Ensembl sat down with Sativa Turner, award winning industrial designer and consultant to KonMari Media, to discuss sustainability, organization, and mindfulness in the spaces we call home, and why we should seek-out products with integrity.
Sativa Turner is an award-winning industrial designer with over 15 years of experience designing consumer products. Sativa has worked as a consultant for Marie Kondo’s lifestyle brand, KonMari Media, founded two product design companies building design-forward home and children’s products, and designed homewares as a product designer for Umbra. She graduated from Stanford in 2001 and calls the Bay Area home.
our conversation with sativa.
kate (ensembl) – We’ve been talking a lot about sustainability and what sustainability means, especially as a consumer. What does “sustainability” mean to you? Is “sustainable consumerism” possible an oxymoron?
sativa – Sustainability, to me, means how quickly we can get to a net zero. In the way that I live my life and the work that I do, my thoughts are always looking at how close can we get, how good of a job can we do, to make it so we’re getting back to zero. Big questions to ask are: If we’re putting stuff out in to the world, how well can it be absorbed? If we’re taking stuff out, how well can it be replenished? The goal is always to get as close to net zero as possible.
I think a lot about sustainable consumerism. Because I work to create physical products, I have a very love-hate relationship with consumerism. But I do think it’s possible to make consumerism sustainable. Although it requires a completely different economical model. To that end, I’m very intrigued by the sharing economy and how that has been growing. I think the sharing economy might be one way in which we can get closer to sustainable consumerism.
I think it takes a lot of things to make consumerism sustainable, and I don’t think we’re seeing everything yet. There has been a big shift in the last 10 years, and I think there is a powerful voice that is coming from consumers that will drive us to be more sustainable and think more about sustainability. There is something that is happening and I’m hopeful that we’re at the early stages of a major shift. I’m hopeful there will be more changes to come.
But at the end of the day people will continue to buy. And it’s important to remember that getting to zero requires everyone to be on board, and that people are in different stages of their journey as consumers. This is especially true in the developing parts of the world where the opportunity to be a consumer is still new. The mindset is to buy more and more simply because you can. I think we have to think about sustainable consumerism as an all-encompassing global issue.
kate (ensembl) – You’ve touched on something really interesting here. You’re absolutely correct to say that being a sustainable consumer is still a new concept to many people. If there is a gap that exists between consumerism and sustainable consumerism, what is that gap?
sativa - I think this gets to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It depends where you’re at in the pyramid. If you’re on the bottom, then being a consumer is about what you need to survive. As you go up the pyramid there is more room to include things with meaning - more room for emotion and connection, health, and mindfulness. Once you have your basic needs met you can start to think about the meaning behind the products you choose to buy. Getting to a place where you can appreciate the meaning behind a purchase allows you to think about sustainability when you consume. And it’s unfair to think someone should already be thinking about purchases on that level if they are lower in that pyramid.
kate (ensembl) – As people reach a state where they can be more conscious when consuming, what are they thinking about when they contemplate a purchase? What do they specifically look for in the products they bring home?
sativa – I think the key here is that state of mindfulness. People are really starting to ask questions. It’s about being less impulsive and less reactionary. We’re asking: what do I want in my life? What do I need in my life? What is the value proposition of this product? Is this product really going to provide something to me within the broader context of the things that I want? We’re not just thinking about what do I need from this product today or tomorrow, but we’re looking at longevity. What do I want my life to look like in one year, five years, ten years from now, and is this product supporting my goal? We’re starting to ask more questions.
There is a reward with asking all the questions and making that deliberate purchase. Because now when this product comes into your home, it’s a reminder that you’ve put thought into it and taken the time to consider the purchase. You’re more aware of how it is intended to help you better achieve your goals of happiness, contentment, and fulfillment.
kate (ensembl) – That resonates so much with me, and definitely something I’m trying to do before deciding to buy anything new. However, I must to admit that my home is also filled with things that have not been so thoughtfully contemplated, and it can be a challenge to organize (even the most thoughtful of purchases). In your opinion, are there common themes to the struggles people must overcome when they organize their spaces? What challenges are present when they try to maintain that level of organization?
sativa – This really makes me think back to my work at KonMari, as it was so fascinating to understand the individual user behavior around organization at home. Being organized starts with having a manageable amount of stuff – that is really the key. From there, it’s important to have your stuff organized in a way that allows you to know what you have.
If we look at the actual organization of our things, there is a huge need for education. Method and processes are particularly important – this is why Marie Kondo has done so well, as she introduced the world to both a method and process they could follow.
For example, you can go to container to buy a bunch of containers, but without a method or process to maintain that organization, the concept of storing things in containers falls apart as soon as you acquire more things. First you need more containers, then you need more space for the containers – it becomes this never-ending struggle.
