To Save the Planet Counter the Culture

Earlier this month O+A co-founder Verda Alexander sat down (via Zoom) with Senior Designer and graphic artist, Paulina McFarland to talk about activism in design. Both have been at the forefront of O+A’s commitment to raising awareness of climate change and social justice, Verda with projects like Food for Thought Truck and her new podcast “Break Some Dishes,” Paulina with her activist gazette Manifesto and new indie publishing company Standard Issue Press. If interior design can be a vehicle for radical change this is the kind of conversation that will need to happen all across our industry.

P: Okay cool. I thought it would be fun to do this as an interview because you’re in that medium of interviewing people now with Break Some Dishes. So my first question is obvious: what was the moment when you became interested in environmental action? What was the agent?

V: I am embarrassed to say the agent came really late. It was after the second or third year of really horrible fires in California. I had this pile of magazines—The New Yorker. The cover had this evocative photo of a swimming pool in LA with the hill blazing behind it with an equally evocative title: “How Extreme Weather is Shrinking the Planet”. I noticed the name of the author and thought why does this name sound familiar? This is so embarrassing—Bill McKibben, who wrote The End of Nature about 30 years ago. A friend of mine had loaned me the book and I felt terrible because I never returned it. And I never read it! (Laughs) I feel bad on both fronts. But all that came together and I read the article three times and it was like, oh my God, yes, climate change, I need to wake up. My dad is a soil scientist so we’ve always been maybe too environmental as kids and I kind of rebelled against that. I feel if you were an environmentalist before—say, ten years ago it sucked. Because nobody cared. I think it was just too gloomy to try at that point and I feel now there’s a momentum. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve jumped on the bandwagon, but I feel like the momentum is helping me feel like there’s something that can be done. And that I can do.

Pictured right: O+A Cofounder, Verda Alexander and Senior Designer, Paulina McFarland

P: So that was your awakening moment and then what was next?

V: What was next was you and Elizabeth and I got on a plane and we were all thinking oh,God, what about the carbon footprint of flying to London just for an award ceremony. But a trip to London—who could turn that down? It was at the Tate that I picked up this little pink book. It was the Extinction Rebellion’s manifesto and I read it cover to cover on the plane trip back. The minute I landed I signed up for the local chapter. I said, “I’m going to be an activist!”

P: Do you think designers can actually effect change?

V: (Sighs) Let’s hope so. I think we have to. And I think that this last year of the pandemic has shown us that the unthinkable can happen and that it’s right around the corner. Who knows what unthinkable thing is going to happen next? I believe there is a lot of momentum with corporations wanting to do the right thing, realizing that they can move the needle and that they can also influence government. And individuals are realizing that anything they do—recycling or whatever—makes a difference. We have to approach this from all angles. I feel like we don’t have a choice. I have to be hopeful to be able to wake up in the morning and get out of bed.

P: What do you think is the biggest hurdle in the design industry? Is it materials? Is it people’s unwillingness?

V:  What needs to change isn’t just we need to stop driving or stop emitting carbon into the atmosphere. We actually have to change this whole capitalistic, colonial mentality of take. Take, make, waste! We have to replace that with more circular thinking around regenerative systems and how do you thrive versus just take. I’ve been trying to think of how you build that in a business model when the business environment is still working within the profit system. But I really think that we have to move beyond that. I don’t know what that is. I don’t know what it is for O+A. How do you have a business where the model is not about profit?

Pictured above (left to right): Andrea Zittel’s shoes, Designer X Activist, Andrea Zittel’s home

Pictured left: Designer X Activist roundtable with Metropolis Magazine


P: You’re working on kind of the skeleton for that, right? Restructuring the business with environmental thought? Are you ready to give us a preview of what you’re doing?

