Small – A response to Resilient Systems & Sustainable Qualities by Ezio Manzini

For our third studio prompt we are to pick a paper, possibly assigned to us in another class and to produce a response for it. We are constantly reminded that we are designers and not to get stuck in the academic side too much but to also articulate the design portion of the response. On first glance this is all very easy for me.

The paper to choose was obvious to me, Resilient Systems & Sustainable Qualities by Ezio Manzini which was assigned to me in my Dialogues in Design class. I am already doing a presentation on this paper with another student as the content appeals directly to my interests: Sustainable, local, resilient, circular. And the opportunity to further examine it was exciting.

I had never heard of the author before but once I read his paper I began to listen to a lot of his talks realizing I have a great appreciation for a lot of what he researches and discusses.

I started with researching different definitions of small scale (producers) and found that, consistently the definition was poorly defined and highly context based. What is considered small scale in one area or region may be considered large scale in another. Although the definition remains elusive there are some commonalities that appear over and over:

-family operated

-limited full time or no full time employed staff

-physically small space, ie one hectare for a farm

-limited number of product that is likely highly specialized

-low savings rates due to high volatility

-general inability to set and control prices (prices impacted by larger producers)

-vulnerable to natural disasters, economic factors, operator illness

-some degree of focus on the home

So why with all the risk associate with small scale do people prefer to remain small scale? Is being small scale a choice or a necessity? What are the benefits to being small scale? Is there higher satisfaction? Is small scale more closely related to what our natural dispositions prefer?

From my experience as the owner and designer of what I consider to be a very small scale business I feel incredible life satisfaction from the challenges I face and the ability to overcome threats to my ability. Being a small scale designer and entrepreneur has required that I become flexible with my abilities, nimble with my stock and staff and exceptionally creative with my materials meaning by necessity we utilize every possible piece of viable material turning it into something that adds value to the customer and produce profit for the business. But do my experiences imply smaller is better or am I simply addicted to the adrenaline rush I get when I face and overcome obstacles that threaten to wash away all my hard work?

Photo by Annie Sprat

photo by Dann Mooj

Since I am interested in small in economic terms I think I will make something from the least distance possible with the most simplicity that is still useful, wearable (after all I am a clothing designer) and vital to a person’s benefits and that is a one of a kind item that would be sold as an artisanal product that is not only practical but holds artistic value as well. In order to qualify small as sustainable it must not only do as little harm to the environment as possible but illicit the highest price for sale as possible to ensure the financial stability of the producer. And how would one determine this price?

In consideration of what small means to the materials I use I must look around my own environment for what I would define as small. In this way I noticed I am very much equating ‘small’ with ‘local’. I have a lot of scrap materials from my lingerie production that are small in size but since the fabric is produced overseas it doesn’t really feel small to me in terms of space. Considering how much petroleum was burned for the energy to produce then ship the fabric to my location and how much raw bamboo and water was used to create the yarn the fabric was knit from. Next I think about upcycling or recycling materials but I am faced with the same dilemma. How far did this item travel? Although I am happy with using materials that already exist and would otherwise be wasted I don’t think they fully embody the idea of small though I might come back to them later out of curiosity and play.

So once I narrowed down my options the material with the smallest footprint I could find was the hair of my half angora rabbit Merlin. Merlin is about 11 years old and still as vibrant as either of my much younger rabbits. He is friendly and loves people. He lives in my backyard free to run and hide during the day and sleeps in the safety of his hutch with the other two at night. He can only grow hair so fast so I am extremely limited by his capacity and time and will ultimately be limited in extent of the end product by how much hair he has grown. I constantly groom, pluck and spin his hair into materials so working with his hair is nothing new to me but fits perfectly into the concept of small.

My first thought, upon suggestion by my instructor Cameron was to make a finger warmer. It seemed like the smallest artifact I could make that is wearable but the problem with this item is that it lacks the element of utility I require to explore small in the context of the market. The next thing I considered making was a touque which is clearly more useful, may contain a lot of beauty, holds value, and can be sold as a one of a kind object for the highest price possible to the right person. There is still much brainstorming to do and, although a torque seems like the most relevant item at the moment it is still not necessarily the best example of small. Unfortunately if I choose to use only Merlin’s hair for this project I may not even be able to spin enough for a touque.

One of the hardest things about choosing to use Merlin’s hair is that I have been saving it up for so long to complete this sweater I am knitting for myself but in order to get this project done I am going to have to use the last 6 months of hair as well as what I can pluck from him before winter.

