Interview with Izabela Gola on ECO Solidarity

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©ECO Solidarity 2023 designers team. Courtesy of Dalia Stoniene and WantedDesign

Izabela Gola is an artist, curator of visual arts and design, and climate activist through her cultural programs. She was born in Poland and her background is visual arts, art history, and interior design. She came to the US to study art, and graduated with an MFA Degree from Hunter College in New York. She joined the Polish Cultural Institute New York in 2016 and has collaborated with Wanted Design since 2017. Her own art practice is multidisciplinary and she says this approach is important also in her curatorial capacity. She investigates structures of memory and identity as mediated through porcelain sculpture, video, and installation art. She also co-hosts a podcast called I Art New York on Radio Free Brooklyn.

Since the pandemic her ceramic studio practice is on hiatus and she sees her principle creative activity now promoting, as a curator, artists and designers that address human health, wellbeing, the environment, and human rights—I came to realize that in a time when we are facing wars around the globe, extreme humanitarian crises, and climate emergencies, the role of cultural diplomacy is essential to address the needs of the next millennium, she says.

What is WantedDesign and how do they figure in the ICFF (International Contemporary Furniture Fair) design fair 2023 at the Javits Center?

WantedDesign is a platform founded by designers Odile Hainaut and Claire Pijoulat in 2011 that showcases international and local design talent throughout the year, featuring innovative international designers, design schools, and North American design studios. Since 2020 they have been co-locating with the International Contemporary Furniture Fair at the Javits Center in May.

What is ECO Solidarity, and what is your role in it?

The name ECO Solidarity comes from the original Solidarity movement in Poland. We are bringing together experts in product design, industrial design, and special planning, echoing the social and political movement. It drew from professionals in politics, law, academia, independent trade unions, doctors, students, even the church. It had one goal:-the overthrow and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. 2020 marked the 40th anniversary of this movement. As with the original movement, ECO Solidarity is bringing together many different disciplines into one democratic movement that focuses on bringing change and upending the status quo.

The idea for ECO Solidarity came out of the pandemic. I initiated this project in 2020 with Odile Hainaut, my co-curator at WantedDesign Manhattan, at the outbreak of the pandemic when the world was in a state of emergency and confusion.

©”Circula” by Tomek Rygalik. Edward Murrow Park in Washington DC 2021. Courtesy of Golden Triangle BID.

We had an idea to create a design project focused on ecology and climate change for the WantedDesign and ICFF fair for May 2020 that would foster conversations and solutions around new methods of implementation around sustainability. In January 2020, I invited Polish designer Tomek Rygalik, founder of Studio Rygalik to the conversation. The focus was on waste management and recyclable plastics, comparing different methods for implementation and design. Five months later Tomek proposed and executed a public furniture piece and conceptual sculpture entitled “Circula” (2020-2021), which became the first design object in response to ECO Solidarity. In 2021 Circula was brought over from Poland. It has been on public view at Edward Murrow Park near White House in Washington DC (Golden Triangle BID space) and will soon be exhibited at WantedDesign Manhattan, and then Industry City in Brooklyn in May. Tomek was also looking at how design studios source materials, such as whether for ecological reasons to use renewable sources like wood or recycled plastic.

So, we had this dialectical conversation around the most sustainable materials for interior design production. Then the pandemic happened, so instead of a fair, we had two online panel discussions in WantedDesign CLOSE UP in 2020.

From these conversations revolving around sustainability and circularity, ECO Solidarity emerged. Having an idea for a project that would activate a larger discussion around these issues, I brought in the European Union National Institutes for Culture organization in New York (EUNIC), with funding from the EUNIC Global Cluster Grant from the EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. EUNIC is a European network of organizations engaging in cultural and diplomatic relations around the world. EUNIC has clusters throughout the regions of its constituent countries, and offices of 23 different countries in New York. Engaging eight partners at EUNIC NYC Cluster in the spring of 2020, ECO Solidarity became a platform to share knowledge on sustainability and ecological concerns through cultural programming online. For the second edition of the WantedDesign and ICFF fair. In 2021, I invited a few countries from EUNIC NYC Cluster.