V: Absolutely. I’m pushing a couple of agendas on different fronts. I’m trying to get B-Corp certified. I think it’s important for our firm to take a stand in terms of transparency. I’m looking at having some kind of internal pledge that I hope we can share. We’re also creating something called The Eco Playbook where we start to look at how we can rethink what we’re doing. Materials selection is an obvious one. We really need to get on board in terms of selecting materials that are not toxic, that are regenerative, and have less carbon footprint. We have a chapter that I’m really excited about on how we can design differently. It’s kind of funny, one of the team members said, “Oh my God! What are we going to do? O+A likes to pick a thousand finishes on every project!” This is about figuring out how to re-utilize as much as you can, designing with a more minimal aesthetic. Less is more. It’s a whole new way of thinking, especially for us. And probably for many other design firms.

P: So you’re working on a kind of O+A Manifesto?

V: Yeah. It’s a part three to our Toolkit for the Times.

P: Let’s talk about your podcast, Break Some Dishes. I think it’s great. I especially love your banter with Jon—and the really inappropriate comments. (Laughs). He’s always teasing you and you’re always like, “Oh, whatever.” I find it fascinating that you decided that podcast was a thing and you wanted to do it and you did. So tell me about what was the impetus to do broadcasting?

V: Never in a million years would I have imagined that I’d be doing a podcast. It all started over a year ago. Jon Strassner and I wanted to get together and do a talk that would be a road trip. We’d go to different showrooms that would sponsor this talk about what designers can do. Jon worked at Humanscale for over 20 years. And Humanscale is a very proactive company in terms of the environment and sustainability and circular economy. They’ve really been pushing that agenda and so Jon just traveled the world with these people and he learned so much about sustainability. We always come back to plastic. Seems like every episode we say the word “plastic” a couple dozen times. And now we’re always coming back to algae. (Laughs). Taking algae and turning it into something that was formerly made from fossil fuels. Like ink. Anyway we thought let’s interview somebody from HP who’s been innovating around packaging or this woman who runs The Lonely Whale Foundation who has all kinds of cool campaigns for reducing plastic use. Let’s learn from what these people are doing. That was the gist of it. It was going to be our traveling talk. And since we couldn’t do it—in March we realized we couldn’t do it, a couple months later Jon came to me and said, “Let’s turn it into a podcast.”

P: Do you have any dream guests that you’re thinking of? Al Gore?

V: Al Gore would be amazing! Greta Thunberg. It would be really interesting to have somebody from Biden’s administration, someone on their climate committee. Or somebody with the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Somebody like that.

P: I was going to ask you about that. There’s such backlash against that very basic reform. I think it’s a very achievable undertaking, the Green New Deal. What do you think personally? Does it have a chance to work?

V: My opinion is that Biden is going to push something similar to the Green New Deal. It’s just not going to be called the Green New Deal. I feel like it’s a GOP tactic to dilute some of these directives by just calling them socialist movements or radical or whatever when they’re really not. I think it’s going to be packaged up with a different bow. I’m hoping that a lot of elements from the Green New Deal get implemented in this administration. Crossing fingers.

P: Yes, we’re all hopeful. You’re writing policy now, which I find fascinating. How does that happen for someone who’s just entered activism and is just getting to know these issues??

V: I’m investigating. I did my first protest at a bank in February or early March right before we shut everything down and so I pivoted and joined Al Gore’s group called Climate Reality Project and I’m actually leading something called the Business Engagement Group. What we’re trying to do is get businesses, especially big ones like Google that could have a lot of impact to get into policy and to put their weight into building electrification or greenhouse gas emissions and things like that. So I’m getting my feet wet there and it’s been pretty interesting. I sat in on my first city council meeting. What you do is you start by looking at what legislation is already being proposed and you get familiar with your legislators and what they’ve been interested in in the past. Like Scott Weiner with that bill around housing near transportation hubs. You start to look for places where you can maybe get somebody behind a particular piece of legislation. Then our squads—we call them squads—our Swat Team tries to get an initiative on the ballot and we start to lobby and go to council meetings and testify and all of that. It’s been really interesting, but I have a lot to learn.