Merlin post haircut. It’s terribly hard to take a still photo of this little guy because every time he sees me he runs at me. This was as still as I could get, even with live photos.

The first person I interviewed was an old friend of mine, Shoshana Berman. I met Shoshana in my Main Street store over 10 years ago. At the time she had just moved to the area and she was very interested in my business. Shortly after she started her own yarn store, Wool Is Not Enough which she actually launched in the front window of my store before upgrading to a kiosk, then a live/work loft and finally purchasing her own space on Commercial Drive before shutting down at the beginning of covid. Wool Is Not Enough was always a tiny shop.  She is also the co-owner of Little Big Workshop which is a props building company for the film industry. Little Big Workshop was initially financed with the money she made with her yarn store. She has a degree in chemistry, teaching and is a professionally trained chef. She made for the ideal interview candidate.

Shoshana emphasized the importance in all her businesses to be profitable. Her refusal to live for lean years, she attributes to keeping all her businesses very small. She talked about  the importance of businesses taking a “leap of faith” to grow.

After repeatedly bringing up the cost of being small and the necessity of a small business taking a leap of faith to grow I asked if she felt that small is a doomed position for a business. She responded that “every small business is on a finite timeline”. She asserted that when you are a small business everything becomes about you and it’s simply exhausting. There’s only so long a person can run like that before they close shop. She did agree that there should be a size that, a bit bigger than what we are calling small, might be sustainable.

She talked about the need for small businesses to piggyback big businesses, for example selling on Amazon’s platform, “If you can’t beat them you have to join them”. This was a disappointing statement to me since I loathe the idea of placing my products on Amazon marketplace but am willing to consider it a test to see if it would produce more profit for less work because ultimately that is what my small business needs in order to stay in business. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Use other people’s platforms.”

She did, however talk about how nimble small business can be and how being small allows you to do things in ways the big guys can’t do them. She listed a number of fascinating small projects such as a kid who financed his whole college experience off of a lemonade stand in Victoria and a woman Shoshana is friends with who lives off of making little origami shapes that she puts over tiny light bulbs on strings of lights that she sells for a massive markup. So small isn’t the end of the world but it certainly isn’t sounding like a solution in the direction of sustainability after this chat.

My next interview was with Andrew Gonzalas. I first met Andrew about 15 years ago over the internet when he owned and operated a boutique in Edmonton called Lucid Lifestyles. A few years later he closed down, moved to Vancouver and stumbled upon my store. He now runs a high quality cycling clothing company that uses eco-friendly materials and was one of the first to jump into making fabric masks when Covid hit. His mask making venture was extremely successful for about a year, allowing him to hire a few full time staff but it has since dramatically decreased. He hasn’t been able to hit the same success with his bike gear. 

In talking to Andrew the most notable thing was that it was very hard to get him to stick to the concept of small as far as the conversation went. He spoke constantly about growth and his interest in growth. He would like to get to a point, as he felt he was at during the high of his mask making business, where he feels that he and a few other people can comfortably live off of the income his business generates.

  He did talk a lot, though about the need to work with other people. “Some people try to open a business and mind their own business, good luck with that!” He said. He also  expressed that when you are a small business it means you have a lot of competition with other small businesses and the big businesses are always trying to crush you but this competition leads to you being better, not worse. It’s tough to compete but it’s clearly quite valuable. 

When asked if he is committed to the concept of growing and if he feels that small is doomed he insisted “ I want to be a more efficient business. Growing would be better, only at the pace that we can maintain our standards.” And, similarly, when asked how he justified growth in context of sustainability he said he feels he can do it better than the other guys. “The most sustainable thing is probably not making anything at all but I don’t want to go live in the woods and go all kumbaya so I have to be here and make enough money to live. I am going to run a better company than the other guys can.”

This lead to a discussion around why he hasn’t been able to enforce that growth he is looking for. Why is it still a seeking to which he responded “we’re not making the right products yet.” This was another very relatable conversation, especially in the last statement, “we’re not making the right products yet,” which I often feel is the case for my business and one of the main reasons I decided to go back to school; if the problem isn’t the products I am choosing to make than what is the problem and how do I change? Like my conversation with Shoshana, this conversation left me feeling stressed and doubtful about small business.

This project led to a lot of long walks by myself which is always a good way for me to process information, get in motion. After my first two conversations I was feeling pretty negative. Some great feedback I received from my instructor Cameron in this project and less directed to me personally from the instructor of my Research in Design class, Chris, was to make my thoughts visual. Since that seemed like such great feedback in both instances I made this:

I still think it’s great advice but in this case not quite as helpful as I had hoped. Maybe I am too focused on what’s wrong and not on what is right or what can be done.