This year, we partnered with ten New York-based EUNIC institutions, which brought a diverse group of designers and architects and the finalists are: Archibald Godts and Theresa Bastek, Studio Plastique (Wallonie-Bruxelles) ; Filip Mirbauer, Balance is Motion (Czech Republic); Dorian Cani, Luise Leon Elbern, Ole Meergans, Katrin Schubert, Edda Zickert, COLLCOLL (Germany); Aušra Česnauskytė and Goda Verikaitė, Neo-futuristic Walks (Lithuania); Kamila Szatanowska and Paulina Rogalska, FALA Architektura (Poland); Pepe Peralta Guerrero, FOR (Romania); Otto Nagy, Terratico (Slovakia); Angel Mombiedro, Armombiedro Studio (Spain); with a special guest, Victoria Yakusha, FAINA Design from Ukraine, supported by EUNIC new full member, the Ukrainian Institute of America (UIA). Last year the UIA joined even though they are not part of the EU. With partners at EUNIC, UIA , and IAM in Warsaw, we are sharing their participation costs out of solidarity, again echoing the democratic movement Solidarity.

ECO Solidarity brings this cultural conversation to a commercial fair, presenting ideas, not alluring products, and emphasizing those ideas through the products that redefine our relationship with nature and communities. The point is to change our consciousnesses, and to educate. We focus on young international designers for that reason. Most of them are coming to New York for the first time, to make contacts, and to develop their studio practice.

What will be ECO Solidarity’s program at the ICFF + WantedDesign Manhattan fair at the Javits Center May 21-23, 2023?

For this year, along with my co-curator Odile Hainaut, the founder and co-director of WantedDesign, it is important to us, to raise the question of how to redefine the role of architects and designers to create those safe, sustainable, public spaces, given the environmental devastation of war. In these spaces the refugees can feel part of the action and not just remain victims without a home. It is important to have Ukraine involved because this year the focus is on ethics in design for recuperation and reconstruction, design that can resist the devastation brought on by military activity.

The core of the program will be the booth exhibit showcasing nine EU designers and two panel discussions. The first will be on Sunday, May 21st at 11 am. That will be focusing on the overarching ethical themes surrounding design The second will be on Tuesday, May 23rd, at 11 am. That one will focus on materials and form hands-on methods for implementing sustainable materials in design projects. We need the ethical framework, but we need the down-to-earth techniques for those governing concepts into practice.

©”CARE” 2023 for ECO Solidarity. FALA Architektura. Courtesy of Kamila Szatanowska and Paulina Rogalska

FALA Architektura is an architecture studio based in Gdańsk, Poland founded in 2018 by two visionary architects, Kamila Szatanowska and Paulina Rogalska. Their interest is in holistic design in the context of climate change, as well as reconstructing urban public spaces subjected to demolition and natural habitats damaged by anthropocentric activity. A vital part of FALA’s practice is intersectional workshops which activate multisensory perception of public urban and natural environments often engaging vision or hearing impaired participants.

For the ECO Solidarity exhibit at Javits, FALA will present the CARE installation relating to their ongoing Zawiszy Tenement apartment refurbishment, an architectural project at a historical, pre-war building from 1905 in Gdańsk in which they re-sue material from the demolition.

This year we are taking ECO Solidarity outside of the Javits center. We are organizing city walks that have the spirit of city inspections, and in some cases analysis. The architects and designers will be conducting these two walks. On May 22nd, FALA will be conducting the first at 11 am, and then Neo-Futuristic, which is the name of a design group, will conduct another walk at 2 pm about how water is implemented in the infrastructure of the city.

©Neo-Futuristic Walks (Lithuania). Courtesy of Aušra Česnauskytė and Goda Verikaitė.

What themes will ECO Solidarity be exploring at the ICFF + WantedDesign Manhattan 2023?

There will be two themes this year that each designer will investigate in their own voice. The first is a focus on green materials, including preventative methods, and research–durability, circularity or recycling waste, carbon neutral or low emission products that improve human and natural habitats. The second is ethics, more on the conceptual side, addressing the discourse around design and architecture, what I was talking about before: reconstruction, recuperation, and healing.

