It is no news that a product's life cycle can strongly impact the environment, starting from design and moving through production to end-of-life disposal. Baillie Mishler and Lauryn Menard are active champions of circularity criteria (from materials to targeted production processes) deployed by designers to change how they think about and produce new objects. Additionally, with a targeted strategy, companies can now define – a priori – a long-term framework aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of their products throughout their life cycles.
"Is sustainability a perfect science? No, but we can continue to question everything to make progress..."
'Exposure Therapy', PROWL's debut collection, recently launched during the last Milan Design Week, is the manifesto of this new way of thinking about design. The furniture collection – whose every component is recyclable - is based on the destructive and regenerative cycle of the tragedy of the California wildfires transformed into a resource.
While we are waiting to discover the winners from among the over 800 products submitted for the Archiproducts Design Awards 2022, we spoke with the founders of PROWL about regenerative processes, design and sustainability.
Exposure Therapy, Milan Design Week 2022.
Interview with PROWL Studio
Let's start with the name of the firm: PROWL. What does it mean and how does it represent your approach to design?
If you look the word ‘PROWL’ up in the dictionary, you will find it defined as: “To move about or wander in or as if in search of something. To rove over or through in search of what may be found.” Our services enable our clients to focus on and prioritize the larger systemic goals that matter most to them, plot the path of action they need to take to get there, and assist in the execution of these plans to realize their long-term vision of their future. In other words, we are always hunting, whether that be for new materials, for answers, or for experts to collaborate with. In what we do, there is always something to be discovered and uncovered.
How did you meet and when did you decide to found PROWL?
We met nearly a decade ago while working in the design studio at Coalesse. We instantly hit it off as friends and colleagues. After we left that studio and went off to do other things, we found ourselves talking about and dreaming about starting a woman-run and mission-driven studio. During the pandemic, as the industry and consumers started shifting their priorities to become more value-driven, we knew it was time.
What is PROWL's calling and mission?
Our main objective is to bridge the gap between industrial design and manufacturing and the regenerative future. We create new solutions - or challenge existing ones - for people and the planet by employing materials, processes, and technology responsibility. The outcomes of our research-forward, values-driven, optimism-saturated process empower our clients to shape tomorrow’s life for the better. We are moved beyond measure to help restore this planet we inhabit through our gifts and the expertise we’ve gathered through our careers in the design industry.
Tell us a little about your personal experience. When and how did your passion for sustainability and environmental protection arise?
These were similar but different journeys for each of us:
Lauryn: I grew up in the Adirondack mountains. Living so close to nature and far from any city life engrained care for the planet in me as a priority from a young age. I went on to study at RPI where I dug deeper into this thinking in their school of Science, Technology, and Society. Ever since then, sustainability has remained a constant in every job, company, and endeavor I have taken part in. It’s a way of thinking and working that, once you go that way, you can’t look back.
Baillie: Like Lauryn, I also had a bucolic, nature-centered upbringing but in central Pennsylvania.
My childhood was a tangle of nature, the arts, and entrepreneurship overlaid with the drive to ‘do good’, which has had different definitions throughout my life. I found industrial design only when getting to college, and fell in love immediately with its problem solving ethos and the ability to reach many people with my talents and growing skills through this profession. I felt an undeniable pull to ‘do something’ - something helpful in big ways - which at the time felt in contrast to my developed passion for furniture and the built environment. This resulted in a dichotomy - a focus on the homeless community for my senior thesis and the launch of my near decade long career in contract furniture design, both important but still separate fixtures in my path to now.
Fast forward, the climate crisis is impossible to ignore, and that calling to do something beyond myself returned in full force when Lauryn and I got deeper in our working and professional relationship. We began imagining a future where we could marry our skills, expertise, and passions with a fight for a better reality for people and this hurting planet, a fight to protect the places we grew up, for everyone.
Baillie Mishler and Lauryn Menard, Founder @PROWL Studio.
A character, book, or encounter that has shaped your career path.
Lauryn: I started going to the Biofabricate conference at its inception back in 2015. Suzanne Lee and all of the presenters at that event really changed my life. They are true pioneers that have paved a path for creatives who are navigating how they can participate in the incredible new innovations coming from the world of biology. I really believe that the Biofabricate group has triggered the next manufacturing revolution.
Baillie: It is hard to point to one singular instance that brought me to today - our journeys are a collection of moments both big and small after all. A few that come to mind: wonderful mentors including Robert Arko who helped me understand the commercial furniture industry throughout college, leading to my roles at Coalesse, Steelcase, and studio b; moving to California, where not only did my love for nature deepen, but I was exposed to new thought, technologies, ways of working, progressive policies and infrastructure, and the entrepreneurial spirit; and meeting Lauryn and eventually joining her on this incredible endeavor.