Pictured left: Verda Alexander and Jon Strassner (Break Some Dishes Podcast)

P: Do you see yourself pursuing this as a possible pivot in your career? I think when you start gaining political influence is when things start to move. It’s very different from being part of an action, especially over the long term when you keep turning out the same actions and nothing happens. The political arena is different because you’re actually getting to people, applying real pressure in a meaningful way.

V: I don’t think I’m getting into politics. Not yet. But I do have some dreams of looking at what type of legislation interior design firms could get behind. One of the people that we interviewed on our podcast was Lisa Conway from Interface Carpet. That company actually lobbied in California to mandate, that a certain amount of carpet be recycled out of every project. And in some ways that goes against their business model. It cost them money. But they thought it was important. I think more and more firms are doing that kind of thing, doing things that maybe make their work harder or cost more money, but it’s the right thing to do. I think it would be really cool to find some legislation that interior design firms could get behind and lobby for. I would be really into coordinating that type of effort.

P: What’s the biggest thing to do in California? What’s your red alarm issue?

V: There’s an interesting bill, one of the first of its kind, in Marin, I think, that is pushing for reducing the volume of carbon in concrete in new construction. There’s also building electrification.

P: What is that?

V: So basically it’s taking out heaters, hot water heaters, stoves, anything that is powered by gas and replacing them with electric appliances and then with new construction requiring everything to be electric. There are a lot of greenhouse gas emissions that come from buildings using gas-powered appliances. I don’t know if there’s one issue. I keep wondering if there could be a work from home policy related to getting cars off the road. Like maybe we mandate that every company that can allow some percentage of work from home to happen. Or something like that. I haven’t researched it well enough. You’re an activist. You ponder all this stuff. What do you think California could do?

P: Yeah. I guess it’s a silly question because we have so many issues, right? Everything is an issue and I sometimes think I’m hyperactive, having a hard time reconciling how many things need to be fixed.

Pictured: Andrea Zittel’s compound at Joshua Tree

V: I know plastic is a big thing for you.

P: I hate that I still get styrofoam, I still get plastic bags. I do believe that we have to be more aggressive and I do believe that our government should fine people and we should start implementing real radical solutions. I think everybody is too polite about it at a time when we are actually looking at extinction, right? We can no longer be apologetic and it can no longer be allowed. Financial loss is always something that makes people kind of scared. But I do think that we should take this seriously and just fine companies for emitting too much carbon. I think we should just move all of our money and assets and bank on electrifying everything. Green power should be our priority. I think we should stop fracking immediately. I think we should get rid of plastics. That’s where I’m at. But in California, you know, the wildfires—I think we’re facing the same issues as the rest of the world.

V: Yep. We could go on and on.

P: How is this changing your art? Are you having any time to do your art? Anything brewing?

V: You always ask such hard questions. No, but I have been thinking about how to merge my art practice with this whole new direction. This is definitely a new direction. I’m feeling it out and it’s taking up so much of my time I haven’t had time to do art. But I’ve been thinking a lot about how art connects to climate action. Don’t have any answers yet where that might go.

P: Who do you admire? Do you have any idols in this sphere?

V: Yes, I do. My go to person is Andrea Zittel. She’s an artist, not an activist per se, but what is cool about her story is that she doesn’t have to call herself anything other than artist, because she has embraced environmentalism as a way of life. It’s just her practice, art and life. Her A-Z living is about conscious living, thinking about what you use, what you consume, what you really need and how you live with fewer things. The first time she came on my radar was many years ago when she wore one outfit for an entire year.  I visited her compound in Joshua Tree a few years ago and everything in her home had a purpose, nothing was redundant.  Instead of salad plate, dinner plate, and bowl, and mug, she had just one all purpose ceramic vessel. I feel like we really need to start applying these values to our designs. I think it would be really interesting see what would that look like.

P: Cool.

Pictured left: Verda at Andrea Zittel’s compound at Joshua Tree and Andrea’s shoes