My first ball of Merlin was now spun and had to be set. I do this by soaking it in hot hot water and allowing it to cool down. This opens up the tiny, microscopic fibers on each hair that will grab onto each other and keep the twist once they have cooled. The skein looks pretty bad while it is still wet. It will look fluffy and light once it has dried.

  The next part of my plan was to start making this whole experience a bit more public which meant social media. I have never been a big fan of social media. Most of what I see feels very narcissistic and, dare I say vulgar so I do the bare minimum when it comes to announcing what I am up to and I can see how that is a terrible problem for both me and my business. How do I intend to change people’s perceptions and buying habits if I am not going to create valuable channels of sharing. 

One of my biggest personal commitments I am really going to struggle with during school is facing the obligation to share my knowledge in accessible ways. As well as sharing my knowledge these channels give people an opportunity to give me direct feedback, ideas, inspiration and connection. Although I can appreciate the potential and the value of these platforms it has been tough to convince myself to follow through. It took me days to find an instagram handle that wasn’t taken and so far I have a profile photo up but intend to start pulling text and photos from what I have so far and start posting. 

My goal with my output is to share the journey and eventually to quantify the time it takes to make the tiny touque in retail value and offer the item for sale. My intuition tells me it will be a little too expensive for most people’s budgets.

My next interview was with Glencora Twigg. A former co-owner of Twigg & Hottie, a small boutique on Main Street, Glencora now works with a company called Fareware which makes eco-friendly promotional products for businesses. 

Glencora recently returned to school to get her Masters in business.

She is focusing on sustainability, has she has her whole career in fashion but remarked on how much she is learning being in the academic environment rather than doing her own freelance research as a small business owner. 

She talked about the vulnerabilities of small business and how there needs to be more reasonable financial support and that expecting a young mother to put her house on the line to take a risk and start a new venture is too much to ask of a person. 

She doesn’t see small as being doomed rather she sees small as getting smaller and new platforms such as online selling is allowing people to leave their jobs and launch something new.

Glencora did note, however that “[vancouver is] a deeply unequal city.” We are living with glaring double standards in opportunities that do not favor small business. With a focus on what municipal government can do to level the playing field not only for local players but for our involvement on an international scale Glencora is thinking big with change. This conversation made me very excited that I also have the opportunity to be in school right now to consider big solutions.

Irina Mackenzie was the ideal final interview for the Small project. Irina is the owner of Fabcycle, a textile shop that collects unused fabric donations and resells them to both amateurs and professionals. Unlike talking to Andrew Irina was very into the idea of small but she had a lot of trouble conceptualizing of small in isolation. Early on she talked about “being small but small together” referring to the power we have doing our own thing but in a collective rather than in isolation. Over the previous parts of this prompt I was feeling hopeless about small. Being a small business owner I was feeling the crushing inevitable demise of my own work but Irina reminded me of how important working with others is.

She did suggest small is vulnerable but recognized large also experiences vulnerabilities, often jus on a different scale. She emphasized the personal nature of small. She praised having the control over something small to make sustainable decisions, the ability to be uncompromising.

“Small is a mindset,” she pointed out. There is no defined scale to small. It’s simply relative to whatever one chooses to compare it to. In this way the struggles are often also produced by a mindset and therefore can be overcome the same way.

She wrapped up the conversation pointing out how much funding, support and access to grants there is for small businesses which was in stark contrast to what Shoshana and Andrew had expressed showing our different abilities and efforts will ultimately lead to our unique experiences. 

For Irina the smallest thing she could imagine designing is connection, networking two people together.

In conclusion I have been able to produce one skein of yarn so far but do not have enough yarn yet to knit a baby touque. I don’t see this as a failing but as emphasis on the difficulties that small in my field face. It implies we are often constrained by time, volume, capacity and availability. When we can’t resort to the open market to fill a void it brings into question what we are capable of creating. I will be finishing this touque as Merlin permits and I anticipate another 3 months before he produces enough hair to finish. 

I also experienced a lot of emotion through this project feeling for most of it that my business, my work was doomed. Ultimately, upon discussion, my final interview and reflection I think the biggest lesson here is that Small in isolation might in fact be doomed but when we are “small but small together” (Irina) or when we integrate Small with the rest of the words in Manzini’s SLOC acronyme, Local, Open and Connected, Small might actually be a force to be reckoned with. 

This prompt has wrapped but my exploration will carry on.

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