Do you think there is a universal definition of sustainability? What requirements must a product have today to be considered truly sustainable?
Part of the issue right now is that there is no standard in the product world. Many many new sustainability certifications are popping up faster than companies can even keep up with; most of these certifications are privately-owned and hinder innovation more than they are helping.
When we are assessing existing products or objects that we are working on, we ask ourselves two simple questions:What materials were extracted from the Earth to create this product? What damage has this extraction cost the Earth? Does this product have a game plan for the end of its life? Can it be disassembled and returned to the Earth or back into the manufacturing cycle easily?
Based on these answers, we can paint a pretty holistic picture of the impact that a product has had or will have during its lifetime. Is this a perfect science? No, but we will continue to question everything in order to make progress.
More on sustainability. Is it a fad, an urgency, or a not-to-be-wasted opportunity?
The word ‘sustainability’ has become the descriptor for so many things that it has almost lost its meaning. Within the context of the environment, “sustainability” is the capacity to endure in a relatively ongoing way across various domains of life. This suggests two things: 1. that we are aspiring to simply meet our needs and 2. that how we currently meet our needs is something that we are looking to sustain.
We all know that if we tell everyone the party starts at 7:00, they will all show up closer to 8:00. Why would we expect anything different when it comes to changing our behavior as it pertains to the environment?
As a studio, we are proposing an alternative aspirational descriptor that we are actively using within our work…'Regenerative'. Maybe if we shoot for a regenerative future, we will land somewhere beyond a sustainable one — a future that gives back to the Earth that supports us.
What do you think the role of design is today?
Lauryn: To work on projects that are pushing the world in the right direction. There is just so much that we simply do not need more of. As natural problem-solvers, we have the opportunity to shape the future. We should be using this privilege to do good.
Baillie: The marriage of science and art has never been more important than it is right now. Design sits at that intersection. As Lauryn said, we are problem solvers, and we’ve been trained to navigate ambiguity, we translate complexity into digestible forms, and we are storytellers and communicators. Design is here to help in this journey through this entanglement we’ve created for ourselves.
Is there a project that you are particularly fond of? Tell us about it.
Our studio works on a lot of exciting projects - right now about 70% client led and 30% internal investigations and research efforts - with outcomes manifesting in a variety of forms : products, interiors, environments, experiences, and strategies for industries like automotive to furniture to material development. Our client projects and helping them have impact that is right fit for their business is core for PROWL. Many of these are still hush-hush, so what we would love to highlight are some of our exhibitions of late or upcoming. In these instances we are collaborating with partners - technology, materials, thought leaders - to tell a story about what we want to see in this regenerative world and developing case studies to prove it is possible. For our "Exposure Therapy" collection shown at Alcova during Milan Design Week, we told a story about destruction but later about the re-growth of fires through patterns and textures on a circular lounge collection in collaboration with ByBorre. During Art Basel Miami 2022, in collaboration with Model No., we showed a dining setting that uses what would have been a waste during the production process to tell a story of waste-free creation. And finally, in the spring, we will challenge the expectations of the things we buy and how long they should reasonably last by presenting compostable furniture in tandem with M4 Factory at Alcova 2023.
Despite the awareness of the climate disaster we are experiencing, people often continue to design as if the climate emergency did not exist. What issues should the design world focus on? And what points necessarily need to be reimagined to bridge the gap between industrial design? and regenerative futures?
Lauryn: As designers, we are experts in the built environment and the manipulation of materials. There is an opportunity here to focus our existing passion and knowledge on this subject to make a huge difference because – the climate disaster is largely due to our overindulgence in unhealthy material goods.
As mentioned before, there are certain comforts that we just don’t need more of. We can survive without another PLA stacking chair or single-use anything, really. Instead, we need to be 1. Finding interesting and innovative ways to redirect the waste materials we have already put into the world and created, extending their life cycle and diverting them from landfills and 2. Collaborating with the material science world to implement healthier alternatives to conventional, toxic materials. With these two strategies side by side, we can go far.
Baillie: While ‘human-centered’ design is important to apply, it has gone too far in conveniencing only our species. We have been earth’s beneficiaries to its own detriment. Our process is to reorient towards an ‘earth-centered’ process that considers our outputs holistically, for all things on this earth including people. Lauryn outlines two great tactile adoptions to apply to your practice.
What simple everyday actions can steer us toward a more sustainable future - not just in design?
Lauryn: For this, we will lean on the experts. We recommend The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac. You can’t go wrong.
Baillie: Less is more, and asking yourself ‘what will happen to this thing I am about to buy when I am ‘done’ with it?’ when shopping.