Part of home maintenance is about developing the right mindset. If you think of your home as a relationship, something that requires regular maintenance, regular check-ins - like how is my space, am I happy with my space - it will be easier to keep your space organized. Being able to regularly look around your home, ask if you have too much stuff, are there things that you should part with, are there things that need a home – that is all part of checking in. By making this check in process part of your life, organization becomes part of your routine, rather than an insurmountable task.
It’s also important to know tips and trips that can help you fully organize your home. No one is supposed to automatically know the optimal way to organize a closet or drawer! But if they have access to clear information about best practices for these clutter-prone areas, they can take steps to implement the changes required to stay organized.
Right now, that information is not all in one place. People are trying to figure it out on their own and it’s a lot of work. People want to do something about it but don’t know how to do it. Like I said, there is a need for education – we’re still in the early stages seeing that take shape.
kate (ensembl) – Part of that education is definitely coming from Marie Kondo. In particular, I think her process has been easier for me to adopt because she focuses on selecting the things you want to keep, not forcing you to decide what to throw away.
sativa - That is definitely part of it, and really at the core of the powerful mind shift – thinking about what you want to keep instead of forcing yourself to decide what to part with.
However, organization is not just about the things we bring into our homes, it’s about the process for putting them away. Part of the process includes establishing a routine around organizing – being specific about when and how it happens. This allows cleaning and organizing to become part of a joyful routine.
kate (ensembl) – Do you have any suggestions for how to actually implement that process?
sativa - Create a routine. Know it’s something that must be done every night. Find a way to make it fun. It’s like Marie (Kondo’s) folding method. It becomes a ritual. It’s fun to do. It ends with this immensely gratifying, aesthetically driven pleasure of looking down and seeing your perfectly organized drawer. You are struck by the feeling of “Wow! That was fun to do!”. And that will fuel you to keep doing it.
Now bring that idea to the kitchen. It’s key to start with a manageable amount of things. Then, make sure everything has a place. This is the foundation. From there, create the ritual. Maybe you have a glass of wine. Maybe you put on music. Maybe you put on a diffuser. And you do it until its done, knowing that when it is done, you get to have that moment of gratification where you know your kitchen is clean. You’ve also now set the tone for the next morning, so you know when you wake up things will be tidy.
You need to know that when you don’t do it 100%, when you only put in a B+ effort, you won’t get that gratification. Part of the routine is understanding that it is an investment that pays off only when full contributions are made. It’s an investment in your future wellbeing. Putting in that effort will make you feel better the next day, ready to tackle what’s next in your life.
kate (ensembl) - You mentioned that at the core of this process is the foundation of finding a place for everything that you own. But if you’re living in a smaller space – aka anyone in downtown SF, NYC, Toronto, or any major city for that matter – it can be a challenge to find that “place” for every object without significantly reducing the amount of things you own. How do you approach this struggle?
sativa – lf you approach this from the KonMari method, then you should think about what brings you joy and what you’re actually doing in your kitchen. What are the things that I cook that bring me joy? Do I have products that I only use once a year? Does that dish bring me joy? Be honest with yourself. Maybe you have a popcorn machine so you can pop popcorn for your friends – but do you actually like popcorn? Are you holding on to it for them or for you? Does it really bring you joy? The goal should be to pair-down products to keep only those that spark joy (or those that spark the most joy). From there, look at creative methods of storage and ways of maximizing the storage you have. Thinking about drawer organizers, the magnetic spice racks on the wall, making use of wall space and stacking shelves, making use of the vertical space.
Also look at collections of things, like tea and spices. These are things that take up lots of space, but they also lose their flavor after a year! Can you have less? Smaller quantities?
Also try to separate the idea of what you think is “necessary” versus what sparks joy. Does a wide variety of spices in your cupboard spark joy? Or do you think it’s necessary to have that variety? The same goes to products – do I use this enough to make it worthwhile, or is having it playing into an idea that I should have this range of products in order to show that I can cook.
Also think about functionality. I’ve recently paired down my small appliances so that we only have three. Look for products that consolidate functionality in the kitchen. New companies are doing this, and I think that is a really exciting development. Knowing about and adopting multifunctional, space-saving product solutions is really important, especially when you are trying to maximize space.
kate (ensembl) – A big part of the organization process is about figuring out what sparks joy; that’s something that is totally subjective. Is there a way to objectively define what make a product “right”?
sativa – I look for things like quality, longevity, durability – I call this product integrity. Each factor is really important. And people are generally placing more value on these factors. It means a lot to people now, more than before. Perhaps because it speaks to the product’s staying power, and they are willing to pay more for something that will be in their lives for a long time.