The process for selecting the participating designers has been as follows: each country’s EUNIC institution does open calls and nominates 2-3 designers based on the criteria that I and co-curator Odile Hainaut of WantedDesign establish. Odile brought experts from the design field in New York into an advisory committee, that is, a jury for selecting the participating designers. The advisors also mentor the fair participants and bring them into contact with networks within New York for relationships that last beyond the project timeline. This year, each country made three to four nominations, and each advisory member made a ranking of their preferred candidate from each country, with comments. The winners will participate in the fair.

© Balance is Motion (Czech Republic). Courtesy of Eliška Novák Knotková.

One of them, Balance is Motion, from the Czech Republic has a great practice that I really connected with. They look at small organisms in inhospitable environments that gradually transform them into habitats where the organisms can thrive. We are talking about insects or bacteria. Based on their studies, they built a system of modules for constructing asylum centers, temporary spaces for education, for convening and relaxation for people of all ages to feel more empowered in the community. They have progressive ideas about building refugee camps for populations affected by natural disasters or war. I really like their method of moving from the micro to the macro, looking at how the smallest adapt to hostile environments to create ideas for how to create resilience among impacted populations so that they can persevere in adverse conditions that are dire.

© ARMOMBIEDRO STUDIO (Spain). Puzzle from salvaged materials from Fifth Ave building.

Taking the concepts out of the conventional frame of exhibit space and implementing them in site specific actions outside of the venue is very important this year. For example, the Spanish designer, Angel Mombiedro, Armombiedro Studio (Spain)who is consulting for a big NGO that is demolishing a big building on 5th Avenue near MOMA, brought a very relevant concept to the project. We were at first skeptical because he makes stainless steel furniture which is energy intensive. However, in this case of the 5th avenue building, he took the granite and limestone from the demolition because he had been thinking increasingly about how much material is wasted during the redesign and rebuilding of skyscrapers. He has begun making public furniture out of the reclaimed stone at a studio in Upstate New York in the shape of puzzle pieces that will be donated to a fundraiser for Ukraine and displaced refugees. He will be activating these puzzle pieces into a kind of game at the Javits fair. The point is that he now wants to work with materials extracted from big industrial waste because his thinking has shifted on sustainability of materials. This is one example of how the fair is not just for showcasing products that are sustainable. It is really about a movement that changes the status quo and ways of thinking.

This pushes the thinking in the ethical direction of reuse, recycle, and repurpose, right?

Absolutely, especially considering the Paris Agreement in COP 21 in 2015, and the sustainable goals in that agreement. Using those goals as a springboard, we applied for and received a grant from the EUNIC Global in two consecutive years. This year we received 5,000 Euros more from the EUINIC Cluster grant. Thanks to this grant, we can cover the costs of our booth at the fair, 200 square feet, and help the individual designers whose costs are not covered by their sponsoring EUNIC agencies, who have small budgets.

It’s not just about presenting products, but that it is first thinking about available resources to then arrive at esthetically alluring form and objects. This is a very commercial fair, and everyone is focused on aesthetics. We invert the focus—we talk about esthetics through ethics.

©Studio Plastique (Belgium). Vases from repurposed industrial waste glass. Courtesy of Theresa Bastek.

To give an example, one studio is working with glass waste. Outside of big industrial glass manufacturing plants, there are tons of glass waste. Studio Plastique based in Brussels,Belgium is extracting glassware from ovens, microwaves, and cables, which use a lot of glass. They create objects of common household use, such as vases and glass tiles from the glass they recover from the industrial waste. It Is challenging for large industries to reuse the waste they produce. There are these shortcomings that the big industries have yet to address even with the deadlines coming in 2025 to reduce greenhouse gasses to keep global warming within the 1.5-degree Celsius range. That’s why it is important to bring in young designers, who are much more focused on sustainability and resilience, because these are baked into their thinking.

The focus of ECO Solidarity is human well-being: health, sustainable habitats for humans, infrastructures in which we can safely function and be productive. Out of those ethical concerns, the best ecological solutions can take shape.

Izabela Gola. Curator of Visual Arts and Design at the Polish Cultural Institute New York. Photo by Jonny Turton