årlige rektormøte», Statsarkivet Bergen, Arkivet etter Bergen Kunsthåndverkerskole,  Da 24.

  17. Ibid.