There are certain items I have previously bought over and over - like non-stick pans. I’ve bought so many and had to throw out so many. The chipping of the coating, something that is guaranteed to happen, quickly renders the pan useless. I’m done with products that are made that way.
I also look at product functionality, but think that design is important to consider here. When it comes to products that are purchased for their functionality, their corresponding design should be simple or timeless, so they can live in someone’s home for many years, grow with a person, grow with a family, and still always fit that home without looking outdated.
I look for products made with parts that are upgradable or parts can be replaced – that way if there is part of the product that fails – something that is bound to happen with wear and tear - you don’t need to buy an entirely new product, you can simply have that part replaced. I really do want all my products to have lifetime guarantees, and think we should be comfortable spending more to find those products. It means so much, particularly from a sustainability perspective.
I think all these ideas speak to a mindfulness that goes into product development. All these parts come together to create a product of integrity.
kate (ensembl) - If we step back from the integrity element, let’s talk about aesthetic design. As per your own design philosophy, what are a few things people should look food in the products they buy?
sativa - When I’m designing products, I try to let the functionality lead; form should always follow function. I try to make sure every feature added has a functionality aspect. I try to keep things simple. I try to stick to one material so that the product can be recycled easily. I also try to stay away from plastics and tend to look for elemental materials.
When I’m buying products, in addition to focusing on the integrity we talked about, I look at the aesthetic element. I look for simplicity. I look for functionality. I look for workmanship. I like when the functionality is subtle – a very specific and effective functionality that offers an intuitive user experience.
At home, I also like products that feel artistic in a certain way. Lately I’ve been gravitating to custom or bespoke items. I will try to make furniture myself or have a carpenter help me. There are so many things that you can have made. It lets you get exactly what you want and brings a deeper connection to the item. All of this makes it easier to know I’ve invested in an item that I'll have and be happy with for a long time.
kate (ensembl) - Back to sustainability, and back to your comment on the sharing economy. You mentioned you were interested in the impact of the sharing economy as part of a broader shift towards achieving sustainability. Do you think this shift (alone or with other factors) is having or will have an impact on product design?
sativa - I’m not sure if the shift has happened yet, but I think it is coming. If we look at the major economic shifts that have happened over the last few centuries, we can see how those shifts have impacted the way products are made. When these shifts happen, there is a new technology that impacts the way people move, communicate, and live. Think about the changes the world has experienced because of steam, because of coal, because of oil. I think the sharing economy has the ability to change the way we move, communicate and live, just as much if not more. And as a result, it has the ability to change products we use. It has the legs to completely change the way things are being done. It’s an economic revolution but it is also going to have profound social consequences.
How far could that go? Could it change the way the way we live and our relationship to the products we have? It’s fascinating to think that, in the future, we could rethink our personal vs communal space. For example, what if kitchens became communal spaces in a high-rise? What would that look like? How would that impact the way we consumed food? Would we share ingredients? Could we reduce food waste? Would we share tools?
Like I said, I think we’re at the beginning of a shift, so it’s too soon to tell. But something is happening, and it’s interesting to contemplate.
some of our favourite products from Sativa:
"Joey" - kitchen caddy for Umbra.
"SipSnap" transforms everyday drink ware to spill-proof sipping cups.
"Flybary" floating bookshelf for Umbra
how do you come together? (dinner party repertoire with sativa turner.)
prelude: what gets done in advance?
The goal is always to prepare food, as much as possible, ahead of time. I like to have a nice pretty appetizer that I can pull of the fridge. I like to make sure my house is really clean and tidy – that’s the magic! But of course, I like to make it look like it was no big deal! I guess the goal is to make sure I’ve cleaned and prepped so that everything can look like it was effortless, even though all that prep is definitely a lot of work.
outset: how does the night start?
A nice spread of charcuterie – cheese and charcuterie. A pretty cutting board – if you add a few rarities, like a nice pate or quince paste, it really takes it to the next level. And always cocktails. I love making cocktails! If it’s a lot of people I’ll do a pitcher – something I can make in a big batch. If I’m hosting a more intimate party I’ll make individual drinks. Usually I try to keep these fast and simple, like a gin and Germaine; or bourbon, Aperol, and grapefruit juice. I always try to do fresh squeezed juice; it seems tedious, but it makes each cocktail feel like it’s the most incredible thing you’ve ever had to drink.
piece de resistance: what are you serving, how are you serving it?
It’s not always formal but I’ll usually plate before serving. My go to is fresh fish; a really nice piece. Some kind of rice, and then a seasonal vegetable or salad.
night cap: what marks the end of a good night?
Scotch and whiskey! The end of the night is always about devolving into laughter. You’re a little drunk, it’s getting late, everything becomes incredibly funny and silly. To me, that’s the marker of a good night.
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